Homai Vyarawalla (1913 – 2012)

Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first and greatest female photojournalist, has died, aged 98. 

Awkward Trio: The Dalai Lama, Nehru and Zhou Enlai during Zhou's visit to India in Dec. 1956

For most of her photographic career, history never was more than a click away for Homai Vyarawalla. From the moment the British moved their photographic information services to Dehli after the Fall of Singapore in 1942, she was ideally positioned to capture the next turbulent three decades of the subcontinent’s history. This she did, recording such pivotal moments such as Lord Mountbatten’s arrival and departure as the Raj’s Last Viceroy, Congress Party’s affirmative vote for Indian Partition, Gandhi’s last days and funeral, the first independent India’s flag raising over the Red Fort, turmoil that followed Partition, and Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet.

She also captured photos of notable dignities who passed through Delhi, from Eisenhower to Martin Luther King, but her favorite subject was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and her favorite photo was that of Nehru hugging his sister, Vijaya, the then ambassador to the Soviet Union. It was a rare unguarded moment for the politician, who clearly aware of his charisma, “posed for pictures, as if unconsciously”. For Vyarawalla, Nehru was “the perfect figure for a photographer. A personality who electrified the entire atmosphere when he entered.”

Born to into a Parsi family (Parsis are known for their relatively liberally attitudes towards women), she was never uncomfortable at being India’s first — and for a long time, only — female photojournalist. She was close to Indira Gandhi — it was said that Indira liked Ms. Vyarawalla’s shorthair style so much that she emulated it. — but was deeply disappointed by the erosion of press freedoms during the Emergency. She retired in 1970, burning most of her negatives. For the last 40 years of her life, she lived alone in virtual anonymity, before being acknowledged with a retrospective and the Padma Vibhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honors, months before her death earlier this month. She was 98.

(For more pictures by Vyarawalla, go to Yahoo!. Vyarawalla in her own words here.)

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