Jason Scott Tilley and the People of India.

It’s not often that I go to a photography exhibition. It’s an art form that I have to confess I know little about. I certainly enjoy photography, and would like to think that I know a bad picture from a good one. However, I’m not sure if I could clearly define why. Saying this, the great joy of The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum’s exhibition, ‘The People of India’, is that it’s not just a great photography exhibition. It’s about India itself, the rediscovery of Indian culture after partition and the personal family history of one man.

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Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai

Jason Scott Tilley is a Coventry based Anglo-Indian photographer who displays both his own modern work along side his grandfather’a work and amateur photographs from the beginning of British rule in 1858. Tilley’s own work represents the bulk of work on display. They are all portraits, taken in India over a wide period. The curation of the pieces is key to this exhibition. Clear and unflinching photographs of disabled beggars, displaying twisted deformed limbs to gather change from sympathetic passers by, stand next to crisp portraits of modern, suited, shiney shoed young men. This clash of third world images along side first world aspirations is both jarring and fascinating. And, although this may sound design to make the view feel gawkish and uncomfortable, especially when viewed from the privilaged position of an art gallery in the UK, the photos are humanising to all their subjects. One beggar is quoted as saying that he like being on the streets during the day as it gets him away from the wife. This addition of wit and human contextualisation makes the whole experience interesting but without the viewer feeling as though they are rubbernecking at an unknown world.

The second section displays images from the 19th century catalogue The People Of India, a photographic mission to document all the differing and disparate tribes and people of India that the British Raj found themselves dealing with. These photographs and the descriptions that go with them are a fascinating insight into the British invaders’ take on the country they now ruled; encompassing the facination, mistrust and general misunderstanding of one culture faced with another much larger and more complicated than it’s own. This section is the smallest with only one wall section of photographs on display. I would have liked to know much more about this compelling document, it’s history and eventual uses.

The last section is a display of work by Jason Scott Tilley’s Anglo-Indian grandfather, Bertram Scott. Scott was a professional photographer for The Times I f India before he left India during partition to move to Coventry. Displayed are some of his own private work as well as professional images taken of pre-partition politicians and dignitaries. These are a glimpse into part of Indian history that I knew little about; the seemingly wealthy and tightly knit Anglo-Indian community. Images of Bert Scott as a charming young man with his fun-loving, ‘bright young things’ style set of friends sit besides pictures of viceroys and ambassadors. These images of the past are then followed by a short documentary from 1999, following the now very elderly Scott and his grandson on Scott’s final trip to India, as he revisits the country since his departure in 1948. The love shown between Scott and his grandson is warming and the film ties up the exhibition. It manages to display the wrenching changes India has faced in the last century without pointing fingers or making accusations.

Over all, the exhibition is enjoyable, informative and both thoughtful and thought-provoking. And, since it’s completely free, there’s no excuse to miss this one.

‘The People of India’ is at The Herbert until 11th January 2015.

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