The Rubin Museum is now showing the first American retrospective of Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first female photojournalist, in “Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai.” Vyarawalla started out as an outsider, taking furtive shots of Bombay street life. She ended her career photographing heads of state and dignitaries. Along the way, she may have traded art for access. But the resulting photographs are a gorgeous record of India’s first years of independence (separating from British rule on Aug. 15, 1947).
The pre-independence photos show us an India caught between two worlds. Victoria Terminus is one of the best. The railroad station, a British creation, is all carved stone and gothic archways. Men in white suits stride toward it. But in the foreground, there’s a turbaned man in sandals, working a pushcart. The whole shot is framed by the shadows of another cart. The Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in Bombay, similarly, show a thick crowd of men holding statues of Ganesh as they march by colonial buildings. A soldier stands on a wood-and-gilt desk to direct traffic. All the faces are a blur.
The faces start coming into focus with national independence. Vyarawalla photographed Gandhi, at prayer meetings and then at his funeral; Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy; and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the first leader of Pakistan. The pictures are just a little bit awkward; Vyarawalla often had to sneak around to get her shot, and it shows. She’s also torn between the crowd and the leadership so that some of these pictures, especially of Gandhi’s funeral, lack a center. But this may be a good thing, since we end up with a broad swath of life in each shot; our eye moves from Gandhi’s son lighting the funeral pyre to a confused child in the crowd, and then back to a European news crew fussing with their own camera.
Once Nehru comes into office (he was prime minister of India from 1947 to 1964), he dominates Vyarawalla’s lens. Some of her photos are pure iconography: Nehru releasing a dove into the sky, for example, looks like a propaganda poster. Luckily, Nehru made a good subject, almost mugging for the camera next to grave visiting heads of state (it’s a special pleasure to see him beside Yugoslavian dictator Tito). Vyarawalla also got shots of the Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name a few.
In her later years, the crowds are completely gone from Vyarawalla’s photographs; only the leadership exists. But then, she manages to find the human being inside each dignitary. And she left them for us to see.
Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla runs through Jan. 14 at the Rubin Museum, 150 West 17th St.
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