Photograpy, India, Portraits, Anglo Indians, Family and me

Month: October, 2011

Bert Scott photographer and grandpa

Great grandpa Algernon Bertie and verylow D LefervelowresMy grandpa, Bertrum Edwin Ebenezer Scott was born in the garden city of Bangalore in 1915. As a young boy he enjoyed the complete freedom of the spacious grounds that surrounded his family’s pleasant bungalow. The family’s bungalow was at no 3 Campbell Road and it was in the very heart of Bangalore’s residential district, it was surrounded by orchards with mature mango trees, guava and aubergine, the family used these fruits making pickles and chutney that they exported as far a field as the United states. Our family still makes pickle from these old recipes

He said that as a child he would run rings around his  grandparents and he told me he could remember exhausting them. I can still picture the mischievous grin that grew across his elderly face when he told me that he behaved like  a real bugger sometimes, he laughed to himself when he recalled these childhood memory’s. He told me that after he had behaved particularly naughty  he would  be sent to stay with the ‘Andree sisters’ who were his Aunts at their bungalow near the Lal Bhag a short distance away in Bangalore, just to give his grandparents a break.

Bertie was born to an Anglo India father named Algernon Edwin Scott and a french mother called Desiree Leferve. His father, who was known affectionately as ‘Algee’, spent much of Bert’s young life away from home. Algee was first of all stationed in Mesopotamia (Iraq) from 1916 to 1919 and after World War one he was sent to the North Western Frontier frontier province (Pakistan) until 1921 when he was finally discharged from the army, reaching the rank of  lieutenant.  Algee,  then went on to work for Burma oil from 1925 onwards. For a reason I have not yet ascertained, his mother did not seem to play much of a part in his life at all. I often asked my grandpa about his mother but he strangely did not seem to recall much about, it was the one bit of his amazing memory that always appeared to be blank. He could only remember the fact that she was the daughter of a French professor of English who came from Pondicherry near Madras.

Bert was educated at the famous South Indian school, Bishops Cottons. Bishop Cottons grounds were less that than one mile away from the family bungalow. Bishop Cottons had a reputation as the most elite  schools in the British Empire , it was known internationally as the Eton of the East he told me he excelled at sports but was academically useless. In his own words he said “I was bloody useless at everything, apart from sport”. He used to laugh as he told me that how he ever ended up working as a photographer for the  ‘intelligence unit’  at GHQ Delhi during World War Two was a complete mystery to him.

After spending his youth at Bishops Cottons school he went on to study at St Josephs College in the small  town of  Conoor in the Nilgree Hills. Whilst there he continued with his sports, excelling in athletics. He was selected to run the mile for the British Olympic team for the infamous Berlin games of 1936 when unfortunately whilst training in the mountains at high altitude, he strained his heart and very nearly died. He recovered but his dreams for running for the British Empire were shattered and he left college with little or no idea of what he was going to do as a future career and he returned home from the hills and moved back in with his grandparents.

Whilst he had been at college in the Nilgree Hills Bert met his first true love, a young woman called Margaret Mumford. She was one of three sisters who studied at Lovedale school in Ooty. Bert’s father Algee had a house near Ooty and Bert must have spent some time in the hills with him and this is where he must have met Margaret. They became a huge part of  each others lives and when Bert got as job as a press photographer for The Times of India newspaper Margaret also moved to Bombay and the large amount photographs of the couple together in my grandpa’s collection suggest that they spent every spare minute with each other.Margaret Mumford in her mothers garden at Lovedale, Ooty 1935

Leaving India 1947

During that impossible Indian summer of 1947, my grandfather made the difficult decision to uproot his small family from the country that he and his wife were born in  and the place they both loved and the place that they both believed was their  home for life. At that time my grandpa’s small family consisted just of my grandmother, my mother and my aunt. My mother was just four years of age at the time and my aunt was still a baby.

I know that my grandpa  made this agonising decision to uproot his small family because he felt there would be little  life left for him in India as an ‘Anglo’, perhaps feeling not quite ‘Indian’ enough for India at that time but also with a fear that his family might not be ‘British’ enough for life in 1940’s England. The ‘Anglo’s’ were a race of people who had developed a shared loyalty with two different cultures, historically and politically they had always sided with the British. Personally  my grandpa always told me that he believed that the country of  India  should be run solely by the Indians and that as a child whilst he was growing up, this inevitability was always discussed amongst our family and that the Anglos always knew, that this day would eventually come.

