A Little Less Nostalgia Would Help

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Union at home Indira Gandhi with GB Pant, the Union Home Minister

A Homai Vyarawalla retrospective prompts this question from Prashant Panjiar — why are our expectations from political photography so dull?

BEING A practising photojournalist, I have known about Homai Vyarawalla’s work for years. During my stint as photo editor of Outlook, we used her work enthusiastically. Her photographs of Nehru were, for instance, republished on the 50th anniversary of Independence. For many people, Homai’s photos became an amazing window into the post-Independence period. Curator Sabeena Gadihoke has done a fantastic job with the historicisation and annotation. However, what I found missing in her work is no fault of the curators. It stems from how we, in India, exaggerate and add unnecessary adjectives to art. Homai is talked about grandly as a pioneering “woman photographer”, yet there’s nothing feminine in her work — no insight into her or the women of her time. Unlike Dayanita Singh, for instance, who brings a feminine perspective into her work, she was a feisty woman in a man’s world. She was a woman photographer, a pioneer, but to describe her as a great woman photographer is inaccurate.

Flight of fancy Pandit Nehru releasing a pigeon at the National Stadium, Delhi, mid-1950s Stepping stone A dance performance at Delhi’s Marina Hotel to celebrate Independence
Identity crisis Deputy British High Commissioner Simon at a fancy dress party
Identity crisis Deputy British High Commissioner Simon at a fancy dress party

The media, in their attempt to outdo each other, hit upon ignorant superlatives like “the greatest”. People don’t know enough about photography from that period. Margaret Bourke-White, for instance, produced great work. When Homai’s work is compared to her contemporaries like Kulwant Roy, there is nothing particularly distinctive. I find Homai’s portraits of social life, including some on Parsi ceremonies more compelling and less talked about than her political photography. The nostalgia about Homai’s work has to do with a fundamental change in political photojournalism. Before the proliferation of photographers, one could get access to important people and capture unstaged moments. We last saw this candour in Raghu Rai’s pictures of Indira Gandhi. This is not the fault of contemporary photographers. The media is now the beast orchestrating media-event photography from behind a velvet rope. Globally, the media mostly tells untruths. The Americans are only better at hiding it. The contrived settings — the President walking with his dog — look like private moments. In India, it is still crude.

Homai is hailed as a pioneering woman photographer, yet there is nothing feminine in her work — no insight into her or the women of her time

Indian political photojournalism is stuck in the past. Photography is still understood as a way of relaying direct information. No insight into the inner lives of people is even attempted. The assumption is that if it is too sophisticated, people won’t understand it. Our visual symbols are predictable — a snottynosed, spade-holding construction worker’s kid at a site in Delhi to say poor, child labour and Commonwealth Games. We need to be more reflective, not just state the obvious. The change in print journalism over the last few years, where writers now freely write their opinion, is yet to occur in photojournalism. The best photographs are ambiguous, bring in something personal and lend themselves to many interpretations.

Photos: Homai Vyarawalla/The Alkazi Collection Of Photography

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