Remembering India's First Photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: You may not have heard of Homai Vyarawalla, who passed away last month at age 98, but you've likely seen her black and white photographs. The photojournalist's career was focused on chronicling India's march toward independence, and she photographed many notable figures, Mahtama Gandhi, the Dalai Lama as well as Lord Mountbatten and a number of American presidents. Sabeena Gadihoke was a friend and has written a biography of Homai Vyarawalla. Sabeena, tell us why you see her as a pioneer.

Sabeena Gadihoke: Well, you know, she was actually the only woman press photographer in her time. It was quite an incredible achievement for an Iva (?). You have to remember that she photographed during an extremely tumultuous time in India's independence. These were the events leading up to India's independence, these were the elite '30s and the elite '40s. In fact, the only other woman that we saw in India photographing at this time was Margaret Burkwhite; we were actually watching an American woman photographing, and then there was Homai Vyarawalla. The other part of the story is that she was also quite an incredible photographer. Her photographs are quite incredibly striking and many of the images, iconic images, of Indian independence, of events leading up to partition, Gandhi's funeral, famous images of Nehru, other statesmen, you know, events to do with nation building are actually images taken by Homai Vyarawalla.

Werman: Well, tell me about a couple of your favorite photographs where you know, that artistic skill and history kind of merged.

Gadihoke: When I first got to know Homai's work I learned to recognize many of her very powerful and famous images. So for instance, one of her most iconic images is Nehru smiling and standing next to a board saying, "photography prohibited." He was her favorite subject. You know, you always have this completely public figure, but always posing for the camera, so you see him hugging his sister. You have a photograph of him lighting up a cigarette for a beautiful woman who's actually the wife of the Deputy High Commissioner of Britain. You know, you don't see those kinds of images in public in India. But I would say that later when I got to know her work better my more favorite images are the quieter images, which were not images of public figures, but those were images that she had taken in the '30s when she was not very well known as a political photographer, but she was just roaming the streets of Mumbai and she was photographing ordinary, everyday life. She was photographing young women on the streets in Mumbai. She was photographing a quiet moment for instance, at a railway station where she picked out just a young woman waiting with her 10 trunks at a railway station. You know, those are the kinds of pictures that are my favorite.

Werman: You know, we think of the world of photo journalism and how competitive it is today, paparazzi clamoring for access, how did Vyarawalla gain access with some of these you know, leaders?

Gadihoke: As far as being the only woman photographing all these politicians was concerned, I think it also worked to her advantage sometimes because she was the only woman in a crowd of men. Now, you can imagine, that when she's standing in a crowd of photographers, you know, the figure, the public figure being photographed, it's quite natural that people would turn to look at her. And she'd get an interesting picture as a result of that. She was also very a patient photographer and she talks about how when everybody would be scrambling to get that picture she'd just step away and wait. And she'd wait until everybody stopped taking pictures and then she'd step forward and get that wonderful picture.

Werman: That's a great bit of guidance for young photojournalists.

Gadihoke: Mm-hm.

Werman: But she also hustled, let's make no mistake, I mean I gather she often rode a bicycle through the streets of New Delhi to assignments, her sari flapping behind her in the breeze.

Gadihoke: She did. You can imagine how wearing the sari and with two heavy cameras – remember that in those days the lighter cameras were actually pretty heavy, they were medium formats, speed graphics and reflex with a huge reflector and a huge big flash, you know, box of flash bulbs, each of them the size of a household bulb. You know, so bags, one bag containing used bulbs and another with new ones, and a wooden tripod and all of that on a bicycle.

Werman: What do you hope students of media will take away first and foremost about her life as a photojournalist?

Gadihoke: For me as a biographer, what I think is very interesting about her life is that here's an incredible life of a woman who lived through almost a century of history, so for me as a biographer it's also about telling her story as a pioneering woman who lived through a century of history. But as far as students of the media are concerned there are all these different things that Homai believed in. And one of the most important things that she believed in was the dignity of the subject and I think for students of media today, I think that's one of the most important things to take away. Here was somebody who if you asked her what, you know, even today when people would turn around and say to her, what would you know, what would she have to say to people today? And that's the most important thing that she would say to people, "Keep the dignity of your subject in mind."

Werman: Sabeena Gadhioke teaches video and TV production at Jamia University in New Delhi. Very good to speak with you and thanks for telling us about the life of Homai Vyarawalla.

Gadihoke: Thank you very much.

Werman: Keep the dignity of your subject in mind. Judge for yourself. We've got a slide show of Homai Vyarawalla's black and white photos at