In 1965, a young Australian teacher, Ian Manning, stood beside the railway tracks of Vandalur, a suburb of Chennai, with a camera at the ready. From a distance, plumes of billowing black smoke puffed out of the engine of a slow-moving steam train. The engine driver leaned out of the train, peering curiously at Manning.
This moment captured by the Australian was displayed five decades later in a photo exhibition in Chennai. From Tambaram to Vandalur, Manning had been cycling alongside the train to photograph it from various angles, often overtaking it – much to the embarrassment of the driver – said Venkatraman, a Chennai-based photographer who curated the exhibition held in late April at Wandering Artist, an arts and culture space in RA Puram.
Manning, who is now a retired professor of economics in Melbourne, spent five years in the 1960s travelling across South India, photographing trains. Along with his friend and colleague Sivaramakrishnan, Manning documented a variety of locomotives, right from the toy trains in the Nilgiris to the gleaming engines in Madras. But for half a century, the photographs were not developed or exhibited. “He was only interested in documenting the trains, nothing else,” said Venkat, who is also known as Poochi Venkat.
In the late 1990s, Manning realised that the negatives of the photographs had begun to deteriorate. In an attempt to restore them, Manning contacted some members of the Indian Railway Fan Club, an unofficial group of railway enthusiasts who collect archival photographs and documentation of trains in India. Poochi Venkat is also member of the group, and gladly took up the task eight years ago. “I offered to restore it for free,” he said. “Because I knew that this was a real treasure.”
Digitising and archiving images is Venkat’s profession. But restoring these negatives was not an easy task. “They were so fragile that they crumbled when I touched them,” he said. Many pictures were damaged beyond repair and some were scarred with fungus. “I had to search for pictures like these on the internet, taken by other people from different angles. Whenever I got the chance, I visited the places, looking for the missing tree or building in the frame. I had to do this picture by picture. There was no other way.”
It took Venkat three years to digitise the 1,200 frames that Manning gave him. Of these, nearly 360 were images of trains. It then took him five years to clean and restore 70 images of trains in South India, of which only 20 could be printed on paper. “I don’t know how long it will take me to restore the rest of the images,” he said. But he believes it was worth the effort.
Besides informing people about various locomotives designed over 50 years ago, the images offer new information for steam engine fans in the country. Trains that had been recorded as travelling along certain routes had been photographed by Manning at unexpected stations. “Some enthusiasts said that because of these pictures, we have to rewrite the steam engine history of India,” he said, adding that Manning was oblivious to the historic significance of his photographs while shooting them. “He was just curious, and did not go in with that intention displaying his images one day.”
Venkat had met Manning a few months ago when the professor had made a brief visit to India. “When I told him about his picture compositions, and how beautifully he had taken the photographs, he began laughing and said – ‘I never knew I was a good photographer.’”
While Manning has no specific plans for his photo collection, Venkat intends to publish a book of the pictures. But given the sheer volume of photographs taken across the country, he is still trying to decide whether to organise them into multiple sections based on geographical location or the type of train.
“At the very least I want to bring out a book that talks about Madras and all the trains going around it, through the eyes of Ian Manning,” he said.