HOMAGE TO HOMAI
Homai Vyarawalla passed away on January 15th. She was 98 and had been awarded a Padma Vibhushan (India’s second Highest Award for civilians) in just last year’s Republic Day Honours. The Mummy of Indian Photography, the first, accredited, press photographer in Independent India, and one among just a handful of women photojournalists in the world at the time she worked, had been officially recognized and honoured. Finally !
“Mummy” is what her colleagues called her. That was what she was affectionately known as. She was never known as Dalda 13” as she is dubbed, post death, by Wikipedia. “Dalda 13” was the title of a documentary film on Vyarawalla and the name given to her old car by the locals in New Delhi’s Connaught Place (where she lived) because the license plate on that old Italian Fiat was DLD 13. But then, misrepresentation is so much part of her life.
Docmentaries, a glossy, coffee table Book about her and official recognition with top Honours. She deserved it all. But she deserves a lot more. A better look at her work would be a good beginning. She is more than just ‘the first woman photojournalist’ that she is idealized as. She is a Master Photographer whose work needs to be looked at more carefully. Presented more fully and examined more critically. Something that the only book on her does not really do as it becomes a “parking lot” (as W Eugene smith would describe it) for too much personal, often trivial, memorabilia. It seems to be aimed at foregrounding a ‘Woman Photographer’. It does not see or present her a Great Photographer who shot Great Photographs. It forgets that Homai Vyarawalla was someone who did not claim any special working rights or look for favours from her male colleagues. In her working life, she treated them as equals and they returned the favour by doing the same. She was good professionally - good enough to shoot for that iconic Photojournalists’ Mecca of the time – Life magazine. They respected that. They respected her Work. We should too. She is a Master Photographer. A Great Photographer.
And it was with the idea countering the world’s Western Histories of Photography, with their white Great Masters of Photography and Great Images that I had curated Homai’s first Retrospective, in 1993 –in New Delhi . A retrospective that had been, for me personally, a very necessary project. A political project that was about a cultural reclaiming of cultural space. A dire necessity for this part of the world. A world whose young photographers look west for inspiration because they have no local Histories and Heroes to look up to.
That 1993 show and the writing I had started doing about her and about Photography had been the beginning of what I call a Recovery. It had been, for me, a process of recovering her (from more than 20 years of professional exile in Baroda), a space for her and a space “Other Photographies and Other photographers” in the world’s very biased, white western and male History of Photography. A process that has only just begun and has a long way to go.