Within Soft, Even Edged Memories: Looking Back At The First Ladies of the Lens
Throughout the 20th century, the photograph was a way of having reality confirmed- tangible proof of an exciting new world fighting against imperialism. We thumb through these images in history classes, paying no mind to the people behind the lens. These photographers have quite literally shaped our visual history through their Yashicas and Nikons, through the way they angled their shots, through their use of light and through the moments they deemed were worthy of that extra roll of film.
Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first female photojournalist, began her practice in the midst of this very rise of photojournalism. Her photographs documented the years leading up to freedom from British colonial rule and the aftermath of partition, a crisp and poignant portrayal of a nation amid transformation. Homai’s interest in photography was accidental; it began when she met her future husband and mentor, Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, at a train station when she was 14. They taught themselves the principles of photography through old manuals and studied the histories of the medium through magazines and journals.
Through Homai’s own study came a disdain for studio photography; she wanted to capture her subjects on the streets, in the spaces they live and breathe and not in a photo studio with overhead light and staged poses. Her first professional assignment was a testament to this ethos- to capture urban life in Mumbai in the early 1940s for The Illustrated Weekly of India.
She then moved to Delhi on assignment with the British information Service, a brief interlude on her journey to becoming a formidable press photographer with notable work including pictures of Lord Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jackie Kennedy and the Dalai Lama. Although she is known for her documentation of pivotal moments during the freedom struggle, her candid photographs project a cultural history that is often ignored in our discussion of mid 20th century India.
If high school textbooks and mainstream media are to be trusted, Indians post-independence were devoid of personal lives, burdened with the aftermath of the British, so much so that it consumed their every waking moment. Our personal histories largely ignored. Vyarawalla’s candid photographs breathe new life into our perception of India; we start to see political figures as humans, not idols detached from reality.
Two other photographers that depict the intimate politics of gender and domestic life in the post-colonial space are the twin sisters- Manobina Roy and Debalina Majumdar. Gifted the camera by their father, they relegated photography to the domestic, rarely venturing into the professional sphere.
During a trip to Europe, cameras hanging over their sarees, the twins unknowingly captured moments akin to photojournalism, communicating messages about life in London and Moscow. Manobina’s depiction of the former colony was particularly striking. Her photo series ‘Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park’ and ‘Impressions of Moscow’ were featured in Illustrated Weekly and pay testament to her potential as a professional street photographer.
Manobina was skilled at capturing her subjects in natural light through both portraiture and street photography. Most of Manobina’s archive was of her children and husband, occasionally whipping the camera out for her husband, Bimal Roy’s, more illustrious friends. Manobina continued practising photography into her 70s and considered it a part of herself. The camera became a lens through which she perceived the world and photographs a way to relive old memories.
Like most professions, photography has notoriously been a male-dominated field, but these photographers managed to scrounge up cultural relevance despite the odds. Homai Vyarawalla was concerned with capturing the living, breathing soul of the country, Debalina and Manobina caught the moments in between the turmoil. Together they reflect the 20th century, and their work a reflection of the very fabric of post-colonial India.