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Angus McDonald captures experiences connected with India’s disappearing railways in a unique photo exhibition
India’s Disappearing Railways, an exhibition by Australian photojournalist Angus McDonald, is currently on display at Customs House in Sydney. The exhibition is a vibrant tribute to the sub-continent’s unique narrow-gauge railways in all their vivid colour, chaos and humanity. A portrait of life on the rails, the images intimately and humorously depict the lives of those who ride, work on, and live alongside India’s railways.
When the East India Company, in order to make its life and trade easier, decided that India should have railways, they thought of introducing only one kind of gauge.
But how could a land like India, “a land where different dialects abound, a land whose terrain includes the mighty mountains of the Himalayas, the fertile green plains of the Ganges and the deserts of Rajasthan”, ever be connected with just one kind of gauge, asks author Mark Tully.
Four different gauges and railway systems emerged.
The Dabhoi Railway system was built in 1862 to transport cotton; the Gwalior Light Railway in 1909 to carry food to remote famine-hit areas. Both were built by far-sighted Maharajahs. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the world’s first mountain railway, carried the world famous Darjeeling tea and was built in 1879-81. The Kalka-Shimla mountain railway, built in 1898, bore the Viceroy to his summer capital. These rail systems still survive today, much to the credit of the Indian Railways who did not close them, even though they do not serve their original purpose.
Angus McDonald’s images in India’s Disappearing Railways are both a tribute to the extraordinary feats of engineering and innovation displayed by these lines, and to those whose lives and livelihoods depend on them. From the regular calls of “chai, chai”, served to passengers in tiny terracotta mugs, to comic book kiosks on the platforms, these images capture the very soul of one of the most important lifelines of the country.
Depicting our cavalier attitude and dislike of laws and rules, you can find the hustle and bustle on the roof of the trains, with people lending a hand to those scrambling to get aboard, amid penalty signs that read “travelling on the roof is forbidden and will attract a fine of 500 rupees or three months in jail”. At the same time, you can embrace the melancholy in the picture as a man in a red turban looks on at the blurred vision of the train that has left the station.
In the next set of photographs, the train to Matheran chugs along beside lush green valleys and cascading waterfalls, supported on pious-looking pillars. A man takes a quick but sound siesta amid the humdrum of hawkers, while a little girl in red-ribboned ponytails looks on through the rusted windows.
The images capture an India oft-forgotten, slow and untouched by the trials and demands of urban life; an India that gently chugs along to the rhythm and ritual of life itself.
McDonald’s images are witnesses to the humanity and aspirations that have their roots in these old railway systems. The most telling reason for preserving these railway systems is not utilitarian, but as McDonald says, “because they are living treasures”.
As Mark Tully writes, “Take some traffic off the road and bring freight back to the railways… It is better to broad gauge a line than to lose it altogether.”
The line through Kangra valley still takes passengers through a remote route among the mountains, which makes it one of the most beautiful railway lines in the world. While the buses, emitting noxious fumes, belch and roar their way to Shimla with obstructed views due to annoying advertising hoardings, the train to Shimla mutters gently to itself as it climbs through unspoilt forests with verdant views, crosses magnificent bridges, and makes a gentlemanly break for a mid-way meal at Barog station, a fine example of British Raj hill architecture.
McDonald’s photographs are testimony to the fact that these ancient rail systems have not yet been rendered irrelevant.
India’s Disappearing Railways is on until 3 April 2016 at Customs House, 31 Alfred Street, Circular Quay.
Photos: Angus McDonald