Friday, 27 January 2012

HOMAGE TO HOMAI . a two page spread of her pics published, today, in Republica's THE WEEK.


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.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Her recovery/discovery did not begin in 2000 plus, as most of the recent coverage following her death would have one believe. It was in the late 1980s that I began to work on a history of Indian photography. She was my first discovery towards recovering an Indian voice in the largely western histories of the medium .The interview mentioned in the link below was done, in New Delhi, during the first retrospective of her work that I curated in 1993.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

homage to homai vyarawalla - 1993

GALLERY: From the Economic Times - Sunday 12 September 1993

Honouring the ‘mother’ of all Indian photographers

The 78 year old Baroda based recluse, India’s first woman photographer was the toast of the Capital’s news photographers for almost three decadesl, till she stopped shooting in 1970. Local lensmen affectionately called her “Mummy” The exhibition of her archibval work , on for a month at Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, proved rare insight into how Indian Photogrpahy contructed its frame.

Framing magical moments seized from the flow of life

The Vyarawalla show links us to our photographic past, says its curator

PHOTOGRAPHY India has yet to define its own space and evolve an individual identity. Photographers here have always looked elsewhere for inspiration Рfirst to the Raj and its Pictorialism and, more recently to American Modernism. Hardly ever have they looked inward Рat their own past. Hunting for their own historical roots has not been very much of a priority; the past for them, is pass̩ it seems - or simply does not exist.

Homai Vyarawalla is a figment of this forgotten past. She is the first Indian woman press photographer. A “new phenomenon” to Rajaji and “Princess” to Dr. Radhakrishnan. , she was called “Mummy” by the first generation of Independent India’s photographers - her colleagues- photographers who are forgotten figures today. Like she was – till very recently.

For me, meeting her for the first time two years ago was more than a memorable surprise. It really was a shock. How could she have been so easily forgotten, I wondered. Her work is not just unforgettable, it is a historic bonanza that should have been categorised a National Treasure and carefully preserved in archival conditions, and not left to moult in inappropriate wooden drawers , suffering the hot summers and the dangerous damp of many a monsoon in Baroda, her city of choice for the last 23 years.

Here is a photography collection that is invaluable in more ways than one dares to enumerate. This is photography at its pure best – documentary work that rises above being a mere record and becomes an exploration of photo aesthetics and form. Without the ‘melodrama’ of wide angle lenses, these are products of a restrained, dignified vision – the eye of a photographer who lived in innocent times and maintained the dignity of her subjects. Vyarawalla’s photographs of the Capital’s socio-political milieu of three decades, from the forties on, are more than just visual history and an archive of the past.

Here are photographs that are as much about photography and the photographer as they are about the people they portray. This is an eye that understands the photographic frame –split second magical moments of spontaneity seized from the flow of life which resist rendering its subjects in simplistic ‘subject-at dead-centre’ print media frames. The edges of the frame are used too, cutting into life, enabling it to ‘become’ a Photograph.

Curating an exhibition of these photographs became a compulsion that could not be ignored. And when the moment for actually putting together the exhibition came this year, the biggest pitfall that presented itself to me was nostalgia - an unavoidable emotion when handling any visual material from the past. And, definitely, creating and promoting nostalgia was farthest away from my interest.

Mrs. Vyarawwals is nearly 80 years old and has already burnt some of her work “because there was no space and no one was intere4sten in them, anyway.” One select trunk-full of negatives had been misplaced and lost – “The best of the VIP negatives.”

Burnt and lost! That could easily become the bottomline of the history of photography in India – a desperately needed history that is yet to be written.

We cannot afford to wait for another American to present us with more of our ‘Old Masters of Photography” and define our history for us. One Clark Woswick with his Princely India summing up our photographic history with one Lala Deen Dayal is something one can accept no more.

Yet our leading cultureal institutions are guilty of precisely that. For the Indra Gandhi National Centre of Arts (IGNCA) as well as the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Lala Deen Dayal seems to be the only old ‘master photographer’ worth collecting and exhibiting. It is a project they are currently working towards.

They seem to know of no other photographer from the past. Why do they , one wonders, fail to initiate any research in our own photographic history, and keep bypassing Indian photographers over foreign diplomat turned amateur photographers. The India photographer and Indian photography, it seems have to look elsewhere for recognition and support.

