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

Month: December, 2011

Big Shanti

From my experience the Sadhus of India enjoy the whole process of having their portrait taken and I have enjoyed the time that I have spent with them. They have always made me a welcome guest in India and very rarely have I ever felt as though I were intruding into their lives, whether that has been at a temple, in a cave in Himarchal Pradesh or in a chance meeting at the side of the road.

I, like them, have very little in terms of personal possessions and I envy their simple existence, wanting very little from life but peace and contentment. They live their lives to the exact opposite of our materialistic western way of life  and they seem at odds with this new progressive India that grows all around them.

One ‘Holy man’ who sits offering advice at Dasawameth Ghat in Benares is a man I have become friendly with. He’s tall and well build he’s always smiling when we meet. He sat me down one day and referring to his own life he told me.


“No mortgage, big Shanti.  No car, big Shanti. No wife, Biiigggg Shanti”

Jason Scott Tilley

The Indian army photographic team Burma 1944

Although my grandpa enlisted as a gunner in the Royal artillery at the very start of the Second World War he had the choice to be  a captain in the Indian army and he took position as a photographer working for the intelligence department out of GHQ in New Delhi.

This photograph shows the photographic unit in Burma in 1944, this lorry doubled up as the team’s darkroom and the water they needed to develop the film had to be found in the nearest river. My grandpa is furthest left.

The place of the five legged cow

The town of Pushkar in Rajasthan is most famous in India as the place where Lord Brahma dropped a lotus petal and created the holy green lake where devout Hindu pilgrims have bathed for centuries. It is famous globally for the yearly Camel fair that is held in October or November when two hundred thousand cattle herds men’ arrive on foot from the surrounding areas, closely followed by droves of western tourists who now make up this bizarre circus.

The lake is heavily polluted and hundreds of tricksters clothed as Sadhus work the ancient ghats. The man who owns the five legged cow is king and pretty dancing girls will pose for photographs. Pushkar is a holy town where drugs are openly sold and taken and eggs are forbidden confusing the trusting foreign traveller and Indian tourist alike that this desert town could be a wonderful place to chill out and relax.

People in search of spiritual meaning in their lives get swept along the dusty main road that runs through the centre of the town, some times lost in a ‘bang lassi’ haze, easily losing their belongings and their minds from the constant harassment of persistent con-men. It sounds like a nightmare and in many ways, to the uninitiated, it is. It is rich with human life, alive and never dull and I love that this micro bubble of madness exists.

Jason Scott Tilley

Scotts bungalow, Seringhapatam with grandpa 1999

My grandpa told me of a trip he once took to the isle of Seringhapatam when he was in the scouts; he said  he was fifteen years of age at the time so he must have made that journey in 1929. He was most excited as a teenager that whilst visiting the place where the warrior Tippoo Sultan finally fell in battle in 1799, that he had also found Scott’s bungalow on the banks of the Cauvery River.

He convinced himself that this lonely bungalow must have belonged to a branch of the Scott family. I made this return journey with him on a long road trip with  Vicki Couchman from our base in Bangalore in an old and beautiful black ambassador car.

Grandpa at Colonel Scott's bungalow November 1999

When we left Bangalore on that November morning in 1999 we never even knew if the old bungalow would still be standing. To this day I really have no idea how the three of us managed to find that bungalow but after several hours spent on busy dangerous main  roads and as much time again driving down  uneven dirt roads with grandpa’s light frame bouncing up and down on the springy front seat, we managed to find the bungalow at the end of a muddy path. At one stage  our car sunk in to the deep brown mud the wheels spinning round and round until we freed eventually ourselves, we were just metres away from our destination.


We were greeted by an old lady called Yvette who welcomed us on to the land but not into the bungalow, which was now her home, I believe she purchaced the bungalow in 1985.  She didn’t seem too surprised to see people, the old bungalow has drawn visitors for two century’s now. She was kind and helpful, though now I wish I had pressed her more, I would have loved to be allowed to look inside the imposing property it appeared to hold memories from the distant past.

My grandpa walked to the front of the house then walked down to the banks of the river and sat on the steps that led down to it; I walked down to the rivers edge and was immediately syringed by a mosquito of  Jurassic proportions. I killed its blood filled body with a single swipe to my arm, its proboscis was an inch in length and a lump the size of a small egg grew on my arm in the following seconds. It is not surprising that any length of time spent  near this bungalow two hundred years ago could prove to be fatal.

