An exhibition provides an insight into India’s first woman photo journalist Homai Vyarawalla’s archives, beyond her famed political work
The set of monochromes belong to Homai Vyarawalla — not just India’s first woman photojournalist who captured compelling political moments, but also a woman in her 20s, who roamed the city streets with her Rolleiflex, documenting India at the cusp of Independence. “This exhibition points to a different journey. Before being swept up in the maelstrom of nationalist politics. Homai had been keenly observing other worlds,” says curator Sabeena Gadihoke of the exhibition “Inner and Outer Lives: The Many Worlds of Homai Vyarawalla” at Shridharani Gallery.
The collection is an outcome of investigations into negatives neatly labelled and packed in worn-out negative jackets stored in an old chest of drawers at her Baroda home. “These she hardly ever opened. Some may have been printed, others circulated privately, while yet others may have been discarded,” adds Gadihoke, a close associate and author of India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla. She helped Vyarawalla transfer her work to the Alkazi collection, before the latter breathed her last in 2012. The ongoing exhibition is a glimpse into these negatives — there is no Jawaharlal Nehru, her favourite subject. We do see Homai though, before and behind the camera.
“Homai Vyarawalla may have been commissioned to capture the citizen drills but she always came back with more. She was patient. She continued to take photographs even when it could be assumed that her job was over,” says Gadihoke, referring to a set of photographs that showcase India preparing for WW II. The prints show nurses on the piano, being trained for emergency medical services, including feeding the newborn, and a lab for essential communications; some were published in magazines like Indian Information and The Illustrated Weekly, others were meant to be archived.
There is masquerade too — both, a female impersonator in Mumbai transforming into the fairer sex, and expatriates participating in fashion pageants, saree for women and the Nehru attire for infant boys. “Irony and ambivalence sit playfully in the heterogeneity of actors who perform the Indian. This gives us pause to ask: Who could be an Indian?” she notes.
There is Vyarawalla, among three women standing against a maze of lines at Jantar Mantar. There is also the Delhi and Mumbai she explored, from Hollywood posters outside New Davar Bar to the Victoria Terminus in the 1930s and sparsely populated Minto Bridge. As Gadihoke says, “Each vignette could be the setting for an urban tale.”
Her alma mater, JJ School of Art, also became her subject. In the ’40s Vyarawalla photographed inside institutions that sought to create modern Indian women, from trained artists to The Ratan Tata Institute that provided vocational training to Parsi women in Mumbai and the Lady Irwin College in Delhi that groomed them. “There is a familiar cast of characters — possibly friends of Homai Vyarawalla — who seem happy to perform their roles as students, women, citizens and desiring subjects. As they playfully strike poses and take joy in each other’s company, they can be seen to be stepping out of the theater of domesticity, to stage their own dreams,” says Gadihoke.
The exhibition at Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, 205 Tansen Marg, is on till February 24. Contact: 23718833