Thanks to John Meehan
People of India
Formed from three distinct groups of photographs, ‘People of India’ draws out aspects of British colonial history, a subject that continues to resonate and be relevant to both countries. Although the photographs, many of which are portraits, have been taken in India over a period of one hundred and fifty years, the majority of those shown are contemporary images by Jason Scott Tilley. Based in Coventry, Tilley has both British and Indian heritage, and his photographs are the result of several journeys to India, in part tracing his own personal histories.
The exhibition touches, as one might expect, upon racial, social, religious and cultural assumptions, as well as those pertaining to disability. But the photographs do not present generalised stereotypes or attempts at classification. Instead they show individual, surprising stories discovered by Tilley. For instance, the caption for one work describes a handsome young deaf man who leaps from high platforms into the sea to impress watching girls and monkeys. Captions in the first person intensify the visitor’s experience with each portrait subject and strengthen the authenticity of each of Tilley’s encounters.
‘People of India’ is designed simply and elegantly. The silver gelatin prints allow easy engagement with the astonishing clarity and content of the portraits. Tiny details within each frame can be discerned: beads of water on a young boy’s shoulder from ‘Juhu Beach, Mumbai, Maharashtra’ (1999), the straining buttons of a coat over a musician’s paunch in ‘Paharganj, New Delhi’ (2004).
There are stark and startling moments within Tilley’s photographs too. Labels tell us that street children use coins they collect to buy glue to stop hunger pains, and many images are uncomfortable to look at. Other images are full of joy and humour: a young girl laughing, a bearded man with huge black sunglasses with ‘punk’ written on them. Repeated subjects show different encounters with Tilley over time. Aspects of tourism, of financial success, of hardship, poverty and difficulty are all depicted. But here there are no judgments or preconceptions. Tilley’s is not an anthropological survey but a telling of real human stories.
A series of classic anthropological photographs from 1868-75 form the middle section of the display. These are taken from volumes that show the ‘races and tribes’ of India through albumen print portraits by various photographers. Needless to say, the original captions use language which is offensive and troubling to modern eyes, and some of the sitters are visibly uncomfortable. There is none of Tilley’s warmth in these older photographs. Yet these nineteenth century works are important historical records nevertheless.
The last section contextualises Tilley’s practice and shines a light upon a lesser known photographer: Bert Scott, Tilley’s grandfather who was born and lived in India until 1948 when the violence of Partition forced him and his family to leave the country. Scott worked for The Times of India newspaper and alongside professional photographs many more intimate images are exhibited: wedding day portraits, Scott’s young friends playing in the sea in Bombay, Tilley’s mother as a chuckling baby.
As a photographic catalogue of the inhabitants of a nation, ‘People of India’ is inevitably partial and fragmented. Its focus is upon unique stories, of Tilley and Scott and each portrait sitter. These make up a complex collection of memories, journeys and lives that have been lived in this place, in all their rich variations and nuances.
– review by Anneka French
People of India Photographed Over 150 Years by Aditi Malhotra Wall Street Journal India
When British photographer Bertrum Edwin Ebenezer Scott disembarked from the train in Karachi in the days following the partition of India and Pakistan, he took a picture that would mark the end of nearly 150 years spent by six generations of his family in the subcontinent.
‘The Last Breakfast in Karachi,’ taken before Mr. Scott boarded a ship in the port city of newly created Pakistan and set sail for England, is part of a collection of images he shot in India that are now on display at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry in the United Kingdom.
“The People of India,” also includes photographs taken by Mr. Scott’s grandson, Jason Scott Tilley, who put together the exhibition that spans more than a century of India’s history.
Mr. Scott grew up in southern Indian city of Bangalore with his grandparents – Edwin Ebenezer Scott and Emily Good Andre — before India gained independence from the British. His grandfather was the Assistant Commissioner of Salt for southern India.
Mr. Scott became a press photographer for The Times of India before moving to head the Indian Army’s photography unit stationed in Burma during the Second World War.
About 40 of Mr. Scott’s photographs are currently on display combined with more than 50 portraits of Indians taken in India by his grandson between 1999 and 2009.
This photograph below, was taken by Mr. Scott in 1937, while Mahatma Gandhi, known as the father of independent India, walked on Juhu beach in Bombay, now Mumbai.
The image below is of a farewell ceremony held in New Delhi for Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India who was made the first Governor General of the independent country before leaving on Aug. 15, 1947, India’s independence day.
This 1934 photograph is described by Mr. Scott Tilley as the ‘Selfie of the 1930s’, and shows his grandfather standing on the rooftop of the building belonging to The Times of India office in Bombay.
