Do You Know Who Is India’s First Female Photo Journalist?

Brave, independent and unconventional, Homai Vyarawalla is known to be India’s first female photo journalist. She captured some of the most memorable and incredible moments of Indian history – from the first flag hoisting ceremony at the Red Fort on 16th August 1947 to the cremation of world renowned dignitaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. TBI remembers this amazing lady and her extraordinary contribution to Indian media. 

At a time when India was still under the British Rule; when very few Indian women were privileged enough to receive education, let alone employment; a time when India’s struggle for freedom was at its peak and the entire nation was experiencing a political turmoil, Homai Vyarawalla, a young and enthusiastic girl from a poor Parsi family, began her career as a photojournalist. Little had she imagined that her years of hard work would someday become the chronicles of Indian history!

Vyarawalla, known to be the first female photojournalist of India, has captured some indelible moments during India’s struggle for independence and the post-independence period.

Homai Vyarawalla

Homai Vyarawalla

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Her work clearly narrates the story of the birth and rise of the largest democracy in the world. Despite this exceptional contribution in recording the social and political life of a nation in transition, she lived most of her life in anonymity. In a profession that is still mostly male dominated in this country, she hardly received any recognition throughout the four decades of her career.

Remembered as a dauntless woman and extremely passionate towards her work, most of her colleagues have said that she was usually the only woman standing in the front line taking photographs of events which had a deep impact on our nation’s evolution.

Gandhi's funeral.

Gandhi’s funeral.

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Her most well-known photographs include the picture of the first flag hoisting ceremony at the Red Fort on 16th August 1947, the cremation of world renowned dignitaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and the epic picture of Lord Mountbatten when he was leaving India. The picture of Dalai Lama crossing over to the Indian Territory in 1959 happens to be another great inclusion in her archives.

She also photographed other moments of great historical significance such as the visit of Queen Elizabeth with Duke to India and of the meeting where the leaders voted for the June 3 Plan leading to the Partition of India. She was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2011 for her extraordinary contributions in her field.

Prime Minister Nehru with Mrs. Simon, the wife ofthe British Deputy High Commissioner, on board the first BOAC flight in India.

Prime Minister Nehru with Mrs. Simon, the wife of the British Deputy High Commissioner while boarding the first BOAC flight in India.

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Vyarawalla was born in 1913 in a small village named Navsari in Gujarat. Her father was an actor in an Urdu–Parsi theatre company. Homai received her initial education in a place not far away from Surat called Vyara. Her family later moved to Mumbai where she did her graduation and met Manekshaw, a classmate in college and her teacher in Photography, to whom she got married later.

Her first photograph was a click of women at a picnic party of the Women’s Club in Bombay which was published in the Bombay Chronicles magazine in 1930, for which Homai received Re 1 per photograph. Later, she moved to Delhi and joined the British High Commission where she began her career as a photojournalist and started recording pictures which have now become important treasures for the current and future generations of this nation.

The Dalai Lama in ceremonial dress enters India through a high mountain pass. He is followed by the Panchen Lama, Sikkim, India; 1956 Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York ​

The Dalai Lama in ceremonial dress enters India through a high mountain pass. He is followed by the Panchen Lama, Sikkim, India; 1956  Gelatin Silver Print  From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla  Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York ​

Homai Vyarawalla considered Jawaharlal Nehru as her favorite subject. She often commented that he was the most photogenic person of all and some of her favorite photographs happened to be the ones that she had taken of him. One rare photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru warmly receiving Vijayalakshami Pandit at the Delhi airport is something she is really fond of. Hundreds of other photographs of Pandit Nehru have been taken by her at the peak of his political career. Most of these photographs are now being stored in government archives as symbols of historical significance. Professional photographers of her time and even of future generations look at her work as a source of inspiration.

A change of events took place in her life after the death of her husband in 1969. She soon quit photography forever and started living in Pilani with her son Farouq. During her quiet and peaceful stay in Pilani, no one there came to know that she had been one of the most famous photojournalists at the time of Indian independence.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah at his last Press Conference before leaving for Pakistan; August 1947 Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York ​)​​

Mohammad Ali Jinnah at his last Press Conference before leaving for Pakistan; August 1947
Gelatin Silver Print
From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla
Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography
Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York ​)​​

Later on, she shifted to Baroda with her son. She breathed her last at the age of 98 in 2012. Homai received India’s First National Photo Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010 and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2011.

Her photographs, prints, negatives and her beloved Rolleiflex, Speed Graphic and Mamiaflex camera are currently in possession of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and the National Gallery of Modern Arts, New Delhi. India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla – a biography written by Sabeena Gadihoke, is a tribute to this great legend and to her work.

The first Republic Day Parade on 26 January 1950 where Dr Rajendra Prasad is taking the salute without any security surrounding him.

The first Republic Day Parade on 26 January 1950 where Dr Rajendra Prasad is taking the salute without any security surrounding him.

The writer says that the book was a result of very extensive interviews with Homai, and contains some very touching excerpts from Homai’s life and her struggle. It has been a source of inspiration to a million budding photographers of the past and present generations. India in Focus is a must read for all photography enthusiasts and history lovers of the country.

Apart from the collection of her photographs, the book has vivid descriptions of every incident when those pictures were taken. As you flip through the pages of this book, you feel transported to that time and it leaves every single reader with a sense of nostalgia for the golden period of Indian History!

Jawaharlal Nehru sharing a light moment with kids.

Jawaharlal Nehru sharing a light moment with kids.

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The Better India would like to pay a tribute to this legendary photographer. The ‘lady behind the camera’ has symbolized beauty with her perspective. Each picture clicked by her is not just a memoir for that moment but also tells the story behind the click. She had the ability to capture human emotions, even at some of the most historic moments of our nation, and keep them alive in our minds forever.

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About the Author: Niyati Tiwari is a freelance writer and a student at BITS Pilani.

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