As a captain in the Indian Army he was given the choice to take an Indian Passport or immigrate to Australia, Canada, New Zealand or the United Kingdom. He chose the United Kingdom; many Anglo Indians chose one of the other countries in the new Commonwealth, as the Anglo-Indian Diaspora age they continue to communicate with one another; this older generations number are getting smaller and they feel that they are like ‘scattered seeds’, around the world. There unique culture slowly being forgotten.


Violence was escalating in India soon after it gained independence from British rule in 1947. In a few short months, rioting and religious in-fighting grew. Where once good neighbours lived peacefully together, now Hindus and Muslims fought. My grandfather had already  witnessed this violence and hatred surface once before, having photographed the Hindu/Muslim riots in Bombay in 1936 for The Times of India.

On many occasions in October and November in 1947, my grandfather put himself in great danger by helping to smuggle Muslim men out of what were fast becoming Hindu controlled areas of New Delhi, he did this by hiding them in the boot of his army jeep and driving them to safety.

Early in November 1947 as the tension  died down a little, my grandpa took his family from the safety of  the enclosed ‘Vice Regal Lodge’, along Janpath lane, around Connaught place and  then down the Chelmsford Road to the New Delhi train station. There were dead bodies lying on the streets and my grandparents skipped their children over these corpses making them believe that the dead people who were lying on the ground were really only sleeping.  My grandparents boarded a train from New Delhi and they headed south on a dangerous over land journey south to Bombay where they would connect with a ship that was heading north  to the port of Karachi in the newly formed country of Pakistan. They had been warned that the Journey north over land across the divided Punjab would be fraught with danger, especially for an Anglo-Indian couple with quite clearly mixed race children.

The last breakfast in Karachi


The train my grandparents boarded from New Delhi took an agonising sixteen days to arrive in Bombay; it would normally take only two. During this arduous long journey south, the train they were travelling on was ambushed on two separate occasions by bandits. My grandparents unwittingly became part of the largest human migration the world has ever witnessed. During this time an estimated 12.5 million people fled their homes and half a million people lost the lives. This devastating cocktail of violence, mob rule, religion and politics gave a bloody birth to the world’s largest democracy and were sadly some of the last sights my grandparents witnessed in India.

How the beautiful people project started

The two portraits that I took in the Juhu district of Mumbai on the short trip to India that I made with my grandpa  in November 1999 became the catalyst for the beautiful people project.

It was only minutes after our plane from Heathrow had landed in Mumbai that grandpa said “let’s go to Juhu, it’s the best beach in Bombay you’ll like it there”. I do remember being a bit surprised by his comment, they seemed to come from a younger mans head and because my immediate thoughts after landing were, I have to look after him he is an old man and he looked knackered and I knew that he had alzheimer’s and he also had a  heart problem AND he had just had a long flight so I said no, let’s go directly to our hotel off load our luggage and then we should rest a while. I can remember grandpa being disappointed by my reaction when I asked “can we just go to our hotel?” He passively and reluctantly allowed me to take the lead. I handed the name and address of our hotel to the lady behind the pre-paid taxi counter, she handed me the slip  of paper and we went out side in to the heat to find our driver and taxi.

As we stepped out of the taxi after my first frenzied drive through Mumbai’s crazy traffic  grandpa and me made eye contact out side the  hotel we had just arrived at. He raised one eye brow at me, as he sometimes did and there was also a faint hint of a smile. The large sign in front of the equally large double glass doors read. Welcome to Centaur hotel, Juhu beach.

We went to our rooms and we put down our bags and we were both outside with our cameras within twenty minutes. No time for rest.

We walked down to the beach and both started to take photographs; I think it is ingrained in our genetic code to take photographs. To record things, capturing small moments in time, for ever preserving our memory. I grew up surrounded by the family photograph albums. These albums were brought out at any opportunity by my Grandpa and he was constantly adding to his collection by taking more photographs.

The photographs inside the sleeves of the albums that were eventually left to me after my grandpa’s death in 2003 seemed a world away from my life in England but they helped serve as portal for me allowing my imagination to travel back in time with them. They enabled the viewer to gaze back on life that is so far removed from our own and into a country and time that is a world away from India today but a world which I knew my family played a part in.