Mr. Scott Tilley first came to India in 1999 accompanying his grandfather whom he says “was desperate to go back to the country he loved.” In the photograph below of the Indian Army’s photo team in Burma, Mr. Scott is on the far left.
Mr. Scott Tilley says his photographs, divided by almost 50 years from his grandfather’s pictures of the country, reflect a “new India”.
When he shot his first set of portraits while traveling with grandfather in the late 1990s, Mr. Scott Tilley said he “could see tragedy on the corner of every street” reminiscent of the stories of partition narrated to him by his grandparents.
He took this photograph of a man in a safari suit and a helmet paddling at the beach in Chennai in 2003. When asked why he was wearing a helmet at the beach, Mr. Scott Tilley says he remembers the man raising his visor and responding simply, “Because I came here on my motor-cycle.”
A third set of photographs in the exhibition come from a photographic project also called “The People of India” put together by the Library of Birmingham and spanning 1868 to 1875. The project was the outcome of the then “British government’s desire to create a visual record of ‘typical’ physical attributes and characteristics of Indian people to help them understand the population of the newly-acquired colony,” said Mr. Scott Tilley.
This photograph from the collection is of a man from the Dooranee (Durrani) empire, which covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indian administered Kashmir, as they exist today. It was taken in Kabul, now in Afghanistan. In a description accompanying the photograph, the subject is described as having curly hair and “a thickly quilted cap with a muslin turban folded around it.”
This is described as “characteristic of the lower orders of Dooranees.” Strict followers of the Sunni Muslim religion, they identified as “brave, frank and often hospitable.”
The photograph below is of a member of a wedding band and was taken by Mr. Scott Tilley in the winter of 2004 in Delhi’s Paharganj area. “What you can’t tell by the photograph is that behind me there are about twenty of his band members yelling at him to straighten himself up and stand to attention,” he wrote in a blogpost about the portrait.
Mr. Scott Tilley calls this one, below, “The Buffalow Girl.” He took it in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.
You look at me,
You pretend not to look at me,
You wonder how I am the way I am.
You never stop to ask,
You never stop to know.
You just walk
As if walking away is a duty
And a moral principle right
And stopping in a sin.
I am disabled,
But I am not invisible,
I am an inquisitive being,
I am a thinker,
I am an inventor,
I have strength,
And a sense of humour
Which makes my children proud
That I am alive.
They never complain,
They hug and kiss me
And thank me for their food,
I have a smile
That melts my mother’s heart.
I am never alone.
So please stop,
Talk to me,
I might be able to help.
So you can smile,
So you can be yourself,
So you can be determined,
So you can be strong,
So you will never be alone…
So you can be content with life,
So you can be at peace
And be as spirited
And fun loving as me
Palolem beach South Goa 2004
The Poem was written by David Hurt, invigilator from The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, UK. It is Davids response to my People of India exhibition.
Canvases of ritual and worship,
Their bodies and faces alive
And whisks of jovial pleasure
Devoted to their deities,
Caught by the beauty of light
Married with chemistry
And the mastery of a skilled eye.
Portrait from Udaipur Rajasthan 2003
This poem was inspired by my People of India photographic exhibition at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum Coventry. Thank you, David Hurt.
The marketing of The People of India exhibition an my body of work The Beautiful people marches forward. Many many thanks to Satnam Rana and the team from Midlands Today for their professionalism and patience. Thank you to Stephanie Brown John Wilson and the team at The Hebert. Please click on the ‘Face Book’ link below this screen gab.
Artist Jason Scott Tilley, who has been artist in residence at Coventry University, discusses his body of work “The people of India” currently showing at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry.
Cited influences: Edward Curtis, Irving Penn & August Sander
Suggested reading: Pinney C. (1997) Camera Indica, Chicago
searching for sustenance and shelter,
searching for warmth from generous passers by,
which are few and far between.
Warmth, from blanket or shawl,
or the flicker of tinder’s of a golden flame.
Distant eyes, searching for meaning,
hope, a life beyond a world seemed lost,
a life where hardship isn’t a burden, but rewarded,
full of possibilities and prosperity.
Happy eyes; A glow with dreams untouchable,
but dreams that fulfil a moment To make them smile…
Genuinely moved that David from The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum wrote this poem in response to my People of India exhibition. Thank you David. I have chosen this portrait taken in Kolkata to accompany it.
Finally after all of this time and hard work by so many people my exhibition is up at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. I’d love to say it was all my work but that would not be true. Thank you Pete James Curator of photographs at The Library of Birmingham and to the team at the Hebert with a huge thanks to Curator Rosie Addenbrooke.
Not The End!