Josheen Oberoi on Homai Vyarawalla’s retrospective at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York
New York: Homai Vyarawalla (1913 – 2012) was India’s first female photojournalist and played a pivotal role in documenting India’s political history from the 1940s through 1970. Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla, an exhibition of her photographs and related ephemera, opened at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City on July 6 and is the first solo showing of her work in the United States. Unfortunately, she was not able to attend this exhibition, as she passed away in January at the age of 98. Vyarawalla was widely eulogized in India and abroad, including in the New York Times. Her presence as the first woman in a nascent profession like photojournalism (as it was in 1940s India) has often framed the discussion about her importance in India’s history. But her iconic status is equally deserved by her command over her craft, as is evident in the exhibition.
Installation image of Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Photograph by David De Armas Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
The exhibition is organized thematically in clusters ranging from three to six images, around her personal photography, photojournalistic career post 1942, and commercial freelance work documenting the social life of Delhi in the late 1940s. Entering the exhibition space, we are first welcomed by a showcase that holds Vyarawalla’s two favorite cameras – the Roleiflex and Speed Graphic Pacemaker – most commonly used at that time. The solidity of these cameras (in stark comparison to the sleekness of digital cameras today) immediately establishes the tone of the exhibition, setting us up for a trip down memory lane. This is further enhanced by the immediacy of viewing the medium of gelatin silver prints in the exhibition.
The first set of photographs is from the 1930s, when Vyarawalla lived in Bombay and was a student at the Sir J.J. School of Arts. These predate her political photojournalism and capture everyday and mundane scenes in Bombay. These images are personal, subjective records of Vyarawalla’s Bombay – of VT Station, her classmate Rehana Mogul, and an expressive image of a monsoon-threatened Marine Drive. Many of these images were published in the weeklies of that time, particularly the Illustrated Weekly of India. Her later commercial work in Delhi chronicles the more elite social life of a city that was the center of politics in the 1940s. Two of these prints of parties at the Delhi Gymkhana Club have been included in the show. Out of this ‘non-political’ work, an exceptional photograph in the show is Fox Hunt. Shot in Delhi in the 1940s it is a moody, impressionistic take of a cold foggy morning in the city. Self-described as her favorite, this image exemplifies Vyarawalla’s ability to capture the atmosphere in which the moments she documented took place, suggesting a narrative instead of a sterile moment.
A Fox Hunt in Delhi led by Col. Sahni, Early 1940’s Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Mohammad Ali Jinnah at his last Press Conference before leaving for Pakistan; August 1947 Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
This is true of her political photography as well. Vyarawalla moved to Delhi with her husband Maneckshaw, also a photojournalist, in 1942 where they were employed by the British Information Services. Her political photojournalism began with the end of the Second World War and India’s path to independence in the mid-1940s that are represented in the exhibition through images like her portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Present at seemingly every major event of the time, the next cluster of images is of the funeral and cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. These include intimate images of the Mountbatten family and Gandhi’s funeral procession.
The ashes of Mahatma Gandhi being carried in a procession, Allahabad; February 1948 Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: The Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
The display then moves to Vyarawalla’s favorite subject: Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. His pervasive presence in her photographs over his seventeen years in office underline this, and offer an organic portrait of him as a public figure – in jest, relaxed, caught in a lonely moment of exhaustion, and in his interactions with the many foreign dignitaries that visited India, his famed charm and charisma visibly occupying the frame.
Prime Minister Nehru waiting for a dignitary to arrive at the Red Fort; 1950’s Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Dr. Helen Keller, who was calling on President Dr. Rajendra Prasad at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, being greeted by, Prime Minister Nehru who had come to see her; 1955 Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam being escorted by Pandit Nehru and Dr. Rajendra Prasad; 1958 Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
The public figures that visited independent India were also extensively photographed by Vyarawalla. I found this selection of images and their curation in the exhibition particularly strong. They document the ethos of India as a nation immediately after independence. From Nehru’s playful interaction with Ho Chi Minh, at an otherwise grave political meeting, to meetings with Dr. Helen Keller, President Eisenhower, the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in the days that the slogan ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ was echoing around the country, all these feel like historical records of a new, exultant nation and the role it predicted for itself in the world.
