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Nation in the Popular Imaginary

Seema Alavi

By Sabeena Gadihoke
Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2006, pp. 231, Rs. 2750.00


At one level this is a smartly produced coffee table book that features historic photographs of India’s birth to freedom from British rule. The pictures of India’s ‘first dynasty’ the Nehru-Gandhi family dominate the collection. As always, they are attractive to the eye and historic in the moments they capture. The reader ploughs along approvingly as they confirm to every stereotype that an average Indian has internalized about the makings of modern India. Foremost of these impressions are the iconic frames of Pandit Nehru and his family. And there is no dearth of these in the book: Nehru, his sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit, his daughter Indira with her sons Sanjay and Rajiv, rub shoulders here with his elite colleagues—Lord Mountbatten, Patel, Maulana Azad, and Jinnah. Mahatma Gandhi figures most prominently on the occasion of his death!   Here, the birth of the Indian nation is largely conveyed through the political and social life of Nehru and his court society. The book reflects the predictable popular imaginary about the nation prevalent in urban middle class India. And that imaginary neither excites nor makes this collection special. What makes this book more than a casual living room read is Sabeena Gadihoke’s lucid commentary. This focuses on the non-iconic frames, colours each picture with a thought provoking brush, and knits them all into a telling commentary on the social and intellectual history of modern India. She focuses on the photographer of these fascina-ting collage of pictures, Homai Vyarawalla, and uses her life and lens to revisit the often narrowly explained story of India’s colonial experience.   Gadihoke tells us the story of Vyarawalla—India’s first photojournalist. She unfolds for us the remarkable biography of this dynamic Parsi woman who struggled for a career and a life in colonial Bombay. Her life story as she interacted with Indian and British society is a revealing account of the lives of women in particular and the Parsi community in general on the eve of India’s independence. The pictures she took of ordinary people and everyday life in particular reflect the untold story of the nation that goes beyond its nationalist icons.   Born in Gujarat in 1913 to Parsi theatre actor Dossabhai Hathiram and Soonami, Homai grew up in Bombay. She went to school and college in that city, and pursued a diploma in the Arts Teachers’ Course at the J J School of ...

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