The small black and white photographs inside the albums showed my Great Grandfather, my Great, great-grandfather and were taken at the bungalow in Bangalore where Grandpa grew up. There were images of my Grandpa on scout trips as a boy into what seemed to me like the very wilds of India. There were photographs of day trips to the beach, this very beach in the 1930’s; there were photographs of old friends and girlfriends and photographs of my grandmother as a young woman and also photographs of my mother as a child. Then there were the photographs of soldiers in Burma during world war two, that seem to me to have an almost cinematic quality to them and finally the photographs of my grandparents leaving India for the UK  on board the MV Varsova. A family’s entire history glued to the sleeves inside a few small books.

I took many rolls of film in the two weeks that I spent in India with my Grandpa back in 1999 but it was two portraits in particular that seemed to capture my feelings about India during that first trip. I took one portrait of a young man on the beach, in fact he asked me to take his photograph. The portrait is relaxed and informal, capturing the full glory of youth, happy and healthy.

I took a very different portrait the very next day. It is of an old man who we saw standing in the middle of the road and who was begging from passing cars that had become stuck in traffic. He was covered from head to toe, tumours were protruding all over his upper body. At first glance his plight looked  and seemed desperate but when we spoke with him he seemed accepting and content.

I had never really been too interested in the India that I saw on the television. Television images never felt like MY India. My unique view of India was formed by stories that were trapped inside  old photographs and these stories were  occasionally set free when our family’s treasured family photo-albums were opened by my grandpa at the weekends. I think that is why I was in so much shock when I first arrived in Mumbai. I just wasn’t expecting what I got. I had never seen or heard any thing like this before. The medium of  television had not adequately prepare my western senses for the onslaught of sights, smells and noise that emanate from an Indian mega-city..

All around the world there are different levels of human existence and all over the globe these levels are always extreme but only in India do these extreme levels of the rich and poor exist side by side where they breathe the same air and they smell the same smells and they co-exist in a seemingly impossible symbiotic relationship. 



India 1999

The first time I travelled to India was in 1999, I travelled there with my grandpa and close friend and fellow photographer Vicki Couchman. My grandpa was born in the south Indian garden city of Bangalore in 1915. Vicki filmed our journey together and the resulting footage was shown in the year 2000 in a half hour documentary for Channel 4 entitled ‘Back to Bangalore’.

Like me, my grandpa had also worked as a press photographer.  His full name was quite a mouthful, Bertrum Edwin Ebenezer Scott. He had a very British name but he never lost his soft upper class Indian accent. The combination of both, were always reminders of the old Empires legacy of social engineering; to use the Anglo-Indian race as a human bridge between India and Britain, to help suppress and control and communicate between races, a lineage which of course is also my own.

So this is how my photographic journey across India began and how The Beautiful People project started. It started with myself, Vicki and my grandpa, three competent  stills photographers together on a photographic journey across India, travelling  from Mumbai to Bangalore but clueless in the art of  documentary film making and let loose with video equipment that  we had very little idea of how to  use. My grandpa was 84 years of age and physically fit but he already had the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Often, my grandpa couldn’t quite remember some things that we had done the day yesterday, but the exact details of his past life in India, five decades ago were some times staggering.

It had been just over fifty years since my grandpa had last set foot on India soil. He had travelled across India to pakistan with his small family during the violence that erupted just after partition in August 1947. I know that Some of the last things my grandparents witnessed in India were terrible scenes of religious violence.

I will never forget what appeared to be a look of horror on my grandpa’s face at some of the first sights that greeted us on arrival in this new India. We had passed through customs without any fuss, changed our pounds for Rupees and we had effortlessly found our pre-paid taxi. Everything appeared relatively normal in India at first. Minutes after leaving the relative calm of Mumbai International Airport everything soon changed. I had never seen so many people and all of them seeming to compete for the same road space and there was noise, so much noise.

Our driver spent some of the time speeding and some of the time inching his way through the hazardous traffic avoiding dogs and people and cows and massive carts pulled by equally massive bullocks. Our senses were battered into submission, India welcomes you like no other country on earth. I admit to being shocked by what appeared to be the  utter scenes of chaos  when I first arrived in India 1999 but I love the honesty of this greeting now. India makes you feel alive.

Jason Scott Tilley