Vyarawalla’s eye almost always caught these figures in unguarded moments of ease, and her portraits lack the stiffness of predictable posed photographs.
An image particularly relevant to contemporary India is of the Dalai Lama’s first visit in 1956. This was three years before his final, permanent escape to India and it is telling of her journalistic instinct that Vyarawalla chose to travel to Sikkim to photograph this occasion.
The Dalai Lama in ceremonial dress enters India through a high mountain pass. He is followed by the Panchen Lama, Sikkim, India; 1956 Gelatin Silver Print From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: Alkazi Collection of Photography Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
What is striking in Vyarawalla’s works is that the perspective she chose in all her images is appropriate to the moment, be it the intimate framing of Mahatma Gandhi on his funeral pyre or the low angle shot of Nehru releasing a dove, making him larger than life. There is also a marked lack of sentimentality in her compositions as a press photographer. She had an ability to maintain distance and still capture the personalities of the subjects and the events. This made viewing her photographs an engrossing experience, allowing me to create portraits of the time she lived in and captured.
In addition to her photographs, there are two other treasure troves in this exhibition. A showcase that spans the breadth of the gallery includes Vyarawalla’s contact prints from the 1940s through 1970. Also her press cards, hand colored Illustrated Weekly covers, invitations and thank you notes from the political figures she photographed – this case builds an image of the cultural life of Delhi during those years. Another gem is an excerpt from a documentary on her, directed by Anik Gosh and supported by Sparrow, where she is interviewed by Sabeena Gadihoke, her biographer (India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, Mapin/Parzor, 2006) and a collaborator on this exhibition. Sprightly and undiminished, Vyarawalla speaks freely – on her beloved cameras, her courteous male colleagues of yore, the remarkable integrity of that time and most importantly, her method. She says, and I paraphrase, that there was no time to focus. ‘We had to put our distance, fit the picture and just click’.
This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi, and will remain on view till January 14, 2013. A larger retrospective of Vyarawalla’s work was held in 2010-2011 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in New Delhi and Mumbai. A rare opportunity to view these images in person in New York, the show is definitely worth a dekko. Located in the museum’s Theater Level Gallery, admission to it is free of charge, a fact the show’s curator Beth Citron said Homai Vyarawalla would especially have been pleased with in an earlier interview with Saffronart.
Manjari Sihare in conversation with Beth Citron about the Rubin Museum’s exhibition program of Modern Indian Art
New York: Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Beth Citron, Assistant Curator at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York where she has organized a series of exhibitions on “Modernist Art from India,” and of the work of India’s first female photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla. Modernist Art from India is a three-part series of exhibitions highlighting the predominant themes and extraordinary examples of modernist art created after India’s independence:
The Body Unbound | November 18, 2011–April 9, 2012
Approaching Abstraction | May 4–October 15, 2012
Radical Terrain | November 9, 2012–April 22, 2013
The Homai Vyarawalla exhibition is the first museum retrospective in the United States of works by this pioneering photojournalist, whose iconic images of the events surrounding India’s independence in 1947 from British rule endeared her to the Indian people. The exhibition is on view till January 14, 2013.
Beth completed a Ph.D. on Contemporary Art in Bombay, 1965-1995 in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, and has taught a course on “Contemporary South Asian Art” in the Art History Department at New York University.
Q: Could we just begin with the modern Indian art series? What is the motive behind this exhibition program and how is this exhibition program different from other such exhibitions worldwide?
