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.
His work forms a valuable photographic account of India in the pre-independence era but many of his photographs have remained in his grandson’s closet until now.
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.