Story behind India's first Female Photographer

Homai Vyarawalla

"Don't go by my age. Go by the age of my photograph. They will remain after me, they will remain for the years"

In the era of Smartphones and DSLR, we cannot even think about taking a tour of someplace without capturing pictures. With a good camera and a lens, clicking a photo is not a big deal anymore. But decades ago, things were different. Cameras were expensive and not many people had the experience of handling them. During such an era, Homai Vyarawalla came out as an exception. To be specific, she is the first-ever female photojournalist of India.

She was born on 9th December 1913 in Gujarat, to a Parsi family. As her father was an actor in Urdu-Parsi theater, her family was always ready to explore different corners. When they finally got settled in Bombay, she went on to pursue her course in J. J School of Art where she met the love of her life and also the biggest inspiration of her life, Manekshaw Vyarawalla. He inspired her through the works of the camera from where she finally decided to be a photojournalist. Since it was very difficult for a woman to break into the thinking of Society, she had to publish her work under Manekshaw’s name.

(Ms. Vyarawalla's earliest photos were taken during her college days)

Finally, in 1942, British Information Service saw their exceptional work and decided to hire them as photographers. During this time, She captured some of the most iconic images of India’s transition into an independent nation, such as Mountbatten’s last salute as the Governor General, India’s first Republic Day parade, the first flag hoisting on 15 August 1947.

(26 January 1950 in Delhi)

But you can’t change what is already written as the destiny denied her to capture what could have been her most designated image- she missed photographing the meeting where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated as she was on her way to attend it when her husband called her back for some other work.

(Mahatma Gandhi (left) and independence leader Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan (right) arrive at a meeting where it was decided to partition the country)

She captured many famous people but Mr Nehru figures most prominently in her work as her “favorite subject”. She said in an interview that when Mr Nehru died she “cried, hiding her face from other photographers”.

(Mr. Nehru with his sister Vijayalaxmi Pandit)

In 1970, She finally retired after a four decade long career and shifted to Pilani, Rajasthan with her son Farouq. She left her photography career forever and when asked why she replied: “It was not worth it anymore. We had rules for photographers; we even followed a dress code. We treated each other with respect, as colleagues. But then, things changed for the worse. They were only interested in making a few quick bucks; I didn’t want to be part of the crowd anymore.”

Life came full circle when she was awarded the Padm Vibhushan in 2011. The Ceremony took her back to Rashtrapati Bhawan, Where she covered many events on different occasions but only this time she was the main Highlight.  She passed away on 15th January 2012 due to several breathing complications at the age of 98.

She was not only the first photojournalist of India but as also an inspiration to the new generation. She gave an example that you don’t need high quality equipment to capture a good image, it’s just you and how you see the world. More power to her and may her soul rest in peace!

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