The Incredible Story Of Homai Vyarawalla, India's First Female Photojournalist

The Incredible Story Of Homai Vyarawalla, India's First Female Photojournalist
Qala, BBC

While photography is a commonplace career today, a professional community in India only emerged towards the end of the 19th century and solely sought male members until halfway into the 20th century. Even today, women in India are marginalised across an array of professions and are said to earn 62% of men’s salary for equal work done (Gender Gap Report, 2013). Still, unequal wages is only one of the many issues that afflict women in India’s professional world. They occupy just 3% of legislative, management, and senior official positions even in the 21st century, so one can only imagine how discriminatory times were in the 1940s. At a time when girl children were rarely educated beyond a certain age, and working after marriage was even rarer, Homai Vyarawalla was a shining beacon of hope that challenged conventional mindsets and pushed society’s limits to stand up for all of womankind throughout the subcontinent.

As India’s first female photojournalist broke down social barriers from 1938 to 1973, the duration of her career, she captured India’s journey of political awakening through her unbiased lens. From the British Raj’s descent to the rise of Indian democracy and all the challenges that plagued it through the disillusionment of post-partition, Homai recorded this country’s most iconic moments throughout history. From the last salute of Lord Mountbatten to the deaths of Gandhi and Nehru, to the landmark conference that voted for the Partition of India, and even the country’s first-ever Republic Day parade, her black-and-white legacy will be referred to by historians for the rest of time.

Before The Lens

In 1913, Homai was born into a well-respected and staunchly traditional Parsi family in Navsari, Gujarat. Although the community Parsi was known for its liberal thought and broad-minded lifestyle, it still placed a high value on traditions and practices. As these customary beliefs translated to Homai’s everyday life, she was obliged to follow several conventions during her schooling, which embarrassed her for years. For instance, she was made to wear the religious Sudreh and Kusti under her sari every day while other Westernised girls of the Parsi community wore dresses. But even though her family’s traditional, conservative values may have dictated Homai’s attire, they were far more liberal and open-minded when it came to decisions regarding her life.

Homai, along with her family, moved to Bombay in 1932. She studied at J. J. School of Art, where she met her photographer boyfriend — and eventual husband — Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, a young, aspiring artist with a subtle touch and a good eye. As he showed her the tricks of the camera trade, she slowly refined her art, and eventually decided that she belonged behind the camera, consistently encouraged and supported by her partner. The 1930s in India were not a fair time for working women. There was a disparity in wages, certain career choices were assumed fit only for men, and ‘softer’ jobs were recommended for women, if at all. The most common recommendation seemed to be a homemaker, but Homai was never met with such resistance in her personal life.

Her parents supported her choices; whether it was marrying Maneckshaw, working after marriage, or entering photojournalism — a career which until then had not only been reserved for men but was also a professional choice that was still in its nascent stages even for the ‘stronger’ sex. With respect to the privilege of belonging to a more open-minded community once again, Homai once mused in an interview whether a woman from any other religious community would have faced more challenges had she tried to make a career out of photojournalism. Still, the most encouraging person for Homai was her husband, who not only taught her how to work a camera, but also showed immense support throughout her 50-year-long career.

Homai Vyarawalla
Homai VyarawallaFlickr,

The Challenges Of Being ‘Seen’

With the guidance of Maneckshaw, Homai developed her own style and pursued her natural talent in photography despite it conflicting with social norms, particularly those related to her gender. For instance, women working in the late 1930s were primarily unskilled labour workers, and skilled jobs that required machinery, mechanics or operating of any devices were conventionally reserved for men.

Her first photo-series was of a picnic party in Bombay’s Women’s Club, which impressed her husband Maneckshaw so much, he sent them into The Bombay Chronicle. One of her most iconic photographs with perfect composition, even in her early days, was that of her friend Rehana Mogul sun-bathing at this picnic with such elegance, that Homai was inspired to capture it. However, changing society’s mindset was a gradual process. At a time when Indian photojournalists were struggling, to begin with, facing fierce competition within India as well as from foreign correspondents, women experienced a double disadvantage if you will, being further marginalized in an already ignored profession. Homai’s first set of photographs ever to be published for 1 rupee per picture in The Bombay Chronicle were published under Maneckshaw’s name as his gender gave him more credibility.

Rehana Mogul
Rehana MogulTrans Asia Photography

Bias On All Fronts

Ironically, western photojournalists who visited India such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White received more attention than their Indian counterparts. Since photography entered India only in the 1840s, it was still a relatively nascent career in Homai’s time. Pioneers of photography in India during the late 19th century included icons like Raja Deen Dayal, who captured beautiful portraits of India’s royalty. Still, despite such established talent, the country’s mind had not yet opened to possibilities of this field as either an art or career form and still favoured foreign correspondents, an occurrence one could perhaps attribute to India’s notorious need to put foreigners on a pedestal.

When your career choice is riddled with social hurdles that question your gender as well as your race, how do you stand strong in the face of that prejudice? Still unwilling to compromise on her beliefs and ambitions, Homai dived into photojournalism and in 1942, she moved to Delhi to join the British Information Services, right in the middle of India’s political awakening. Always painting a particularly curious picture herself, the fact that she spent her career lugging around a heavy Rolleiflex camera in a neatly draped sari, cycling around the capital city was an irony that was lost on no one, least of all, herself. It appeared that her choice of attire, regardless of Delhi’s scorching summers or biting winters, gained her more respect.

