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Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery opens its doors to an Indian photographic exhibition

A Midland photographer has captured some fascinating images as he trekked across India in the footsteps of his late grandfather. His work forms part of a new exhibition, as Catherine Vonledebur reports

Portrait of Marguerite Mumford (Colour tinted print) Bombay 1937 by Bert Scott, which is part of The People of India exhibition at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry.
Portrait of Marguerite Mumford (Colour tinted print) Bombay 1937 by Bert Scott, which is part of The People of India exhibition at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry.

A picture of a mysterious young woman in a bathing suit prompted photo-journalist Jason Scott Tilley to embark on a round-the-world mission lasting six years.

The Coventry photo-journalist was keen to track down the person in the photograph, who it turned out was his late grandfather’s first love.

The 46-year-old blogger found pictures of her on old negatives tucked away in his grandfather Bert Scott’s cupboard a few years after he died in 2003.

Bert, a former press photographer for the Times of India, fled his home in Bangalore when the Second World War broke out, leaving “his whole life behind, his country of birth, India, his friends and home”, explains Jason.

But among the few belongings he saved were a family photo album, press photographs and images of his first true love, called Marguerite Mumford.

Jason, of Stoke, Coventry, says: “After he passed away, I found an extraordinary number of photographs of Marguerite. The photographs of her are always infused with a certain playfulness during day trips to the beach or picnics by the river.

“There is something so obviously personal and intimate about the images. I was intrigued.

“It took me six years to find Marguerite, who is now aged 99, and living in New Zealand.

“I even contacted the band Mumford and Sons to see if she was any relation. After emailing some of my grandfather’s photographs I was told her poignantly hopeful reaction was, ‘Is Bertie here to see me?’ They were the love of each other’s lives before the war.”

A photograph of Marguerite in her swimming costume taken by Bert in 1940 is featured as part of Jason’s new exhibition, The People of India, at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

Three extraordinary series of photographs are drawn from immense collections taken at key moments in India’s history over the last 150 years.

Jason’s own striking contemporary street portraits taken during 10 years of travel across India, between 1999 and 2009, contrast against those of his late grandfather’s work.

As a press photographer for The Times of India from 1936 to 1940, and then head of the Indian Army’s photographic unit in Burma during the Second World War, Bert documented the dramatic events leading up to Indian independence in 1947, including the very last days of the Raj and Gandhi’s rise to power.

Jason says: “At the end of the war my grandpa and nan were living a privileged life in the Viceregal Lodge in Simla – where the Mountbattens were living.” But the couple’s exit from India was traumatic. They risked their lives through the violence of Partition on a long, dangerous journey by rail and sea with two small children – Jason’s three-year-old mother Anne, and Aunty Lesley, aged one.

 

Jason says: “It was an incredible tale. They eventually ended up in Coventry, and were really grateful to Coventry City Council for rehousing them. They settled in Stoke Aldermoor.

“My grandfather was always a firm believer in Indian independence. He loved India.”

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 Jason’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.

Jason says: “My grandfather’s photographs and my own are very candid and show people as individuals and, more importantly, themselves whereas, the 19th images are stilted, two dimensional images trying to depict Indian “types”. It was an exercise in control as reflective of that era.

“I am also trying to find out more about my distant ancestor the Reverend E Godfrey, who was involved in putting together this extraordinary, yet typical of its time, collection.”

It was his grandfather’s archive of personal family photographs which inspired Jason to study photography.

Jason began his career in 1987 as a staff photographer at the Coventry Citizen, going on to work for the Coventry Evening Telegraph, Birmingham Post and Mail, and a wide range of national newspapers and magazines, before embarking on this decade-long project travelling 29 states of India. In 1999 the dad-of-one travelled to India for the first time with his 85-year-old grandfather and made the Channel 4 documentary, Back to Bangalore. “It was only then I discovered that my grandpa spoke Hindi. We had the most amazing time. It was the start of my trips back. I have been six times,” he says.

Jason’s personal journey, often re-tracing his grandfather’s footsteps, is presented through a series of portraits of the people he met, befriended and often re-encountered over a decade travelling through the urban and rural landscapes of India.

“Many of my photographs were taken during India’s boom as its economy was just going through the roof. My favourite places are Kashmir and Kerala. I love travelling by train across India.”

His black-and-white studies include a wedding band trombone player in New Delhi. “I used to stay in quite cheap hotels. Once I was in Delhi during the winter and the windows were broken. I was woken up by a noise that sounded like a death march by an out-of-tune Yorkshire marching band. I was a bit hungover and went outside to see what it was.

“I was greeted by this immaculately-dressed band practising for a wedding and thought : ‘I have to take a picture’. They put forward this old boy. It had snowed in Delhi and he had a jumper underneath his suit which was gaping slightly as a result,” he says.

Jason is emotional at the thought that his work will be exhibited alongside his late grandfather’s, 11 years after his death. He adds: “The sad thing is my grandparents won’t see it. My nan died in 2012. Grandpa would have been really proud.”

* The People of India Photographic Exhibition is at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry until January 11, 2015. Admission is free. Visit: www.theherbert.org

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