Homai Vyarawalla: The trailblazer who became India’s first woman photojournalist


January 18, 2018

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Art | Individuals

Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist, is best known for documenting the country’s transition from a British colony to a newly independent nation. The BBC chronicles her life and career through a rare collection of her work.

Published on BBC


Image caption Ms Vyarawalla with her constant companion, the speed graphic camera

Ms Vyarawalla was born on 9 December 1913 in the western Indian state of Gujarat. .

She spent much of her childhood on the move because her father was an actor in a travelling theatre group. But the family soon moved to Mumbai (then Bombay), where she attended the JJ School of Art.

She was in college when she met Manekshaw Vyarawalla, a freelance photographer, who she would later marry. It was he who introduced her to photography.


Image caption Ms Vyarawalla’s earliest photos were taken during her college days

She received her first assignment – to photograph a picnic – while she was still in college. It was published by a local newspaper, and soon she started to pick up more freelance assignments.

She began to draw more attention after her photographs of life in Mumbai were published in The Illustrated Weekly of India magazine.


Image caption Her earlier work included photographing people from all walks of life

The Vyarawallas moved to Delhi in 1942 after they were hired to work as photographers for the British Information Service.

Ms Vyarawalla, one of few female photojournalists working at the time in Delhi, was often seen cycling through the capital with her camera strapped to her back.


Image caption A fox hunt in Delhi in the 1940s

She took her most iconic images, however, after India became independent – from the departure of the British from India, to the funerals of Mahatma Gandhi and former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.


Image caption Lord Mountbatten travels from the viceroy’s home to the parliament on 15 August 1947


Image caption India celebrates its first Republic Day on 26 January 1950 in Delhi

Ms Vyarawalla also photographed most prominent independence leaders.

But she said in an interview that her biggest regret was that she missed photographing the meeting where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. She was on her way to attend it when her husband called her back for some other work.


Image caption Mahatma Gandhi Photo by: left

Her work also includes candid, close-up photographs of celebrities and dignitaries who visited India in the years following independence, including China’s first prime minister Zhou Enlai, Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, Queen Elizabeth II and US President John F Kennedy.


Image caption Queen Elizabeth at a fashion show in Delhi in 1961

Ms Vyarawalla photographed many famous people but Mr Nehru figures most prominently in her work as her “favourite subject”.


Image caption Mr Nehru lights a cigarette for the wife of a British diplomat

She said in an interview that when Mr Nehru died she “cried, hiding my face from other photographers”.

Image caption Mr Nehru with his sister Vijayalaxmi Pandit

Ms Vyarawalla clicked her last picture in 1970, retiring after a four-decade-long career. She left Delhi after her husband died in 1969 and moved to Gujarat.

She was awarded India’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2011. She died on 16 January 2012 at the age of 92.

Photos: HV Archive/ The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Homai Vyarawalla’s photography is part of the permanent collection of The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts based in Delhi.