NYC Immersion Roundup : "Candid” at the Rubin Museum

Review: Photography exhibit showcases legendary photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla's career, and her intersection with India's formative years.

In a time where pioneering photographer Margaret Bourke-White jumped right into the horrifying aftermath of the Partition of India into two nations in 1947, her contemporary Homai Vyarawalla’s pristine photographs of pre- and post-independent India appear passive and privileged in contrast. 

Around the same time, Henri Cartier-Bresson stepped onto the Indian soil and produced some of the most iconic images in its history: the famous shot of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru caught in a humorous moment with Lord and Lady Mountbatten, an animated close-up of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the haunting backlit photograph of Nehru announcing Mahatma Gandhi’s death to a shocked nation. In the light of Cartier Bresson’s genius, Vyarawalla’s early pictures of Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru appear awkward at times, and their candid mood seems forced. 

But Vyarawalla’s talent and photographic contribution to India’s history cannot be denied. She was the first female Indian photojournalist to provide a glimpse into some of the historic moments of the nation. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York recently closed the six-month long retrospective “Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla,” that exhibited her body of work chronicling events leading up to the independence of India and after. 


Greater Subjects

Born in a Parsi family in 1913 in then Bombay, she married Manekshaw Vyarawalla, a photographer with the British Information Services who introduced her to a camera. The retrospective begins with the few nostalgic photographs Vyarawalla has of Bombay (Mumbai). These are perhaps her only indulgent photographs of the city before she moves on to greater subjects.

From the 1940s to 1970 before she finally hung up her Rolleiflex and Pacemaker Speed Graphic cameras (displayed at the exhibit,) Vyarawalla caught moments that most of her male colleagues were denied. Queen Elizabeth II and the wives of diplomats at a private fashion show, or a smiling Nehru standing next to a sign prohibiting photography at Delhi’s Palam Airport are some of the intimate peeps that only a woman of Vyarawalla’s stature and talent would have accomplished. The photographs of Gandhi on his death bed, and those of his funeral procession and rites, depict one of the darkest days of a heartbroken India in 1948. But the country’s faith revived once again is seen through Vyarawalla’s famous image of Nehru releasing a dove in the sky, a symbolic moment of peace and optimism in an independent India. 



Vyarawalla’s neutral camera recorded images of India’s own non-aligned, neutrality during the Cold War as leaders from all parts of the world arrived in India – U.S. President Eisenhower, Vietnamese Premier Ho Chi Minh, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union and the young Dalai Lama with Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai; along with several lighthearted moments with Jackie Kennedy, Helen Keller and Lord and Lady Mountbatten. 

Vyarawalla’s legacy to photojournalism doesn’t boast of revolutionary documentation of hunger, poverty or communal war. Her photographs are indeed from a privileged perspective in many senses, but as a woman in a conservative climate she pushed boundaries to create an inspiring work of art for future generations. 

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