India From Her Own Angle
Wall Street Journal
By Rachel Wolff
In Homai Vyarawalla's photos, Mahatma Gandhi's slain, flower-adorned body awaits cremation, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru releases a dove, the leisure class hunts foxes and young Indian women create art. The photojournalist, the country's first woman to rise to prominence in her field, chronicled India's tumultuous midcentury of liberation, war and independence.
The photographer hoped to take her first trip to New York to see "Candid: The Life and Lens of Homai Vyarawalla" at the Rubin Museum of Art. It was to be her first solo exhibition outside India. But the exhibition will open Friday without her: The artist died earlier this year at age 98.
Gathering some 40 images from the 1930s through 1970 as well as related press cards, invitations, tear sheets and the like, the museum started to plan the exhibition with Vyarawalla's input last year.
She started shooting professionally in 1938 at age 25, gaining access initially because her husband was a photojournalist as well. She worked for the British Information Services in New Delhi from the 1940s through the end of her career; her images made it into Life and Time magazines as well.
Vyarawalla was often shooting from different angles than her male counterparts, says Rubin curator Beth Citron. Being petite, "she was physically able to get into different spaces and the photos have that different look—shot from higher up or lower down." Vyarawalla often photographed Gandhi from below "to make it look as if we are looking up to him." The nationalist leader, averse to flash photos, reportedly once said that Vyarawalla "will not rest until she makes me blind."
"Homai was, like many Indians of her generation, a Gandhian in the sense that she was really about peaceful resolutions and equality for everyone," Ms. Citron says. There was so much disillusionment and disappointment that India didn't take that path." Such disillusionment combined with her husband's sudden death in 1969 caused Vyarawalla to quit her career a year later. "She told me that she didn't even take photographs of her son's wedding," Ms. Citron. "She basically never touched a camera again."
Vyarawalla was steadily rediscovered in India, starting in the 1990s. The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi staged a major retrospective of her work in 2010.