Beth: Since 2004, the Rubin Museum has been engaged in exhibiting and defining the art of Himalayan Asia and in 2010, while they were also looking to expand their involvement with contemporary art at this museum, they also began to be interested in working directly with India and Indian communities, not just ancient Indian art but modern and contemporary. It was something that the founder, Donald Rubin felt very passionate about as well. I was basically hired with the opportunity to create a series of exhibitions on Modern Indian art and bring new material and new ideas about it to a New York institution.
One way in which this series is different from most of the exhibitions worldwide is that these shows are exclusively focused on modernist moments and not contemporary art. This was for a few reasons. One is that my own field of study is modernist art from India and I feel that in spite of all the market attention on contemporary art and large scale installations in the past couple of years, the 60s, 70s and 80s are still very much under-studied. The second thing is that our galleries look great with paintings, (the museum building was formerly a portion of the Barneys department store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood) so for aesthetic reasons and in terms of an art historical lineage, it made more sense to work with paintings, which related more closely to the type of art work that had be shown at the museum before and it became, in many ways, a natural extension for what the museum had been doing previously.
Q: The Rubin Museum is the first museum in New York to have a comprehensive exhibition program of modern Indian art. Why do you think it has taken so long for this recognition and what has powered it now?
Beth: Obviously the expansion of the market in the last few years has played a role in bringing awareness of this material to the United States. I also think that this museum has opened only since 2004 so I would really say that it has not taken so long in our particular local sense because it takes a few years just to identify what your core areas are and what your secondary and supplementary areas of expertise will be so I think, for this museum it came fairly early in the evolution of what it is that we are doing. We have also had a fairly active photography program. Since we have been opened, we have shown Pablo Bartholomew’s work and now Homai Vyarawalla so there have been interventions by Indian photographers since the beginning.
Homai Vyarawalla, Nehru releasing a dove, sign of peace at a public function at the National Stadium in New Delhi New Delhi; mid 1950’s From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Q: What is the audience demographic of this museum and what has the response to these exhibitions been?
Beth: The audience demographic is a good question and we are actually currently involved in research on that topic. We hope and expect very often that we have overlaps with many other cultural institutions in the city, both small and large. We are liked by our neighbors and even by audience members who can’t be with us but are here with us virtually, because they live in places around the world. But more specifically than that, I think people come here because they like the experience of the place. It has a good feeling. There is always something new to explore either through programs or new exhibitions. They are seeking something new and different and cool.
Q: Is there a large South Asian diaspora community involved? Are they active at the museum?
Beth: There are some South Asian diaspora community members involved at the museum on our board and events that we do here but the institution also fits in the more broad art community. We hope that it fits in the art community. One example of the modern Indian art series going beyond what we think is a regional audience, which we also really want to be there is that a work from the Body Unbound exhibition, B. Prabha’s Fisherwoman was in the Daily Pic of the Daily Beast one day. More recently, Approaching Abstraction was reviewed in the New York Times. So there has been coverage and attention that goes beyond communities in India and the Indian diaspora.
B. Prabha, Fisherwoman; 1960 From the exhibition: Modernist Art From India: The Body Unbound Collection: Shelley and Donald Rubin Collection Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Q: Overall, has the response in the modern Indian art series been different from the other aspects of the museum?
Beth: Well there has been a positive response and enthusiasm especially from various educators at the museum that they find it an easy exhibition to teach with and students like it. There is a program called Mindful Connections that they do with people with dementia and their caregivers. They used the Body Unbound for that and found the material very accessible. The staff and people from various communities, from young children to the elderly have been able to use this exhibition.
Bhupen Khakhar, First Day in New York; 1985 From the exhibition: Modernist Art From India: The Body Unbound Collection: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Q: What are the fundamental principles for you when putting together an exhibition on Indian art? Where does the process start for you- from the collection of museum founders, Donald and Shelley Rubin, as the crux and filling gaps thereon? Could you elaborate on that?