Grandpa on the steps to the Cauvery river at Colonel Scott's bungalow


I am convinced now that the bungalow had nothing to do with our family history although after looking in the colonial grave yard that is very close to the bungalow, there were a number of graves that had the surname of Scott chiseled into them. A common name in those days, as it  still is today.

 Jason Scott Tilley

Marine drive beach Chennai; The man who came on his motor bike

I had walked for some time dodging the flotsam and jetsam where the surf breaks on Chennai’s Marine drive beach; the air I was breathing was almost as hot as the sand I walked upon. I came across this man. He was standing alone in the water, I was avoiding the mixture of  human and marine waste, that had washed up on the beach, debris from the over crowded city close by. The mix of man made waste and rotting organic sea life produces a heady smell on this super long beach.

Because I came here on my motor bike



This man stood perfectly still, elegant as a stone statue, wearing a smart freshly pressed safari suit cooling his feet in the water but I was intrigued as to why he was wearing a crash helmet. I walked up to him and I said “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why are you wearing a helmet”?

 With a dead-pan expression he lifted his sun visor and replied “because I came here on my motor-cycle”.

 This was of cause the perfect answer to a very stupid question.

 Jason Scott Tilley

Scotts bungalow. The deserted bungalow

 There stands on the isle of Seringapatam,

By the Cauvery, edding fast,

A Bungalow lonely,

And tenanted only

By memories of the past.

It has stood, as though under a curse or spell,

Untouched since the year that Tippoo fell.


The garden about it is tangled and wild,

Sad trees sigh close to its eaves,

And the dark lithe shapes

Of chattering apes

Swing in and out of the leaves;

And when nights dank vapours rise grey and foul,

The silence is rent by the schrill screech-owl.


The windows are shuttered, the doors are shut,

And the odour and stain or decay

Is on plaster and beam,

And the stone steps seem

To be ooze-corroding away;

And the air all around is tinged with the breath

Of the felt, though invisible, presence of Death.


Twas a pleasant abode, no doubt in its prime;

Two storeyed, facing the tide;

A verandah deep,

And a stone sweep

Of steps to the riverside,

And a boat-house close to the water’s edge,

Flanking the stairs, On a rocky ledge.


The stream flows by in a low-banked curve,

And higher up to the right,

Are the battlements grey

That could not stay

The rush of old England might;

And, higher up still, the world-framed breach-

A lesson we to posterity teach.


Stirring the times were those times, forsooth,

And bold the hearts of our men,

Who plunged through the water,

And rocks and slaughter,

And carry the tigers den.

Heroic the onset and crushing the blow

That was struck near this lonely bungalow.


When the siege was over a colonel dwelt

With his wife and daughters here,

In command of the fort

Where the bloody sport

Had cost Mysore so dear.

I can fancy the girls with their prattle light,

And the house all trim, and the garden bright;


And the merry party afoot on the steps,

Looking across the stream,

Or swinging afloat,

In their pleasure boat,

Under the soft moonbeam,

With the cool breeze over the water blowing,

Making amends for the midday glowing.


I think I can see in the early morn

The horses held at the door,

And the girls riding out

With the colonel stout

To visit the breach once more,

Or gaze at the gate where Tippoo fell,

Stabbed to death in the fierce pell-mell.


And then the breakfast after the ride,

Under the shadowy trees,

Mamma in the chair,

And the homely fare,

And the colonel at his ease,

Conning the sheets of the night-brought post,

Between the attacks on the tea and toast.


And, after, the long yet happy day

In the cuscus-tattied gloom,

The cheery tiffin,

Sconced in the drawing-room;

And the voice of the grand piano, half

Hushing the man’s and the maidens laugh.


And hushed they were; for one dreadful eve

The Cholera tapped at the door;

Nor knocked in vain for mother and twain

Answered the summons sore.

When dawn broke over the house next day,

The mother and daughters had passed a way.


The colonel buried his loved ones three,

Then fled from his house of woe,

And ne’er since then

Have the feet of men

Trod in the bungalow,

Save feet of traveller passing near,

Who turns to see it, and drops a tear.


The mouldering rooms are now as they stood

Near eighty years ago;

The piano is there,

And table and chair,

And carpet, rotting slow,

And the beds where on the corpses lay,

And the curtains half time-mawed away.


A type of gloom and decay and death,

And happiness overcast,

Is this bungalow lonely,

And tenant only

By memories of the past.

Peace to the shades of the three who died

In that lonely house by the cauvery’s tide.


