Friday, May 6, 2011

India's First Lady of Photojournalism

Homai Vyarawalla's pictures, currently on display at Bangalore's National Gallery of Modern Art, and her storied career are an inspiration to news photographers everywhere. As film director Shyam Benegal says in a review he wrote for Outlook back in 2006 — he was commenting on the just-released Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla — her professional career spanned three of the most decisive and crucial decades in India's 20th-century history: 1940 to 1970.

Benegal continues:

In these 30 years, Homai lived in Delhi mainly photographing the political elite and their activities as a press photographer. She may not have been aware at the time that her work would become an important visual testimony of India's transition from a colonised country to the Indian nation and its travails over the next quarter of a century.

The book also contains anecdotes about Vyarawalla's encounters with the powerful and the famous. Here is another excerpt from Benegal's review:

Homai was not only the first but the only woman photojournalist in this entire period when press photography was considered an exclusively male domain. Not equipped with either a telephoto or a wideangle lens, she had to be either extremely close to her subjects or go great distances and heights to get composite shots. At one of Jinnah's last press conferences before Partition, she decided to get top angle shots from atop wooden packing cases stacked up in a corner of the room.  The packing cases gave way and she came tumbling down at the feet of Jinnah. His bemused response was, "I hope you are not hurt."

When Vyarawalla came to Bangalore earlier this week for the exhibition of her photographs at the National Gallery, Commitscion Raagamayi Rajsekhar (Class of 2011), who is working as a photographer with Bangalore Beat, rushed to meet her.

ONE FOR THE ALBUM: Raagamayi Rajsekhar with Homai Vyarawalla.

Raagamayi, whose ambition is to be a top-notch news photographer, says seeing Vyarawalla in the flesh and talking with her was a privilege. Raagamayi wrote in an e-mail today:

What differentiates her work from that of others, I think, is her brilliant composition. Imagine the situation in Vyarawalla's time: grappling with those heavy cameras, running around taking photographs while wearing a neatly draped saree, and having to make do without the innumerable editing programs now available to us.

No doubt DSL cameras are important because we need to send the pictures across to our publications immediately, but in the process we miss out on learning the finer aspects of photography. For example, we readjust the settings if our photographs are over- or under-exposed, but photographers of Vyarawalla's generation, who used film, had to know the exact camera settings for every situation.

The fact that Vyarawalla hails from Baroda, as does Raagamayi, "has been even more of a boost". Meeting this venerable pioneer was "a great, great, great inspiration", concludes Raagamayi.
UPDATE (December 9, 2017): Google paid tribute to Homai Vyarawalla on what would have been her 104th birthday by making her the subject of today's Google Doodle (see image below).

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