Mrs Vyarawalla’ photographs are, currently on display in the Capital (till October 7) at the Max Mueller Bhavan. The MMB Delhli and its director Dr. Georg Lechner, distinguished themselves last year by being the first institution in the capital to establish an exclusive gallery for photography in which they have been presenting intelligently curated photo exhibitions. Fortunately they have remained open to showcasing India photography too – something that local institutions should be doing.

Homai Vyarawalla’s work and the enthusiasm her exhibition has generated, once again highlights the fact that it is time photography was given its due here. It is time serious efforts were initiated to study, collect, document, curate and exhibit vital segments of Indian Photography.


Homage to Homai . the begining -1992

The Economic Times, Sunday 31 May 1992


The woman who shot the best of them

The woman who shot memorable news picture of Gandhi and Nehru, lives today like a recluse in Baroda. She gave up photography she claims ‘when the riff raff came in ‘. Presented alongside are some of her refreshingly innocent work.

(Photofolio can’t be included. Sorry)

THERE WAS A curious report , some forty years ago , in The Statesman- dated May 14 1951. “When Mr Jinnah held his last press conference in Delhi (in 1947) an unknown press photographer caused a stir by toppling off a tall packing case on which she had perched, the better to ‘shoot’ the founder of Pakistan. Mr Jinnah’s frown was transformed into a smile when he saw the culprit was a woman and that, though prone on the floor she had the presence of mind to save her camera and her flashgun from harm … Four years later Mrs. Homai Vyarawalla has become the best known press photographer in the Capital. Efficient and non obstrusive she has rarely been beaten by a male competitor . She is probably the only professional woman press photographer in India. “

Today, Homai Vyarawalla lives in Baroda. Far away from all that bustle and activity. Born in a priestly family in Navasari , she graduated in Economics from St. Xaviers college , Bombay, and also got a diplomafrom the J J School of Arts. During this period she started working with her cousin(whom she married) helping him with his photographic and darkroom work. Her first photographic work was carried in the Illustrated Weekly of India.

Subsequently, the Vyarawallas moed to the British Far Eastern Information Bureau in Delhi with Homai acting as an assistant photographer to her husband. Within a few years, she had made her mark as an intrepid and inspired photojournalist.whoese work was distinguished by its spontaneity and ability to capture and ability to capture personalities in intimate moods.

PHOTOGRPAHS – There are more of them in the world than there are bricks, it is said. Photography, in the myriad of forms it has fathered, has revolutionized and recreated the human mind in more ways than have been studied. Its potential for propaganda is an undisputed fact. But rarely have photographers thought of the responsibility that goes with being a photographer.

Eugene Smith was one who did, resigning twice from LIFE magazine because he did not agree with the way his photographs were used. Misused, really. He had gone on to teach a course for professional photographers - Photography Made Difficult. A photographer was ‘responsible for any misuse of his pics’ he insisted. He is remembered, today, as the patron saint of ‘concerned’ photography and the‘responsible’ photographers.

Homai Vyarawalla is 79 today and, in her heydays, she too has photographed for LIFE magazine. She is forgotten and lives alone far from the city that she once ruled as the foremost press photographer of her time, the first woman photojournalist.

Those were euphoric days of a new and Independent Nation. Politicians were demigods. “They were heroes who had a dignity and self respect. Everyone respected them” she remembers partly explaining why she others had photographed them so much, creating images of majestic mythical supermen. Many of her images have become the icons by which those grand old men – the bapus and the chachas. Photographing the VIPs of the period she literally constructed their importance. Without her no political event was complete. Governor General Rajagopalachari even called her “a new Phenomenon”.

Vyarawalla kept this up till 1970, shooting spontaneous split second frames of the faces that we remember today. She stopped when security around the VIPs made it impossible “ to make any meaningful photographs” And more importantly, when the dignified and respected photographers and politicians of her time were replaced by a bunch of “squabbling newcomers” – photographers and politicians for whom she had no respect. She stopped when “the riff raff came in“ she remembers.

Today her old colleagues remember her as “ 24 carat gold : a thorough professional who had guts and the ethics .” She got out when the go getters came in.