Travelling by train with all its jerks and lurching from side to side, with its frequent stops and noisy atmosphere, has long been one of the great romances of India. For decades, the express, freight, mail and fast passenger trains embodied both the power and the glory of India. The power to develop, move and grow an idea into a nation. And the glory of binding together myriad peoples and giving them a chance to have new ideas about their ancient territory.
The old-tech train may have been knocked off its perch in recent years by affordable, faster and more comfortable jet travel but for the majority of travellers, the train remains the best way to get from here to there.
Given its status as one of modern India’s most potent icons, it is a bit surprising that few photographers have made the Indian train their major subject. This is not to say that serious Indian and foreign photographers have not photographed life along the tracks or inside the bogies. But these are either one-off photographs or a time-limited project, and do not form their core body of work. Maybe because the train is so un-extraordinary, it is simply overlooked. Maybe those signs that blare “No Photography” at all stations damped the enthusiasm.
There is a group of diehards though, who are passionate about documenting India’s great world of railways and trains. They gather together in clubs all across India but connect through a matter-of-factly named online forum, Indian Railways Fan Club Association, where they enthuse about their train trips, fact-check technical minutia of engines, document the history of bridges and tunnels and report locomotive sightings. And of course, they share photographs of their favourite lines of track, stations and trains.
Apurva Bahadur, a technical writer for a multinational company, is a long time member of IRFCA and one of the Association’s most admired unofficial photographers. Bahadur posts his photographs regularly on his Facebook page with most receiving hundreds of ‘likes’ from photography and train enthusiasts all around the world. Camera Indica caught up with him recently at his home in Pune to discuss the mysterious and romantic art of photographing trains.
did you start photographing trains?
I started late as a railway photographer, maybe in my late 20s-early 30s. I am 53 now. The awareness of quality came only after the arrival of a digital camera in 2005.
it your love of trains that compelled you to photograph them or did you pick up
the camera first and then find trains as a subject?
I’m not a photographer. I’m a railway enthusiast with a camera. It is my love of trains that drives my photography. I do take my camera with me wherever I go but I don’t shoot many pictures of people or other things. If I didn’t have a camera I’d compose poems about trains!
drives your photography?
Passion. I am not really interested in pleasing anyone except myself. I do it for the fun and pleasure of sharing. It’s nothing about money. If it were, the spirit would corrupt and die.
I beg to differ. Art or meaning is in the eye of the beholder and clearly from the comments on your Facebook page many of your photos qualify as art. People connect deeply with them. I know some of my friends who have not been to India in 40 years follow you regularly and simply adore your images. Perhaps one of the reasons people respond so positively to your pictures is they are deceptively ‘ordinary’. They do not appear ‘contrived’ in any way, just a quick snap. Do you post process the images?
Yes, I take the pictures quickly. On one of my expeditions I will come back with 1000s of images. I then spend quite a bit of time at the computer fine tuning the picture, usually just removing unwanted clutter like rubbish or an obtrusive human figure.
It’s important to have these things removed?
Definitely. There are others who insist I should take pictures in a certain way, like have my shadow falling in the frame etc. But I take pictures of my own liking.
Your pictures appeal to me because they capture the grandeur of the countryside of India. The train is almost a secondary element.
Yes, basically I take pictures of the landscape. As my day job keeps me busy I can only get out a couple times a month around Pune. My favourite spots are areas around Shindawane, Daundaj, Adarki and the Bhor ghat. We have also done considerable trips on the Konkan railway. There is some special about going out with a few like minded friends to some spot and absorbing the scene. It can bring you to tears sometimes.
A spiritual experience?
Yes, absolutely. Being in those places is a religion of sorts.
What is it about trains that inspires your photography?
Motion and the poetry found in the repetition of patterns. The beauty of repetition in form. The immersive experience of being in a place and watching something go by. I’m lucky to be here where I can do this. In many countries it would be impossible.
In the west, we call people like you trainspotters. Is there a large community of you in India?
Our group IRFCA has more than 4,500 members. There are local chapters of IRFCA in several parts of India and we do get together regularly. And there is the annual IRFCA convention, where railfans from all over the country and abroad meet.
Many of your pictures are full of details about the engine type, a certain grade of track, the dimensions of a tunnel etc. Is this part of the fun and how do you know all of this information?
The forums on IRFCA.org are good for this. Some people are interested and very knowledgeable about these details, so we learn from each other. We were considered fools as kids. India didn’t have the culture of ‘trainspotting’. It was not accepted to hang out at station. People would ask “what are you doing here?” or “why are you here?” But we love trains, simple! A train journey in India is intense. You have to deal with the heat and the rain, and the dust. You learn so much. The dialects of Marathi differ greatly just a hundred kms from Pune as do the type of houses and clothes and habits of the people. The train really connects you with India. And of course, you are treated to a very romantic vision of the landscape. You can’t help but be moved by it.
Yes. You can’t capture this huge thing from inside the train. You have to be outside to capture it. My friends and I do travel around of course on trains. We love it but our aim is not to see the sights in any particular town but to find interesting places and make detailed notes about what trains come through, what time of day the light falls in this particular place and the way it does etc. We then go home and find KM 214, for example on Google maps and then plan the real trip when we come with our cameras and intention to photograph. We are just a few nuts!Obviously planning is a big part of your photography. What about luck or chance? Do you find that some of your best shots ‘just happen’?
Well you have to be there to take the picture, right? You can’t just produce a photo without being where you need to be, so luck is made. And in that regard my little Tata Nano is an important part of my ‘kit’. It gets me to places I’d never want to climb! But yes, there is a certain supernatural element to photography. For instance, the night before I took this picture I saw myself there at a certain time and the train coming across the bridge. The next day I captured it!
What makes a good train photograph?
Well, I already mentioned that post processing can help. But ultimately, there has to be an emotional connection. You have to say ‘wow’! You have to draw the viewer’s eye to that ‘something’ which makes them connect. And often it is not the train. The train can be part of the picture but not the main emotional centre.
Interesting! Train photographs where the train is and is not the subject! My understanding is that taking pictures of trains in India is prohibited. Have you ever got into trouble with the authorities?
It is not a crime to take pictures of trains but it is ambiguous territory. I often don’t have the official permission to do what I do. And I suppose I could get hassled and arrested.
But, we usually work with the Public Relation department of the railways. They give us the permission and we give them a copy of our best images.
Your photographs strike me as providing a great service of documentation to the Indian Railways authorities as well as the public. There is such a love affair with the rail network.
Yes, that’s true. There are still unexplored or long forgotten parts of the IR. Bhor ghat area, for instance, has three lines of which one alignment was laid in 19th century. Construction of the section has huge human costs. Over 33% of workforce died in making these ghats and laying the track due to accidents or disease. 25% of workforce was sick at any given time. My friends and I are documenting these lines and will write something on their history and how they developed. So, I guess you could say we are historians as well as rail enthusiasts with cameras!