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Homai Vyarawalla; blazed trail as Indian photojournalist; at 98

Sam PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images/file

Homai Vyarawalla, who captured triumphant images of India’s independence movement, was hailed as the first Indian woman to work as a photojournalist.

Homai Vyarawalla, a photojournalist celebrated in India for chronicling the country’s march toward independence and capturing enduring images of world figures such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, and US presidents of the mid-20th century, died Jan. 15 in Vadodara, in west India. She was 98.

Hospital officials said she had been under their care for respiratory ailments when she died after falling from her bed and fracturing a thigh bone.

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Ms. Vyarawalla was hailed as the first Indian woman to work as a photojournalist and remembered as a familiar sight on the streets of New Delhi, the capital, riding a bicycle to assignments, her sari flapping behind her, her bulging equipment bags slung across her shoulders.

To many in India she was known as Dalda 13, a coinage derived from her license plate number, DLD-13.

In the 1950s, Ms. Vyarawalla photographed Zhou Enlai, China’s first prime minister under Mao Zedong, as well as the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and the Dalai Lama, just after he had escaped from Tibet. She recorded state visits by Queen Elizabeth II, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, and first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, and Jacqueline Kennedy, often capturing them in lighter moments.

But it was her triumphant images of the country’s independence movement - of the departing Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, for example - that resonated most with Indians.

“Her images of Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a jubilant crowd in Delhi, and of the body of Mohandas K. Gandhi being prepared for cremation, give a vivid sense of the mood of a nation whose self-image was cast in a romantic epic mold,’’ Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times in 1997 in a review of a show in New York that featured Ms. Vyarawalla’s work.

‘Her images . . . give a vivid sense of the mood of a nation whose self-image was cast in a romantic epic mold.’

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“Much has happened since - sectarian violence, economic upheaval, the extended medical emergency of AIDS - to eat away at that initial tragedy-shadowed optimism,’’ Cotter wrote. “And the heightened, even exultant mood that runs through Ms. Vyarawalla’s pictures is nowhere to be found in the work of her younger colleagues.’’

Ms. Vyarawalla called Nehru her “all-time favorite subject’’ and “extremely photogenic,’’ and when photographing him she would wait for an informal image to materialize - lighting a cigarette or releasing a pigeon. She was present at his funeral.

“When Nehru died,’’ she told The Indian Express, “I felt like a child losing its favorite toy, and I cried, hiding my face from other photographers.’’

Ms. Vyarawalla was born Dec. 9, 1913, in Navsari, a city in the western coastal state of Gujarat. Her father was an actor in a traveling theater company, and as a child she spent much time on the road with her family.

After the family settled in Bombay, now Mumbai, she learned photography from a friend and, at 13, began taking pictures of Bombay life. She earned an art school diploma and began working professionally as a photographer in her late teens.

Her career took off after she married Manekshaw Vyarawalla, an accountant for The Times of India who also worked as a photographer for the newspaper.

In World War II, while working for the Far Eastern bureau of the British Information Services in New Delhi, Ms. Vyarawalla began accepting freelance assignments that gave her access to India’s political circles.

Her photographs were published in Time, Life, and The Illustrated Weekly of India, among other publications. In one series she recorded a day in the life of Indian firefighters during wartime.

Ms. Vyarawalla gave her collection of photographs to the New Delhi-based Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and last January received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award.

Ms. Vyarawalla moved to Vadodara, then Baroda, in 1982 with her son, Farooq, her only child. A teacher, he died of cancer in 1989. Her husband died in 1970, the same year she gave up photography, abruptly packing up her cameras one day, disgusted by her peers.

“My colleagues had all been gentlemen,’’ she told India Today, “but the new crop did not know how to behave in high society. I did not want to be associated with such riffraff.’’

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