On the path towards India’s freedom, a passionate woman followed suit with her only camera, struggling and shining past the many men who did the job at that time. Homai Vyarawalla used to be a middle-class girl from a simple Parsi community in Gujarat.
She may have learnt photography from her husband, Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, however, she would go on to own the camera and become the queen of the profession for the rest of her life.
She is also India’s first female photojournalist. Having captured the various key moments of the final years of the British Empire in India and the beginning of a new nation, she not only held her camera over spectacles but also became a sensation herself.
Gandhi’s funeral, the first Republic Day, Jawaharlal Nehru’s life are some of the many checkpoints that Vayarwalla has captured. Her career lasted until the 1970s, and hence her work has paralleled the making of India.
Vyarawalla broke the barriers of a gendered profession and set a milestone for generations to come.
“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.”
She was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2011. We revisit some of the pictures that she took at the time of India’s transition from servitude to independence this Republic Day.
Homi Vyarawalla passed away at the age of 92 in 2012. However, her photographs still remain in the living memory of not only a growing nation but also of photography and journalism in India.
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