Whatever Happened to Rehana?
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Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman press photographer, passed away early this year at the age of 98. Born in 1913, Homai belonged to the more liberal Parsi community and her early life was spent in the cosmopolitan city of Bombay, where she first learnt and practiced photography. In 1942, Homai and her husband Maneckshaw, also a photographer, moved to Delhi to join the publicity wing of the British war effort. This relocation changed the nature of her photography forever, catapulting Homai into a completely different world of mainstream nationalist politics in the capital.
In this curatorial selection, I attempt to understand whether the early 1940’s prematurely stopped a very significant direction that Homai Vyarawalla’s work could have taken. As a press photographer, she would henceforth document many iconic moments of Indian independence and the building of the nation. However, the need to represent famous people and important events also diverted her gaze away from other more ordinary representations of everyday life, including women. Returning to certain images taken by Homai Vyarawalla in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Bombay, I trace the figure of the quintessential modern Indian girl in her work.
At first sight there is nothing extraordinary about the images of women taken by Homai. Among the many photographs of the building of a modern Indian nation—of steel plants, dams, tuberculosis hospitals, flag hoisting ceremonies and other ceremonial functions—we find first a few odd images of prominent female political figures. There is Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, of course, and other prominent personalities such as the poet Sarojini Naidu and Gandhi’s physician Sushila Nayyer, pictured at his funeral. One can sight find more ordinary women in her pictures of crowds, and two veiled women on a rickshaw as they journey to cast their vote at the first general elections. Homai photographed many Hindu as well as Parsi women performing rituals in Bombay in the early 1940s. In these photographs Hindu women immerse the Ganpati idol in water, and Parsi women offer prayers on the occasion of Avan Yazad Parab (Festival of the Waters) at Chowpatty beach. In other photographs they spin the Parsi kusti (sacred thread) or they perform other religious ceremonies in indoor settings. At times we see the women surrounded by their families at picnics or outside the fire temple at Dhobi Talao (Figs. 2 and 3). In all these images, the women are located within more traditional and domestic settings and seem to have little in common with Homai Vyarawalla’s own rather unconventional persona as a young woman photographer during this time (Fig. 4).
Growing up in Bombay, Homai learnt photography from her boyfriend, Maneckshaw, who was a self-taught photographer. Her first pictures were published in the Illustrated Weekly of India under his name. The couple walked the streets of the city photographing its everyday rhythms. A symbol of modernity, the camera gave Homai the opportunity to be in spaces that would normally have been inaccessible to a middle class Parsi girl of her background. During this time she also photographed others like herself. This small selection of photographs from Homai Vyarawalla’s Bombay phase pays tribute to some of these urban modern girls in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
A striking young woman dominates many of Homai Vyarawalla’s photographs of women in Bombay. Rehana Mogul was Homai’s classmate at the Sir J.J. School of Art in the late 1930s. Like an actress, she plays different roles in these photographs. We see her in one of Homai’s earliest pictures, taken in 1937, as she poses with abandon at a girl’s picnic with head thrown back and palm across her face, like a diva. In this picture the decorum normally associated with well brought up young “ladies” is thrown to the winds, as she draws her sari up to her knees, draping it like a Roman toga.
In another photograph, she holds grapes above her mouth, like Cleopatra, for an advertising assignment and sensuously shuts her eyes (Fig. 6). Rehana’s hair is bobbed in the fashion of the day. In one of Homai’s more famous photographs she chips away at a sculpture in a workshop, along with another classmate. The image is a powerful one as it reverses the traditional expectations of who gazes at whom in art (Fig. 8). Unlike other photographs taken by Homai of drawing sessions at the school, this one has a bare bodied male model on display in the background (Fig. 7). In yet another performative picture, Rehana poses with head covered demurely in a sari on the cover of the Bombay Chronicle (Fig. 9). This hand colored picture, published in 1941, is entitled “A Silent Tear.” Despite the prominent teardrop beneath her eye and her pensive expression, it is hard to miss the fashionable crinkled hair under the covered head, the georgette sari and Rehana’s lipstick.
The image of Rehana Mogul is representative of the idea of a “modern girl”. Looking at what “cultures of consumption” may have meant for women in particular, a consortium of researchers across the world suggest that the “modern girl” image was a global construction of transnational companies and their advertising strategies in the 1920s and 1930s. These researchers argue that “technologies of the self” such as lipstick, face creams, skin lighteners, deodorants, cigarettes, high heels and fashionable clothes literally changed bodies as they enabled women to cross over from inner to outer worlds. As public women, film stars may have been the most modern of girls, but the most visible representation of the modern girl in India was the urban collegiate young woman. This was particularly true for the Anglo-Indian and Parsi communities, which were considered to be more liberal as far as women were concerned.
If fashion and performativity were markers of the modern girl, travel and mobility were also. Another set of two photographs taken by Homai features women travelers at the “mole” station, at the dockyard located at Ballard pier in Bombay (Figs. 10, 11). Wearing dresses, high-heeled shoes and hats, we see three women standing next to their luggage as they clutch at their bags tightly. One woman holds onto her body self-consciously. All of them return the gaze of the photographer—a woman just like themselves—with some amount of distrust. They seem slightly out of place, as if they do not belong. The women look like they could be Anglo-Indian. With the arrival of independence in 1947, this community was increasingly isolated, as they were considered outsiders by both the Indians and the British. That isolation can be sensed in the second photograph, in which an unescorted woman stands separate from the more traditionally clad “native” Indian men around her. She holds onto her bag as well as a parasol. Shielding oneself from the harsh rays of the sun was as important as protection from the rain. In a deeply racist colonial society the color of one’s skin mattered profoundly, particularly if you were Anglo-Indian. Despite the mobility that these ‘memsahebs’ seem to have, the photos have a poignancy because they also suggest their isolation and vulnerability.