By Aliph Cheem,  Lays of Ind. 1875



Mumbai to Bangalore 1999

I first photographed a member of India’s transgender ‘Hijra’ community in November 1999 when the train I was travelling on with my 85 year old Anglo Indian Grandpa, briefly stopped at a platform. This scheduled stop, somewhere between Mumbai and Bangalore allowed me the time to make just one portrait.

 Traditionally India’s ‘Hijra’ earn their living by turning up unannounced at weddings where they then dance and sing but many Hijra also work in prostitution and from 1980’s they have been  at grave risk from the HIV virus. Male Prostitution is also illegal under section 377 of the Indian penal code, which outlaws ‘intercourse against the order of nature.’ This law was introduced under British rule in 1860 to curb the ‘heathen customs of the local population’. There plight has not been a happy one in recent Indian history.

 Thankfully things are changing; slowly and reluctantly the human rights of the Hijra are finally being recognised by Indian law. After decades of oppression and ridicule, brought about during British times, there appears to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

 My Grandpa informed me that as he grew up in the city of Bangalore it was common place for him and his childhood friends to tease Hijra, often offering them money encouraging them to lift up their saris in an attempt to establish if in fact they were either male or female. He was giggling to me on the train, as he recalled and recounted his rather mischievous and cruel childhood memory.

Jason Scott Tilley

The man who stands at Varkala train station

One of my favourite pastimes in India is to sit on a train and watch the countryside  slowly  roll by absorbing the view as the land slowly changes in both colour and texture from the dirt brown of a dry desert to the dense green of a thick forest with numerous chaotic stops on crowded platforms in city’s and towns along the way. One of these enjoyable though demanding train journeys is the Delhi to Thiravanathaporam ‘superfast’ train.

Newcomers to travel in India will marvel at  impossibly long trains and the huge teams of staff who feed you every few hours as you sit and watch village life unchanged for hundreds of years, pass you by from your open window.

I have recently become quite jaded with  this particular journey as I have done it on so many different occasions , it has now become one of the train journeys that I least look forward to. The Delhi to southern Keralan train is ‘superfast’ by name only. It can drag on and on.

I cannot recall the exact amount of times I have nearly lost the will to live whilst sitting on its solid  shaking sleeper class seats. It must count as one of the most gruelling train journeys in the world. When you board this train from Old Delhi train station it is always packed with lively commuters and it is almost impossible to claim your booked seat. You sit upright for the first day until the beds are flipped down at night and then flipped back up again first thing in the morning after almost no sleep.

The train takes about two and a half days to arrive at its destination and during this epic trip from the plains of north India to the hot humid south, your fellow travellers who you fought with for  a seat and who boarded the train at the start of the journey with you, must all disembark whilst you are sleeping. Or they must get off discreetly  along the way, as you  inevitably arrive at your destination when the train is deathly quiet and the mayhem that you experienced when you  first found your seat is now a distant surreal memory. The entire train is now yours.

Waking up on the morning of day three feels as though you have entered another dimension and you have woken to find yourself travelling on board a ghost train. I personally never have any recollection of any of the other passengers ever leaving the train during the night. I feel like I have been drugged for the best part of twenty-four hours and when I get up and I pace up and down the half a mile of slowly rocking carriages  I have never found more than two or three other people  on board that train. We are like the last survivors passengers to have made it alive on a journey across hell.

This isn’t one of the longest train journeys in India in terms of distance but it is one of the slowest in terms of speed, especially the last third of it. As much as I love the wasted hours I have spent on trains, for all of the unpredictable madness that I know is bound to happen along the way, this particular train journey would test the patience of a Sadhu, it drags on minute by minute, hour after hour. The steel wheels rolling over the uneven train tracks keeping you awake for most fo the first night until in the end your mind and body can take no more and your bones are shaken into submission  and you fall into a restless haunted sleep.

Now-a-days this train journeys one redeeming feature  is the one thing that was on my mind when I  boarded it in New Delhi, that is the fabulous the beach and surf that is always waiting for me when I  eventually get off an agonising two and a half days later. Though I may choose to fly the next time.

Every time I have arrived at varkala train station I have seen this man and every time I have arrived I am always shattered; This mans body is covered by non malignant tumours, which is the condition of Neurofibromatosis. I recognised it as the same condition of the man who I photographed in Mumbai at Juhu beach ten years before in 1999.


I never really thought that I would one day ask to take this mans photograph, it never felt ok, I was always just passing through, I was too rushed to get to the beach and also my photographic equipment was  packed away safely in my rucksack cushioning it from any impacts, protecting it from the few days of battering it would receive on the journey south from Delhi. So unpacking it, just for a portrait, would also have been a real pain in back side but I always said hello as I passed him as I walked through the exit and he would give me a nod back.

