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Rediscovery of India

Jason Scott Tilley shows India of today alongside the nation of the ‘40s as captured by his Anglo-Indian grandfather.

Written by Vandana Kalra | New Delhi |
October 19, 2014 12:43:15 am
A photograph from Tilley’s collection, showing a girl in Varanasi ; Mahatma Gandhi taking a stroll on the beach. The photograph was clicked by Bert Scott in 1937; Bert Scott and Marguerite. A photograph from Tilley’s collection, showing a girl in Varanasi. The photograph was clicked by Bert Scott in 1937; Bert Scott and Marguerite.

Coventry-based photographer Jason Scott Tilley had heard about some of his grandfather’s girlfriends during family conversations, but had never imagined that he’d encounter the man’s first love. Sifting through some of his old stuff, years after his grandfather Bert Scott’s death in 2002, Tilley found old negatives of a young woman, tucked away in his cupboard. “They were infused with a certain playfulness during day trips to the beach or picnics by the river. I knew she was someone special,” notes Tilley. A six-year-hunt followed.

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The photographer traced the woman from the US to Bangalore where his grandfather was a press photographer at the time when Second World War broke out. He returned to England in 1947, leaving “his whole life behind, his country of birth, India, his friends and home”, says Tilley. The hunt finally ended in New Zealand, where Marguareite, now aged 99, lives. “The photographs have rekindled her memories of India,” adds 46-year-old Tilley.

Marguareite’s photograph finds a prominent place in Jason’s exhibition “The People of India”, which is on at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in the UK. The set of 140 photographs brings together Jason’s work with his grandfather’s, who was also the head of the Indian Army’s photographic unit in Burma during the Second World War. Tilley puts together photographs taken in the ‘40s in India, with his own striking contemporary street portraits taken during 10 years of travel across India, between 1999 and 2009. The third series of images are from “The People of India”, a 19th century photographic project, on loan from the Library of Birmingham, which has also supported Tilley’s 10-year project. The origins of this study between 1868 and 1875 lay in the British government’s desire to create “a visual record of typical physical attributes and characteristics of Indian people: a reference work to assist them in understanding and then controlling the Indian population under British rule”.

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“My grandfather’s photographs and my own are candid and show people as individuals and, more importantly themselves; whereas the 19th century images are stilted, two dimensional images trying to depict Indian “types”. It was an exercise in control as reflective of that era,” notes Tilley. So while Bert photographs Lady Mountbatten in Lutyen’s Delhi and Gandhi taking a walk at Juhu beach in 1936, Tilley’s black-and-white studies span from Chowpatty to Puri Beach, and the wedding band players in New Delhi. He has a man clad in a safari suit and his helmet at the Marine beach and a young girl with buffaloes gazing at her in Varanasi.

It was, interestingly, a trip taken with his grandfather to India in 1999 that propelled Tilley to photograph India. “He was extremely excited to come back, though my grandmother was not. She did not want to ruin her old memories of India. They had fled after Partition so they saw the trauma of it. My grandfather was an Anglo Indian and was finding it difficult to find a job,” says Tilley, who plans on going back to his grandfather’s archive — there are several more stories to be told.

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