There are many who can take a photograph, but very few who can make a photograph and become a part of history. Homai Vyaravalla is one person who not only photographed India’s history, but became the first woman Photojournalist in the country. Many of the photos we see today of India’s Freedom Struggle, right until the moment of the country’s freedom, were the work of the quintessential Vyaravalla whose career spanned from the early 1930’s to the late 1970’s.
From photographing Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and key people involved in India’s Independence Struggle in the 1940’s, Vyarawalla began taking photographs at the age of 13. Hailing from a Parsi family in Gujarat, she moved to Bombay and studied in St. Xaviers College and Sir JJ College of Art, where she was the only female student. Later, she met her husband, Manekshaw Vyarawalla, who was a freelance photographer, and settled in Delhi, where her photographs appeared in various publications under the pseudonym Dalda-13.
Usually seen in a neatly tied saree and a speed-graphic camera on her shoulder, Vyarawalla broke social barriers fearlessly especially in a time where journalism, let alone photojournalism, was an incredibly male dominated profession.
Her first assignment was photographing a picnic, which got published in a local newspaper called the Bombay Chronicle. Eventually, this led to more work, including publishing photographs in the Illustrated Weekly Magazine of India.
In an interview with The Hindu, when asked about her role in this male dominated profession, she said,
“Somehow it never occurred to me that I was doing something unusual or that I was the only woman in a male-dominated profession at that time. I think I was casual in my dressing and unobtrusive in my demeanour, so this may have made people around me feel at ease. I was always given due credit for my work and was respected just as any other competent person in the field. At school, I was the only girl in my matriculation class. So I was used to being in the company of boys."
With time, and as her work gained more traction, her portfolio became one that went far beyond inspirational, but one that truly showcased courage, spirit, and irrevocable love for her craft. Her photographs chronicled India’s progress towards becoming an Independent nation, which included Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Ghafar Khan’s arrival at a meeting which sealed the Partition of India, Lord Mountbatten’s final salute as the Governor General, India’s first flag hoisting, the first Republic Day Parade, and the funerals of both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Homai Vyarawalla retired as a Photojournalist in the 1970’s, with her last photograph being that of Indira Gandhi. In 2011, she won the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour. And, in January 2012, she passed away at the age of 92, leaving behind a legacy. She stood as a symbol for grit and zeal which took a male-dominated field by storm. Moreover, she paved the way for other women to follow their passions, change social norms, break the toughest barriers of patriarchy, and turn their crafts into voices of resilience.
In celebration of Women’s History Month.
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