The Better India

Fascinating Anecdotes From Her Life

In 1956, when the young Dalai Lama came to India through the Nathu La Pass in North Sikkim, Homai Vyarawalla was there, camera in hand and sari neatly draped. After a train to Darjeeling and a five-hour-long car ride, she arrived in Gangtok in the dark with no place to stay. At a time when a woman travelling alone had to worry about social stigma and the issue of safety, Homai’s courage and strength were a testament to the stuff legends are made of. It’s hard enough to imagine taking a course similar to this even today, so to take everything in stride in the 1950s seems a particularly daunting feat. When her attempts to gain shelter in a Parsi resident colony were in vain, one of the residents asked her to approach a neighbouring dhaba and request the owner for accommodation.

This traditional, minimalist dhaba was full of only male correspondents and photographers awaiting the Dalai Lama’s arrival. To her great relief, the owner gave her a small bed upstairs, while the men stayed one storey below. While her strength in a crisis was admirable, her sheer humanity was even more inspiring. In the middle of the night, as one of her colleagues came knocking for shelter, the owner nearly turned him away due to lack of space. On hearing his voice, Homai took him in and gave him space under the bed that she slept on — a bold and compassionate move for the 1950s. From then on forth, Homai passed every test life flung at her, and her grit was ultimately rewarded. She captured an iconic picture of the Dalai Lama in ceremonial dress for Time-LIFE magazine.

The Dalai Lama Entering India, 1956
The Dalai Lama Entering India, 1956Wikimedia

Homai’s political era

Before moving to Delhi, Homai’s photographs gained appreciation from Illustrator Weekly’s editor Stanley Jepson who gave her weekly assignments for ₹ 20 per picture, a relatively high compensation for that time. As she started working for the British Information Service in Delhi in 1942, she became a permanent fixture at all government and private events in the country’s capital. For the next 50 years, she documented India gaining independence, voting for partition, and the post-independence growth and struggle of a nation riddled with political, economic, social, religious and cultural conflicts.

As the British lived out their final stint in India, Homai had the unique opportunity of capturing intimate political moments; an opportunity she earned with dignity, integrity and perseverance. From Lord Mountbatten to Marshall Tito, from Queen Elizabeth II to Jacqueline Kennedy, from Khrushchev to Kosygin, from Eisenhower to Nixon — Homai photographed a host of world leaders who shaped the direction and contours of 20th-century history.

Hidden behind a large camera, she was unwittingly privy to personal moments of significant personalities from across the world. She even spoke of a party, where the Canadian ambassador insisted on dancing the foxtrot with her, a dance that she was unfamiliar with. Her tangle with history marks what some would call one of India’s most remarkable timelines, a perspective that very few people still alive, might have. Apart from eminent world leaders, Homai photographed Indian politicians, leaders and freedom fighters writing history right before her eyes. Historical moments, such as Pandit Nehru’s death, Lord Mountbatten’s final salute before leaving India and the conference that declared India’s partition, are all iconic moments that we are lucky enough to glimpse via Homai’s photographs, today.

Lord Mountbatten's final salute
Lord Mountbatten's final saluteAlkazi Collection of Photography, Homai Vyarawalla Archives

Jawaharlal Nehru: The Muse

Sardar Patel, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Ambedkar, C. Rajagopalachari, Maulana Azad and Indira Gandhi were only a few of the high-profile eminent political figures who Homai had the opportunity to click organically. However, none were as captivating to the photographer’s eye as Pandit Nehru, a charismatic leader who could be labelled as a ‘muse’ of sorts. Capturing many phases of his life, from him playing with children he adored, to intimate moments shared with Indira Gandhi, to a moving photograph of him on his death bed while Indira gazes at him, Homai was there to document it all.

She always maintained that he was a very patient and photogenic subject, and followed him through her career. One of Pandit Nehru’s most iconic pictures was of him lighting a cigarette for the British High Commissioner’s wife, while one dangles from his own mouth. While very few knew that he was a chain smoker, Homai was not only invited into his personal life with such ease, she earned his trust enough to be allowed to capture even his unguarded moments.

Alkazi Collection of Photography, Homai Vyarawalla Archives

Having lived in another era before us and have her work undermined so often, Homai isn't a name you'd come across right away while looking for the history of photography and photojournalism in India. So when a successful Hindi film bases one of its character on the great photographer, it doesn't go unnoticed. Qala, a feminist psychological drama by Anvita Dutt released on Netflix earlier this month following the titular and eponymous character as she navigates ambition, vulnerability and a toxic mother-daughter relationship. Already gathering praise, fans of the film are calling it an experience and a work of art. In the film, Qala asks for a young female photographer, Huma to shoot a portrait of her which is inspired by Homai. You can tell by the homophonic name and the neatly draped saree Despite a small role, it's heartening to see a female icon represented in a brilliant women-centric film.

Only a handful of people have had the privilege of interacting so closely with the minds that moulded India as we see it today, and Homai Vyarawalla is one of those esteemed few. Not only did she tackle biased gender roles in a spirited fashion, but she was also a marked credit to her profession, regardless of the constructs she was viewed through. Looking beyond the fight she won for womankind, at the end of the day she was one of the best photographers of the 20th century, and a journalist with true grit, passion, and integrity.

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