Also. I am generally not so hesitant, I can approach most people. Would it be appropriate for me to ask  to take his portrait? I would be Singling him out from everyone else at the station just because of his appearance. My actions would draw even more attention towards him. He was though drawing attention to him self though. By just standing at this particular station making money from begging, he was taking advantage  his situation. Was that ok for me to take advantage of his situation also?

The answer of cause is yes. If that was ok with him. I think?

I did not take this mans portrait until I was leaving varkala in 2009. I was waiting for a train, that as it happens was late and I was shocked as I watched a few foreigners who had just arrived on the opposite platform who were standing having their photographs taken next to him, they were treating their encounter with him it like personal freak show but what was more shocking is that he seemed quite accepting of this.

They gave him a few rupees before they left for the beach.

I unpacked my camera quickly from my rucksack and I crossed the bridge over to him. I asked him if he minded if I took his portrait, he gestured that it was ok. I took two frames; I gave him a few rupees and in seconds I had become part of this cruel circus. I still have reservations about how this image happened but I am torn because I also think it also patronising to assume he is a victim. I am sometimes  shocked that I can confront a situation like this but who is taking advantage of whom?

 Jason Scott Tilley


Marguerite Mumford from the Nilgiri Hills

I will never be sure if my grandpa wanted myself or anyone else to find these negatives; They were his secret for all of his adult life, never knowing what he should do with them but realising he could never just throw them away.

He had, after all kept them very safe, quite hidden from the moment he left India. Can you imagine having to leave your whole life behind you? Your country of birth, your freinds your family and your home. What would you choose to take with you if you were ever put in that position. Could you leave everything behind that you had ever known?

I think you would choose to take your memories with you rather than the material house hold items that all of us accumulate along the way. My grandpa must have done just that. He left India with his family and their belongings in just a few metal trunks and inside one of those trunks must have been the pocket-sized blue negative holder that I came across in my grandparent’s cupboard in 2006 a few years after my grandpa had died.

That little blue  pocket-book held as many memories as it did negatives, about one hundred precious moments of reflected light  captured on film of the loved ones that my grandpa could not through away. There are photographs of our family and of some of the places that they had lived but Inside one of the folded grease proof sleeves were four negatives that were cut up into a single frames and they were of the same young lady.

That young lady was called Marguerite Mumford and she was the love of grandpa’s life long before he ever met my grandmother. Grandpa must have met Marguerite Mumford in the Nilgiri’s, in the Hill station of Ooty where Marguerite grew up and went to school at Lovedale. My great-grandfather also had a house in Ooty and it would have been when my grandpa was at college in Canoor just after his schooling at Bishop Cottons whilst he was visiting his father that the couple first met.

Perhaps, college sweethearts; They kept their relationship going from their first meeting in the south India Hills in the cool climate of the Deccan Plato  to the humid coastal city of Bombay where my grandpa worked for the Times of India. I know from the amount of photographs that I have found that the couple took days out to Juhu beach and the hanging gardens on Malabar hill along with trips out to the Ghats outside of Bombay. What is most obvious is how much my grandpa thought of Margurite and how he kept the negatives separate from all of the others that he saved.

The memories held on the films of Margurite seem different to the rest, they seem more personal.



Reena at the water tank in Kolkata

Almost directly opposite the Oberoi Grand, that is by far the most beautiful hotel in the Chowringhee lane area of Kolkata, there is a water tank. That water tank is used by most of the poorer people in the area who do not have access to clean running water.

I first spoke with Reena at that water tank in November 2002. Reena was and still is stunning. She was twenty one years of age at that time and she had very long straight black hair and when I saw her for the first time, she looked striking.

I felt compelled to take her portrait, I asked her if that was ok  and although she was shy she said yes. She was laughing for most of the time. I guess she was totally embarrassed.

Over the years of travelling across India and because I have passed through the Chowringhee area of Kolkata a number of times now I have bumped into Reena on many occasions. I usually bump into her when she is at the tank and she has just finished washing her hair, which I guess must be a daily routine for her.

I have watched Reena change from the shy young lady I that first encountered nine years ago  into the confident  woman that she is today. I photographed her when she became pregnant and I have photographed  her children. Reena is always happy and smiling and when I pass her in the street these days she always stops me and asks me to take her portrait and it is these portraits that are special as they are given as gifts.