Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Gendered World of Homai Vyarawalla: Inner and Outer Lives

(Homai Vyarawalla 1913-2012)

In one of the rare footages of Films Division of India, we see a young woman jumping across the Rajpath in New Delhi where the Viceroy’s procession is on and narrowly escaping from being trampled by the mighty horses pulling the regal buggy. This fragile little female clad in a white saree has a heavy flash camera hanging around her neck. With the latest technological aid we could see that scene repeatedly in slow motion and we come to know that the woman who was making that daring effort of moving away before getting caught under the horse driven carriage is none other than India’s first woman photographer Homai Vyarawalla. Today everyone knows about her and the credit goes to Sabeen Gadihoke who had followed her religiously in Baroda where Vyarawalla was living a recluse life, and later brought a comprehensive book on her along with a documentary film. Vyarawalla passed away in 2012 and in 2010, Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art in collaboration with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts did a major retrospective of her works curated by Sabeen Gadihoke herself. It was a curtain call for her as she was forced to come out of her secluded life and once again stand in front of public attention in Delhi which once upon a time she had enjoyed and spurned at the same time.

(photo by Homai Vyarawalla)

In the retrospective, the photographic works of Vyarawalla had given us a different image about the artist herself. In these works she seems to be absolutely genderless or gendered to the extent of merging her own gender with that of her male counterparts, leaving no clues to find out whether those were taken by a woman or a man. It was a sort of a training and experience she had initially in Bombay where she was active as a young photographer in 1930s till the beginning of 1940s. Most of her works published in the public domain came under her husband’s name for the fear of people looking down upon those images as taken by some hobby woman. Her works, even then were professional enough that none questioned the artistic qualities of it. When she along with her husband Manekshaw, shifted to Delhi in 1942 to join the Publicity wig of the British War Efforts, she could not have the opportunity to address the gendered social issues. She was addressing a male world and she could not behave like August Sanders or Walker Evans with her camera. Instead, she trained her camera more like Cartier Bresson, looking for the decisive moments. And as we all know, the decisive moments in 1940s were almost all male moments. India’s Independence proved to be another watershed moment for Indian patriarchy and Vyarawalla had to go by rule than being an exception on that front.

 (Pic by Homai Vyarawalla)

However, Homai Vyarawalla was not just another photographer who held a camera like any other male photographer of her times. She was much more sensitive to her times and to her gender and also she looked at the flourishing and evolving of her gender from a vantage point of curiosity and flourish. And we get to see these images taken by Vyarawalla in 1930s and early 1940s in Bombay and Delhi in the latest show titled ‘Inner and Outer Lives- the Many World of Homai Vyarawalla’, once again curated by Sabeena Gadihoke. These images are, as far as the oeuvre of Vyarawalla is concerned, from the omitted section of her works. These are omitted at a certain point because had these photographs been the rallying point for her artistic excellence when she was first introduced as a historically relevant photographer than just another photographer, Vyarawalla would not have received that kind of acclamation that she enjoys today. Those images that gave her the credit of being a great photographer were all culled from the national or nationalist moment of pride as well as prejudice. But the images in this show come from a different grouping, which Vyarawalla herself had enjoyed taking and preserving for her own perusal and enjoyment. In fact many of these images have been ‘published’ in those days but were not understood out of the context in which those were published, especially in the popular magazines like Illustrated Weekly. These images had come to the public as life style images (taken by a man) or skill teaching images or images of good life.

(Pic by Homai Vyarawalla)

The images in this show are constituted predominantly by the ones taken by Vyarawalla when she was a student at the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay. She was one of the early students who studied printmaking, design and commercial art. She was not only interested in learning skills but also documenting her fellow students, their lives and attitudes. Interestingly, at this stage, Vyarawalla comes before as a very gender conscious artist. Her models are mostly her girlfriends, they almost celebrate their short lived model status with flourish as they pose for their friend Vyarawalla. These women of 1930s look so confident and relaxed, and in their cosmopolitan looks and demeanour, we find them advanced for their times. They look like models coming out of Hollywood movies or American and British magazine. There is a reason for this look. Vyarawalla was heavily influenced by the images printed in the American magazines like LIFE, which she used to refer regularly. The influence is telling in the images. There are posed moments and purely journalistic moments. There are candid moments and affected moments in her works of that time. This is the time when Vyarawalla started to publish her works in the popular magazines under her husband’s name and later under her own name. Many of them are commissioned pictures yet many others are the labour of her love for the medium where she tries to capture the image of the Indian women, real yet not real and positively desirable.

