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I’ve been working on the railroad

They have been thrown out of rail yards, scaled tunnels, and walked miles for the perfect shot. A group of Indian Railway fan-photographers capture the drama and power of the trains that run the country.

Written by Radhika Singh |
Updated: July 3, 2016 12:05:10 am

There are a couple of things to keep in mind should you wish to photograph a train. First, that it’s illegal. At any station, shunting yard or loco shed, attempt to take a photo and you’re likely to face a lecture or possible jail time. So, if you’re in any of these locations, be ready for a swift escape. Wear sturdy shoes. If you’re intelligent, you will use a phone camera. It’s easier to pocket quickly, and anyway, an upheld phone can be justified by a range of explanations.

But the key to success, according to S Shanker, a photographer based out of Dubai, is to avoid the Railway Police Force (RPF) constables like the plague. “RPF constables are the photographer’s worst enemy,” Shanker writes on his website, dedicated to train photography. “They are tired, overworked souls, and therefore, very bitter… and difficult to deal with… Remember that no railfan has ever won an argument with an RPF cop,” he warns. Shanker has been questioned countless times by the guards and has even been thrown off railway premises. But nothing compares to the time — this happened twice — he was accused of attempting suicide while taking especially daring photographs.

Shanker belongs to a network of railfans, passionate about photographing the Indian Railways. Shashanka Nanda, 37, who works in a PR firm in Delhi, is one of them. Over the last few years, Nanda has been chasing the last of the metre and narrow gauge trains in Rajasthan, hoping to photograph them before they are lost to history.

The Satara-Pune passenger train at Shindawane Ghat.(Photo: Apurva Bahadur) The Satara-Pune passenger train at Shindawane Ghat.(Photo: Apurva Bahadur)

Nanda hopes that the photographs draw the interest of people who wouldn’t normally care about trains, even though they are a part of our landscape and culture. “In a country like India, trains seamlessly blend into the fabric of our lives,” he says. He especially enjoys portraying the interaction between railways and people’s lives in rural and semi-rural areas. “In the countryside, trains are a lifeline. Ultimately trains are for people — if you remove the people, trains lose their purpose or reason for being.”

One of his photographs was taken in the misty Kachhwa Road station, a tiny outpost in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh. The station consists of just two platforms, both of which are uncovered. One train is already stationed, but another is fast approaching. Stragglers run across the tracks to the platform, and the waiting crowd, bathed in the light of an overcast sky, have turned as one towards the incoming train. Like most railway photography, it captures both stillness and motion, the march of people and trains and goods that defines railways.

For Aakash Karnani, 21, an engineering student in Mumbai, photography is about capturing memorable moments. “While photographing trains, you often won’t be able to visit the same scene again. For instance, I have a series of photographs from when a train broke down in Lonavala. I managed to capture people’s distress and later, relief, when the replacement train came. Ten years later, I will remember that moment, and even better, I can share it.”

A passing freight train at Indon Ki Dhani, Rajasthan lends a dash of colour to the desert landscape. (Photo: Shashanka Nanda) A passing freight train at Indon Ki Dhani, Rajasthan lends a dash of colour to the desert landscape. (Photo: Shashanka Nanda)

Unlike Nanda, who enjoys the up and close type of photography, veteran railfan Apurva Bahadur prefers the larger picture, literally. Landscape shots that encompass the entire train, and include large swathes of the open sky and surrounding hills of the Western Ghats, are his forte. Bahadur, who is based in Pune, is often cited as the best example of perseverance and dedication required to take great photos.

“Apurva takes photographs from some unbelievable terrains,” says railfan Vijay Aravamudhan. Bahadur’s photos of trains snaking through Maharashtra’s Shindavane Ghats are very popular. For one of his shots, Bahadur climbed high over the line’s viaduct and eased himself inside one of the two tunnels on either end. The photo that emerged is adrenaline inducing — a looming train framed by the high, rocky walls of the tunnel. “He’s an icon, a sort of god among us photographers,” says Aravamudhan, 32, an auditor at Axis Bank in Mumbai and a train photographer.

Aravamudhan admits that he has had to run from the police a few times, sometimes leaping into departing trains. He usually takes pictures of the front of trains as they approach before hastily getting out of the way. “We railfans can’t restrain ourselves. We have to capture the moment.”

Some railway lines in India still use the Neill’s Ball Token System which allows safe train operations on a single line section. Drivers collect the token from the man on the ground, while on the go at speeds approaching 100 kmph. (Photo: Shashanka Nanda) Some railway lines in India still use the Neill’s Ball Token System which allows safe train operations on a single line section. Drivers collect the token from the man on the ground, while on the go at speeds approaching 100 kmph. (Photo: Shashanka Nanda)

Most of these railfans are part of the Indian Railways Fan Club Association, IRFCA, which was the brainchild of Mani Vijay, who, along with Sankaran Kumar and Dheeraj Sanghi, aspired to set up a forum through which Indian Railway fans could exchange ideas and information. What started with just nine members exchanging emails in 1989 has now grown to include 9,000 enthusiasts.

Aravamudhan’s passion has left even rail officials impressed. In his spare time, he compiled a database of electrical multiple units (trains that have self-propelled carriages and use electricity as the motive power) . The database is now being used by railway authorities for administrative purposes. “I have a great relationship with the Central Railway. They have started to appreciate the passion and efforts of railfans, and we often exchange information and ideas. They are good friends,” he says.

He was just three years old when he saw his first train. “It had a green and blue engine. At that moment, I fell in love with the Indian Railways,” he says. When Aravamudhan was older, he begged his father to let him borrow his camera. He took his first photo at the Coimbatore Railway Station, and ended up using half the roll shooting broad and metre gauge trains.

From L to R: Aakash Karnani; Shashanka Nanda; Vijay Aravamudhan. From L to R: Aakash Karnani; Shashanka Nanda; Vijay Aravamudhan.

Aravamudhan wisely chooses to use a mobile phone now, because of the risks involved in shooting with bigger cameras. But while some railfans photograph despite the risks, others photograph because of it. “People enjoy the danger,” says Aravamudhan. “We go to unknown locations, where no one else would, sometimes walking dozens of kilometres to get the perfect photo.” He often makes excursions from Mumbai’s Kopar station to nearby spots, such as the Ulhal River Bridge, to find the perfect curve in the track.

If by now, train photography sounds like a dangerous hobby, that’s because it is. Last year, enthusiast Swapnil David from Jabalpur died while shooting a video from the train door. “He fell off and an approaching train ran him over,” says Shardul Sabde, a railfan from Hyderabad.

If you’re still inclined to learn a bit more about the Indian Railways or train photography, and are in Mumbai, visit the balcony at Kopar station, a connecting point between the Central and Western Railways. You’ll be sure to find a few members trainspotting or having a spirited discussion about engines. Or come to Pune on June 1 every year, where fans from across India travel to celebrate the Deccan Queen’s birthday. “There’s a big song and dance,” says Karnani.

“And we always cut a cake”.

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