'Candid,' Photos by Homai Vyarawalla, at Rubin Museum
New York Times
By HOLLAND COTTER
The Indian photographer Homai Vyarawalla, who died in January at 98, spoke many times, with undiminished regret, of two opportunities missed.
Homai Vyarawalla captured Jacqueline Kennedy’s feeding a baby elephant while visiting India in 1962. On Jan. 30, 1948, she left her home in New Delhi intending to film the elderly Mohandas K. Gandhi at his daily prayer meeting at Birla House in the city. Something distracted her, and she turned back. If she had continued on, she would have witnessed, and probably documented, Gandhi’s assassination.
Two weeks later she traveled with a party of international journalists to Allahabad to photograph the immersion of Gandhi’s ashes at the confluence the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. At the last minute the boat assigned to reporters and photographers got stuck on a sandbar. The immersion went on without them. Again, she didn’t get the shot.
But if those two crucial moments in India’s modern history eluded her, many, many others did not, as is clear from “Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla,” a small, evocative, event-filled retrospective of her work at the Rubin Museum of Art.
She was very much present at Gandhi’s grief-wrung public funeral and at the cremation of his body at the Raj Ghat, which she photographed in a series of panoramic overhead views. (She had to hike up her sari and climb drainpipes to get them.) Months earlier she had been on the scene when the Congress Committee took its fateful show of hands in favor of dividing India and Pakistan. And throughout the 1950s she caught nearly every important event in the career of the charismatic prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Between news assignments she turned her attention to everyday life up and down the social scale. After independence she shot Europeans drinking and cutting up in British social clubs as if nothing had changed — as if an empire had not died, a new nation not been born. She also cast an eye, at least early in her career, on the world of a nearly impoverished urban middle class from which she herself came.
She was born in 1913 in a Parsee, or Zoroastrian, community in Gujarat. Because her father was an actor in an itinerant theater troupe, the family moved often, and she spent much of her childhood in Bombay (now Mumbai). She learned photography in school and married her teacher, Manekshaw Vyarawalla, a freelance photojournalist for newspapers, in 1941; the two were hired by the British Information Service to open its New Delhi bureau the following year.
Although Ms. Vyarawalla initially functioned as her husband’s assistant, she was soon working on her own, pedaling around New Delhi on a bicycle, her chunky equipment hung from her shoulders or strapped to the bike. (Two of her cameras, a 1930s Rolleiflex and a Pacemaker Speed Graphic from the late 1940s, are on display in the show.) Short and slight, she was one of the very few female photographers in the India press corps at the time. (Her male colleagues called her “Mummy.”)
But she made shrewd use of her potential liabilities. Rather than trying to muscle through crowds at events, she darted and wove her way among larger bodies. As a woman she put up with condescension, but she also attracted friendly notice, especially from Nehru, who admired her persistence and ingenuity.
And she had the advantage over male colleagues of being able to approach and interact with female subjects with relative ease. Some of her most relaxed and tender images are of women: Eleanor Roosevelt tying her shoes after a barefoot tribute to Gandhi at his Raj Ghat memorial in 1952; the young Queen Elizabeth II scrutinizing a ceremonial garland with an appreciative gardener’s eye; Jacqueline Kennedy, as glamorous as a goddess, delightedly feeding a baby elephant on her visit to India in 1962.
Of course public history was — still is — primarily staged by men. And the saga preserved in Ms. Vyarawalla’s pictures is a cavalcade of patriarchy. It begins with Gandhi — called “Bapu,” “father,” by his devotees — and continues with Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Lined up behind them is a string of more- and less-calculating visitors: Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first American president to set foot in India; Ho Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam; Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union; the Shah of Iran; and the young Dalai Lama, seen in a short, tense 1956 encounter the with the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai.
All these men were power players, many of them responsible for the snarled and explosive state of global politics then and now. Ms. Vyarawalla views them neutrally. She once said that being dependent for a living on the gigs that came her way, she couldn’t afford to have political convictions, to look with a critical eye.
In a few pictures, like those taken in colonial clubs, you have to wonder. But in general she made it her task to present her subjects with their best, decorous foot forward. A little humor was O.K.; any hint of embarrassment was not. A 1958 shot of Nehru, an inveterate prankster, tugging the beard of a startled Ho Chi Minh breached the propriety line; she didn’t publish it. Paparazzi culture, in India at least, was still in the future.
When that future arrived, Ms. Vyarawalla quit the job. This was in 1970, a year after her husband’s death. She was 57. Photojournalism seemed to her to have become a mean business. The post-colonial promise that sustained her in it had gone badly awry.
She moved to Vadodara (formerly Baroda) in Gujarat and lived alone. Her cameras, prints, negatives, and souvenirs (press passes, celebrity letters, state invitations) disappeared into storage. So did her reputation.
In 1989 a young Indian photographer, Satish Sharma, tracked her down, and began to bring her work, by then in a parlous state of preservation, back into view. Exhibitions and honors followed.
In 2010 Ms. Vyarawalla entrusted her remaining photography to the nonprofit Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi, which organized the Rubin exhibition in collaboration with Beth Citron, an assistant curator at the museum.
With her ethos of respect and restraint, Ms. Vyarawalla was a different kind of photojournalist from many today. And in certain ways she was different from some of her great peers, like Sunil Janah, who also died this year, at 94, and who photographed many of the same events that she did.
Mr. Janah was politically partisan, a committed leftist. This determined the many-branched path his career took, as he covered the harrowing 1943 famine in Bengal, the rise of India’s industrial technology and the survival of tribal communities. It may also have shaped the theatrical, heroicizing tone of his pictures of a Gandhian and Nehruvian India of wide skies and romantic light.
By comparison Ms. Vyarawalla’s range was narrow, her tone subdued. If the times she lived in automatically set her photography within an epic frame, her individual images, with some outstanding exceptions, tend to be undramatic, unelevated, sometimes even awkwardly grounded, with people grouped, face front, in cramped, flashbulb-bleached spaces.
This down-to-earthness has the effect of making you turn your attention to her as a participant in her pictures, to thoughts about her physical position in relation to her subjects from shot to shot, and about her place as a woman within her larger culture. It required enormous courage and commitment simply to be who she was, doing what she was doing, when she was doing it.
She said toward the end of her life that as a photographer she never thought of herself as affecting politics, expressing ideology, delivering messages. She defined the job simply and practically: the main thing was to be there, with open eyes, in the middle of life and to miss as little of significance as possible.
For more than 30 years, and with only two haunting exceptions, that’s exactly what she did.
“Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla” runs through Jan. 14 at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, Chelsea; (212) 620.5000, rmanyc.org