2012-02-02 L’Osservatore RomanoHer most celebrated photo is probably the one she took on 15 August 1947 of the flag-raising ceremony at Red For, sanctioning India's independence from the British Crown. However, the fame of Homai Vyarawalla – who died on 15 January at 98 years of age – will live on forever tied to, more than her pictures, her very person. She was, in fact, the first female Indian photojournalist, remaining such between 1939 and 1970; a truly significant record in a predominantly male environment. Courageous and resourceful, she dedicated herself to photojournalism challenging cultural prejudices. With her camera, she documented such salient moments of Indian history as the crucial years of its birth and transformation into an independent state, the departure of the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, the funerals of Gandhi and of Nehru, her favourite subject.
Born on 19 December in Navsari, Vyarawalla, she was sent to study in Bombay, where she graduated from J.J. School of Art. It was then that she fell into photography. At the end of the 30s that passion turned into a profession, when some of her shots were published in the Bombay Chronicle. She started working as a freelancer. But her big break came in 1942, with the war, when she moved to New Delhi to work for the Far Eastern Bureau of British Information Services.
The majority of her photos were published by The Times of India and The Illustrated Weekly of India. But a few pictures found their way into prestigious international magazines like Life and Time.
Moving around in a male world was not easy. “Much, much later, after I had torn too many sarees with other photographers stepping on them that I began to wear salwar kameezes”, she explained. And the decision to dress formally was as deliberate as the decision to stay aloof from the subjects she was photographing. «I always did my work and moved out. In fact, many times I did not even greet my subjects. I knew I was working in a man's world in an orthodox society. So I developed this 'stern' persona so nobody got any wrong signals”.
Homai Vyarawallaleft the profession in 1973, after the death of her husband, but above all when she realized that security for public figures had become an obstacle for photojournalists. Those were the years of Indira Gandhi. “The security personnel”, she said, “treated photographers with little respect. I did not want to work in such an atmosphere”.
Homai Vyarawalla was a great photographer; her account through pictures of India's march toward independence had strong impact on people. But even more, she represents a benchmark to Indian women committed to undermining traditional male chauvinism, to build a just society and free it from centuries of prejudice.