Up till about 14 years ago, Homai Vyarawalla did not think of her career as a photojournalist as historically significant.
The 97-year-old was among a handful of photographers – and the first woman – to have captured on camera, moments such as the departure of India’s last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the first flag hoisting of an independent nation, and the funerals of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. But Vyarawalla brushes it off as mere chance.
“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she said, perched on a wheelchair at Colaba’s National Gallery of Modern Art, where a six-week exhibition of around 200 of her photographs will begin on Friday.
The exhibition, ‘Homai Vyarawalla: A Retrospective’, has been organised by the NGMA and Delhi-based Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, which was given the photographer’s entire collection of pictures, negatives and original cameras last year.
The exhibition is curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, a film studies professor and Vyarawalla’s biographer. Vyarawalla’s photographs of independent India were largely forgotten after her retirement in 1970, and were brought back into the limelight during the golden jubilee celebrations of Independence.
The Mumbai exhibition, however, will go beyond her iconic photographs of political personalities by showcasing 30 images of the city’s social and cultural life in the 1930s and 40s. These photographs, many of them printed in newspapers of those days, have never been exhibited in public before.
“I would go to the city’s cottage industries and temples, take pictures and write stories (captions) about them,” said Vyarawalla, a Padma Vibhushan who began learning photography in 1931 from her “boyfriend”, and later husband, Maneckshaw.
“Editors were very pleased to print them because no one photographed such scenes in those days.” Vyarawalla earned Re 1 or 2 for every picture published. In 1943, she moved to Delhi to capture unfolding history. “Nehru was photogenic, didn’t mind us coming close to him, and always co-operated as he depended on us for publicity,” said Vyarawalla, who now lives alone in Vadodara.
(The exhibition ‘Homai Vyarawalla: A Retrospective’ will be launched at the NGMA on Friday at 6.30 pm. Curator Sabeena Gadihoke and the photographer will conduct two curatorial walks on Saturday at 11.30 am and 4 pm)