Beth: I was given a lot of latitude about how I approach the exhibition. So I decided to have it structured as a three-part thematic series on figuration, abstraction and landscape that would essentially build on each other. Of course Shelley and Donald Rubin’s private collection is available to borrow from but in no way was it assumed or restricted that their works had to be the crux of the exhibition. Instead, it was met with a lot of enthusiasm to borrow from local institutions like MoMA for abstraction, the Peabody Essex Museum, which was a great resource especially for Body Unbound, and lots of other private collectors who are very excited to participate in the series. So I think, in a certain way, there has been a lot of community building, just in putting together a checklist and working with various collectors and institutions. One example is the Grey Art Gallery Museum of the New York University. They have a small but very nice collection of modern Indian art that Abby Grey collected during a very short period in the 60s. They had a very small collage by Vivan Sundaram that they didn’t know was by Vivan Sundaram because he signed his name differently at that time. So I said, “oh, that is an early pop collage by Vivan Sundaram and we would love to borrow it.” And it was actually able to enhance their knowledge as well. So it has been a really good exercise in that sense.
Q: Support for these exhibitions comes from a multitude of resources like the private collections you mentioned. I have also seen credits related to private galleries. How easy or difficult has it been for you to garner these resources also considering that art philanthropy in India is still in its nascent stages?
Tyeb Mehta, The Diagonal, 1974 From the exhibition: Modernist Art From India: Approaching Abstraction Collection: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Beth: There is also support from the Dedalus Foundation, Inc. for the exhibition, for both the first and second parts so far. We did have Roshini Vadehra express a lot of enthusiasm in this exhibition and she committed to help support the first part of the series. We felt very fortunate about that. We haven’t solicited that many people in India for this purpose, partially because the exhibition is here and at this time, we don’t have the opportunity to borrow from India or travel the exhibition to India so I think that we have been more successful so far getting resources, materials and support from communities here. At the same time, I would like to hope that art philanthropy in India will continue to grow. Some people like Anupam Poddar of the Devi Art Foundation have set examples of how private foundations can become homes for philanthropy in a sense.
Q: We spoke about the private collection of the founders, Shelley and Donald Rubin. Does the museum itself have an active program for the acquisition of modern and contemporary Indian art?
Beth: We can actually accept gifts of modern and contemporary Indian art and we are very interested in building a collection but at this time, we have an extremely limited acquisition budget and so we don’t have the opportunity to actively go out and look for works to purchase.
Q: Could you talk a little about the most recent exhibit of Homai Vyarawalla?
Homai Vyarawalla, Mohammad Ali Jinnah at his last Press Conference before leaving for Pakistan; August 1947 From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Beth: A year and a half ago, Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Foundation was here in New York and met with me soon after I started this job about the possibility to collaborate on an exhibition. I was immediately struck by Homai Vyarawalla’s work and I thought she would be a perfect fit for the museum. Fortunately, our Advisory Photography Committee and the Chief Curator did as well. We started planning this exhibition with the hope that Homai would be here. It was intended to be a small, mini retrospective of the larger show that travelled to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai in 2010-11 really to encapsulate many iconic shots that she took and also a sense of who she was as a person. And, I actually got to meet her last summer. I went to Baroda and spent a morning with her and came back and started a conversation with Sabeena Gadihoke about bringing Homai here for the opening, which Homai agreed to and was very excited about. So we very much had her presence in mind when we started planning this and I feel lucky that we were able to have this tribute to her after she passed away this past winter. I hope that she would have liked the exhibition. Sabeena said that she would have liked that the exhibition was in a public gallery, you don’t need a ticket to come see the show, it is free and open. Also that she would have been happy to see the selection of work.
Homai Vyarawalla, Close up of Mahatma Gandhi’s body in state at Birla House for darshan; 1948 From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Q: With you being in dialogue with Homai for the planning of the exhibition, was there a void in the exhibition making process with her death?