If the station and the dockyard were potentially dangerous sites for the intermingling of gender, race and class, the Sir J.J. School of Art, where Homai Vyarawalla and Rehana Mogul studied, was a more sanitized cosmopolitan space that brought middle and upper class men and women from different communities and backgrounds together. Besides giving them a traditional education in classical art, the school offered these modern girls new career options in graphic design and advertising. In a picture story shot by Homai for the Illustrated Weekly of India in1941, students are depicted learning lithography (Figs. 12, 13). While the process is clearly staged for the camera, these young women, with their dresses and fashionable shoes, look quite different from others that Homai shot just a few years later at another educational institution with a radically opposed agenda. In her picture story on Lady Irwin College in Delhi in 1946, students, dressed more traditionally in saris and salwar kameez, learn how to be efficient home makers, as they study the increasingly popular discipline of home science (Fig. 14).
It may be no coincidence that we do not see “modern girls” in Homai Vyarawalla’s work after 1942. Some feminist historians have viewed the nationalist movement at this time as a setback for the “women’s question”. While it might be simplistic to assume that the modern girl disappeared completely, there is no doubt that a certain kind of image of a fashionable woman began to be viewed with suspicion in cinema and advertising. By the 1940s the “modern girl” character in cinema was increasingly seen as morally suspect. Heroines who aspired to be modern were often tamed or punished for transgressive behaviour. The Anglo-Indian woman now played the role of the “westernized” vamp, and the “new woman” wearing a sari was constructed as a moral counter to this character. In 1948, an entire series of Lux toilet soap advertisements in the tabloid Blitz featured actresses with their heads covered with a dupatta or a sari. Of course as we have already seen in the image of Rehana Mogul in the Bombay Chronicle, this could be a masquerade as the modern girl sought to reinvent herself in a new cultural setting.
We see this subtle transformation in Homai Vyarawalla’s own persona as well. Her relocation to Delhi coincided with other shifts in her personal life. By 1942 Homai was married with a child. There were other pressures around being the only woman in a man’s world. Surrounded by much greater scrutiny as the only woman press photographer, Homai’s survival in a political arena dominated by men depended upon a stripping away of a more obvious sexual presence. She now welcomed the nickname “mummy” given to her by one of her colleagues as it placed her on a pedestal. She deliberately cultivated a morally correct persona at work and dressed in a khadi sari (Fig. 15). Of course her sari provided her with a safe alibi to live a more unconventional outer life. It enabled Homai to traverse the country as she photographed high profile political events. She spent her evenings unescorted as she photographed social functions at the Delhi Gymkhana club and various diplomatic missions. We see how conforming to nationalist ideals of femininity was integral to Homai Vyarawalla’s professional survival as a press photographer in Delhi.
Which leaves us with the question: What happened to Homai’s classmates at the school of Arts? These four photographs taken by her in the late 1930s are symbolic of the chances that these young women may have had before their onward journey was interrupted by larger events over which they had little control (Figs. 16, 17, 18, 19). The pictures capture fleeting and carefree moments of leisure when subversive ideas are born. Young girls swing from the banyan trees in abandon as their friends look on in lazy indulgence. Four young women sit with their legs in water at a picnic as others sketch on the banks. The camera captures a private reverie as a young girl lies on her back with her eyes half shut under the open sky. These images represent the “might have been” possibilities of their lives. As a certain idea of the modern girl came under attack, the lives of these young women may have changed too. Perhaps some were domesticated by marriage and the demands of cultural nationalism. Others may have led subversive inner lives even as they performed the roles of “good girls.” The modern girl never disappeared completely, of course. If she appeared henceforth on the margins of cinema, albeit in a different garb, we also saw her in advertisements and occasionally peeping out of personal photographic albums in the decades that followed. This photo essay has attempted to interrogate some of Homai Vyarawalla’s early images, as it reflects on what may have happened to the women in them and their quest to be modern.
Sabeena Gadihoke is Associate Professor of Video and Television Production at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia University in New Delhi. She is also an independent documentary filmmaker and cameraperson. Her book Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla (Mapin/Parzor) was published in 2006. She recently curated a retrospective show on Homai Vyarawalla for the Alkazi collection of photography at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore.
See Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC & Penguin Books, London, 1972. Berger argued that in Western traditions of oil painting, the female nude was created with the assumption of a male presence. For Berger, women were constantly being surveyed, not only by men but by other women, and by themselves.
Weinbaum, A.E; Thomas, L.M; Ramamurthy, P; Poiger, U.G; Yue Dong, M & Barlow, T.E (Eds). The Modern Girl Around The World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. The Modern Girl Around the World Group. Duke University Press. Durham & London, 2008, p 5
The Anglo Indian woman was the archetypal “modern girl”. See Ramamurthy, Preeti. “All Consuming Nationalism: The Indian Modern Girl in the 1920s and 1930s”. Weinbaum, Thomas, Ramamurthy, Poiger, Yue Dong, Barlow (Ed).The Modern Girl Around The World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. The Modern Girl Around the World Group. Duke University Press. Durham & London, 2008, p 147–173
Vasudevan, Ravi S. ‘You cannot Live in Society and ignore it’: Nationhood and female modernity in Andaz. Social Reform, Sexuality and the State. Contributions to Indian Sociology Vol 29, No’s 1& 2, Jan–Dec 1995. Sage Publications India Pvt ltd. p 84
See the related work of Debashree Mukherjee on the persona of actress Devika Rani. Mukherjee, Mukherjee, Debashree. “Good girls, bad girls”. URL http://www.india-seminar.com/2009/598/598_debashree_mukherjee.htm