A black and white photograph of a crowded train, with people hanging out of the doors and many sitting on the roof of the coach is iconic. Even before reading the caption, you know it’s a moment from the Partition days. It was this refugee special train photographed at Ambala station overflowing with people, which caught everyone’s eye at an exhibition of rare photographs of Indian Railways on Thursday.
The emotive picture of the exodus captures the very essence of railways and its intimate relationship with life and travel in India. Another photograph of a platform with two tea stalls—”Hindu Tea stall” and “Mohamedan Tea stall” painted in bold so that people are not misled into drinking from another community’s stall. It’s reminiscent of the strong communal differences in those times. Or, an intriguing photograph of a narrow gauge train (Dabhoi to Miyagam) of 1863 which has bullocks pulling it instead of an engine. The railways seemed to be much loved then even without engines to power them. Many such photographs put together memories of how trains managed to connect the nation, in the exhibition which celebrates 160 years of Indian Railways.
Today a sleeper class train ride may only leave you nauseated with the stink from the filthy bathrooms, but even Third Class waiting rooms of those days were neatly done. “They had such beautiful architecture even in third class. I am sure they could afford it because the population was so less,” remarked a visitor. A photograph of the Madras- Egmore station canteen shows waiters royally dressed in suits and Nehru topis. Another picture shows the railway staff of Flying Ranee (Bombay-Surat) gifting tea kits to their passengers. A view of the dining car in a train also gives a glimpse of how luxurious some First Class rides were. The distinction among the different classes of travel was a bit too stark. During the Raj, the first and second class had the most opulent and comfortable coaches but the third and fourth class seemed quite “cattle class.” Goods wagons were often used for carrying Third Class passengers. The Fourth Class which was withdrawn after opposition from activists was without benches. Passengers had to sit on the floor.
The railway staff also seem to have undergone a sea change. Today little platform urchins sell bottles of packaged mineral water but in those days ‘panipedas’ were the people who would give water to thirsty worn-out passengers. Their job was to wait with buckets of water at platforms. A photograph of them at the Kharagpur station strikes a chord.
Another interesting section of the exhibition is the Railway Bridges and Tunnels where few of the most exemplary works of engineering are on display. Some of these bridges have been replaced with new age designs but the Jubilee Bridge over Hooghly River between Naihati and Bandel for instance continues to inspire awe. It is a bow-string type bridge built to mark the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. Other iconic pictures are of the palace fortress style architecture of Gwalior, Guna, Pipari, Sangrur and other stations.
A photograph of a temporary rail line laid for the construction of the Parliament House in Delhi, and a very old picture of the New Delhi station almost deserted suggest how the capital’s railway stations and trains have moved on. A section of the exhibition showcases the rail’s connect with personalities. A frail Gandhi is seen extending his arm to bless a follower; Rabindranath Tagore is seen in a pensive mood, a tired Bhagat Singh sitting at the Lahore railway station.
A lot has gone by. But train lovers who visited the exhibition hoped that Indian Railways continues to offer the average Indian the same convenience with cleaner toilets and platforms.