Beth: There wasn’t a void in that sense. I think Sabeena had done such a rigorous job with Homai interviewing her, knowing her work, understanding her work, and understanding her as a person that I leaned on Sabeena a lot as a resource. Homai was not in a position this past year to meet with me on a regular basis and talk about a checklist and what the exhibition would focus on. So it was really Sabeena who carried across Homai’s wishes and legacy to the exhibition.
Homai Vyarawalla, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, with Prime Minister Nehru during their visit to India; 1959 From the exhibition: Candid: The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla Collection: The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts Image Courtesy: Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Q: New York and the United States have a strong community of diaspora artists. As probably the sole institutional space for Indian and Himalayan art in New York City, do you plan to involve diaspora artists in the exhibition program?
Beth: Well, actually, we already have in the sense that Approaching Abstraction has works by Zarina Hashmi and Krishna Reddy. I think the category of diaspora is quite complicated in the global world that we live in. In many ways, a lot of the artists that I know who live here and are from South Asia or have South Asian heritage, resist being looked into that kind of category. I think there are many ways to work with artists from all around the world including New York City without necessarily working within the category of diaspora. I run an occasional program here on Friday nights called Artists on Art and Chitra Ganesh has done that, so has Kanishka Raja and several other artists who one could bill as diaspora but its not an approach or a term that we are working with.
Q: You mentioned that this program started with your own engagement, a PhD. in Art from Bombay, 1960s to 1990s. What drove you to this genre? Tell us about your journey so far.
Beth: I started studying Indian paintings at the Ajanta Caves in 2000 with Professor Walter M. Spink at the University of Michigan. That was my first trip to India and I knew that I would be back to study Indian painting. I have always been a painting person but I am also an urban person. So the idea of being able to work in Bombay and understand Bombay was extremely attractive to me. I was lucky that when I decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania, my advisor, Prof. Michael W. Meister was very open to the idea of working on modern Indian art, even though there was no infrastructure to do so. It was a challenge that he and I both really enjoyed to carve a program around that. When I got to Bombay in August 2006 to stay for some time, I found a lot of openness to the research. It was very easy to work collaboratively with artists and galleries, magazines and journals to increase knowledge in this field, particularly because the world was starting to look at modern Indian art and contemporary Indian art. Also there was this great expansion even within existing galleries and existing infrastructure in the cities at the time and I was lucky to be able to be part of that through the research I was doing.
Q: Who and what are you influenced by in terms of curatorial practice?
Beth: I don’t really think of it as “curatorial practice” in that sense. Many of my friends are artists, especially my friends in India. I have always been really influenced by artists and their creativity. I think curators working with living artists have an opportunity to almost funnel the vision and ideas of the artist rather than impose something on to them and that’s why if you look at the exhibition upstairs on Abstraction, each artist is essentially given their own category, not category but their own heading. Their work defines the spaces rather than vice versa so I think I have really wanted to let artists take the reins. This is something that I plan to do even in other types of exhibitions like this winter, in the theater level space of the current Vyarawalla exhibit, the new exhibition to come is by a New York based photographer, Lisa Ross, who has since eight years regularly been traveling to the Taklamakan Desert, the desert of China, taking these really incredible photographs of the landscape and Muslim shrines there, and she actually educated me a lot on that topic and on that region. I am working really closely with her about how that show should work and how we should communicate her perspective and this material.
Q: You spoke about the February exhibition, what else is there in the pipeline?
Beth: Beyond contemporary Indian art, we have some really exciting exhibits in the pipeline especially for 2014, which is the museum’s tenth anniversary. One is the two-floor exhibition for Tibetan medicine. We are hoping that it will attract a lot of new audience members. We are even going to have a Tibetan medical herb garden on the Highline so it will extend our community and into the neighborhood in that way. And I am working on this exhibition of Lisa Ross for February and a couple of other photography shows and a cross cultural contemporary show in 2015 which I have to be a little bit vague about because I have just started thinking about it. There is lots more to come of art from this region.