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Remembering India's first woman photojournalist

Alkazi Collection of Photography

Homai with other press photographers, at a photo session with Mrs. Gandhi

Homai Vyarawalla / Alkazi Collection of Photography

Lord Mountbatten taking the salute at the Guard of Honour, Rashtrapati Bhawan, when leaving office as Governor-General in June, 1948

Homai Vyarawala Photo Collection via AFP - Getty Images

Indian photographer Homai Vyarawalla in her early years.

Homai Vyarawalla began taking pictures in the 1930s, and is considered India's first woman photojournalist. She documented a significant period in India's history as it transitioned away from British rule. Through her camera, she captured Gandhi's life and funeral, the Dalai Lama's arrival in India after his escape from Tibet in 1956, and the departure of the last British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten.

Vyarawalla died on Jan. 15 at the age of 98, after complications from a fall. Her interest in photography began when she was 13-years-old, when she used her camera to take pictures of life in Bombay. Her biographer, Sabeena Gadihoke, described her upbringing in the Hindu:

Belonging as she did to a middle class Parsi family, Homai had to struggle for most of her life. She always said that had she not become a photographer, she would have joined any other profession that was available to her. Not working was never an option for her. Her father, an actor in a travelling Urdu-Parsi Theatre troupe had to borrow money to return to India when his company declared bankruptcy in Rangoon. He died soon after and Homai's mother augmented the family income by weaving the parsi kusti (sacred thread). Homai was the only girl in her class in the Gujarati school where she studied.

Her favorite subject was India's first Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru. According to the New York Times:

Ms. Vyarawalla called Nehru her “all-time favorite subject” and “extremely photogenic,” and when photographing him she would wait for an informal image to materialize — lighting a cigarette or releasing a pigeon. She was present at his funeral.

“When Nehru died,” she told the newspaper The Indian Express, “I felt like a child losing its favorite toy, and I cried, hiding my face from other photographers.”

Homai Vyarawalla / Alkazi Collection of Photography

Jawaharlal Nehru lighting up a cigarette for Mrs. Simon, the wife of the Deputy High Commissioner of Britain.

Homai Vyarawalla / Alkazi Collection of Photography

Aerial View of the Republic Day Parade in Delhi taken from the top of India Gate in 1951

Often surrounded by men at events, she stood out from the pack of press photographers. According to NPR:

Draped in a sari and lugging heavy photographic equipment, she photographed in an era when the media had unprecedented access and an ongoing camaraderie. "All of us helped each other," she said of her male counterparts. "If someone was changing film, he would request another photographer to take an extra picture for him. We even traded negatives so that no one missed out on a good picture."

Vyarawalla recognized that she was a minority in a male-dominated profession and as a result adapted her behavior with her subjects. According to India Today:

"Much, much later, after I had torn too many sarees with other photographers stepping on them that I began to wear salwar kameezes," she explains. The decision to dress formally was as deliberate as the decision to stay aloof from the subjects she was photographing. "I always did my work and moved out. In fact, many times I did not even greet my subjects. I knew I was working in a man's world in an orthodox society. So I developed this 'stern' persona so nobody got any wrong signals."

Vyarawalla put away her cameras and stopped taking pictures in 1970, when she became disappointed in the shifting attitude of other photographers. According to India Today:

"The atmosphere had changed considerably," she explains. "Photographers were getting a bad name. My colleagues had all been gentlemen but the new crop did not know how to behave in high society. I did not want to be associated with such riffraff.

Homai Vyarawalla / Alkazi Collection of Photography

Gandhi with Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan and Sushila Nayar, his personal physician, arriving for the meeting of the Congress Committee, where the partition of the country was decided, 1947

Homai Vyarawalla / Alkazi Collection of Photography

Pandit Nehru releasing a dove, sign of peace at a public function at the National Stadium in New Delhi, mid 1950s