 (Pic by Homai Vyarawalla)

Shifting to Delhi brought an end to Vyarawalla’s romance with the beauty of her girl friends and their surroundings. But by that time she reached Delhi, as a woman and as an artist she too had matured enough to forget the pangs of the easy life she had in J.J.School of Art. Though she started getting a lot of commissioned works in Delhi, she did not leave her initial interest in the lives of women in controlled spaces like in an academy or hospital or factory. She went on to visit the newly established Home Science Department of the Lady Irwin College in Delhi where young women were taught to become great home makers. The photographic series done on these Home Science students meticulously dissect the ideology of home making. Man makes house and women makes home, was the motto. Man’s structure is embellished by woman’s art. Home Science department was working on this line. Homai was fascinated to see these female students giving the final touches to the ‘practice apartment’ where they practiced the theories of home making. These apparently innocent and playful photographs are ideologically loaded and could tell us about the ways in which our society wanted to mould its urban women folk.  It was a Victorian offshoot and we do not know whether Vyarawalla was appreciative of this educational pattern or was critical of it. Or was she an impassionate documenter of events? We cannot say for sure but one thing is clear that Vyarawalla was interested in women’s education and she does not seem to be too critical of the Home making education imparted to the girls. She seems to be celebrating their activities creating tableaux of homely events, a serious version of the popular calendars that followed in the post independent years about being a good boy, good girl and so on.

 (Illustrated Weekly cover by Homai Vyarawalla)

In these selected works exhibited at the Sridharani Gallery, New Delhi, we do not see too many images of men. As Vyarawalla could access the high society in Delhi during the fag end of the British rule and that under the newly established Indian government by the Indian people, she could see a lot of changes as well as lot of continuities in life style. In these images, she has extensively taken the ‘fashion shows’ in the British Embassy. There women appear in designer clothes of those times and we could see the solemn audience sitting without much response to the ongoing fashion parade. There is a sense of ambivalence in the people who are involved in these pageants as well as the audience because the time was not good to have such revelries as India was going through the pangs of Independence or the impending independence. Women, the side characters of these political charades, in these works, look further sidelined though they look like having taken the centre stage as models and charming ladies. It is quite interesting to think that women at the J.J.School of Art and women in Delhi forming the ends of a confusing spectrum where the former shows hope and confidence while the latter shows ambivalence in achievement. These I would say are the Mahabharata moments of Homai Vyarawalla.

 (A famous picture of Nehru by Homai Vyarawalla)

The exhibition also showcases a series where a male actor is slowly transformed into a female character. This photograph is not taken when female actors were ostracised. However, male actors playing female roles were still prevalent in folk and popular theatre. In this series, a man slowly turns into a woman by adding make up and accessories and throughout this transformation, the actor does not show any excitement of being photographed. There seems to a completely empathetic relationship between the model and the photographer and in that mutuality they understand and respect each other’s presence. This series, in a different sense could herald the arrival of queer photography or photographing the queer in our visual culture context. I do not know for sure whether the model was a transgender or not, but those men who acted the roles of women always had some femininity, which remained unresolved throughout their lives without staging a ‘coming out’. Vyarawalla captures those moments and makes them the part of not only the general history of photography but the history of the queer visual culture in India. The exhibition also lays open the photographs of streets that Vyarawalla had taken both in Bombay and Delhi. These streets could be a sort of liminal space for Vyarawalla because they connote neither outside nor inside. And these are the places where we surreptitiously play out our inner and outer lives; the ultimate forms of role playing and role reversals. A must watch exhibition. 


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