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Encounters on trains

Tales from the tracks


RAIL CANVAS: An image from Chaudhuri's train graffiti project. (Left) Sen's unreserved general compartment is a picture of India's destitute

How two photographers discovered India inside a train compartment.

Few images portray the idea of a departure or separation as effectively and wordlessly as a train pulling out of a station. This pathos has, of course, been abused by mainstream cinema in countless nervewracking climaxes. The hypnotic motion of a train has also lent rhythm to many a Hindi film song, while station waiting rooms and platforms have served as the venue for serendipitous encounters with lovers, past and future.

Photography too is no stranger to the train as a muse. But for Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Ronny Sen, it wasn't the romance of the train but the tedium and indignity in everyday commutes that stirred the beginnings of long-term photography projects.

Forty-year-old Chaudhuri has spent a lot of time on Mumbai's suburban trains - practically an eternity broken down into bite-sized portions of daily journeys from Thane to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It was the monotony of the commute and the need to keep himself occupied that triggered a two-year-long project called Commuters (now a limited edition book). "Firstly, in Bombay, you can't escape being a commuter, " he says. "I have been a regular one, travelling three hours a day for 12 years. So, you figure out how to utilise the time - you catch up on reading or make time for reflection. It's also a wonderful opportunity for people-watching, which is, to a certain extent, where the idea came from. "

Partly out of compulsion thus, Chaudhuri figured out how to make his routine more productive. When people took out their mobile phones, music players and newspapers, he took out his little camera. And the Mumbai commuter, part of the hordes who make up the working population of the city by day and empty it out at night, became the protagonist of over 900 photographs.

For 25-year-old Sen, the photographic subject was the inescapable but benign crush of bodies in the constrained space of unreserved general passenger compartments - a picture of India's destitute. Sen's train journeys started when he was in college and had to travel to Siliguri (West Bengal) regularly. "I used to travel in the unreserved compartments because I could never afford to buy a confirmed ticket, " he says.

The youngster started shooting as a way to spend the long hours, and continued doing it for four years. "For me, the project was about my journey. I see so many people from disparate backgrounds in confluence;these are people who live very hard lives and this is their only way of travel, with no dignity in these public places. While the days would be dusty, grimy, windy and chaotic, the nights would be calm and meditative. They just looked like bodies on top of one another. The unreserved compartment is a portrait of India, " explains Sen, who is now looking for crowdfunding to extend his project from eastern and central India to the whole country.

In both projects the hero is the everyman, though Chaudhuri's photographs are taken inside the first-class compartments. Sen and Chaudhuri both agree that trains, in a way, provide a realistic representation of India. For Sen, the lack of personal space and dignity amidst the bonhomie made up the layers. Chaudhuri says, "I was trying to do a portrait of Mumbai, which has 18 million people. That many people means that many portraits. Trains are the vehicles that take people to work and back, and are the stage on which everything plays out. "

Commuters is not Chaudhuri's first train project. He has previously photographed graffiti and notes inside the first-class compartments (mostly graphic, illustrative and lewd), and how women are perceived in public places. The trains are also the lifeline of women, but crude graffiti on the compartment walls constitutes everyday sexual assaults.

Both photographers also set boundaries for themselves. While for Sen it was only the poorest of the lot, Chaudhuri, who has over the years become disenchanted with the way trains are photographed, only took pictures of the person who sat opposite him in the compartment. "I would occupy a seat and extract the optimum from there, " he says. "In photography, either you move or the subject moves. In this, the subject moves. At some level, it was about imposing rules on myself - I couldn't change my seat even if I saw a more interesting face elsewhere. That was the luck of the draw. These are all ordinary faces, average faces - I am compelled to take a photo of them, so I have to figure out the aesthetics. "

However, unlike the chance repeat encounters on trains or buses that writers and filmmakers so like to dwell upon, this happened only once in his entire two years to Chaudhuri. "In terms of probability, it was likely that some guy would come and sit in front of you as a repeat, " he says, adding that he had hoped it would happen. It did - nearing the end of the project - and turned out to be a triple whammy. "This man came and sat down in the seat diagonally opposite, " says Chaudhuri. "A minute or so later, another guy came and then another - all three of whom I had photographed earlier. But sadly, it was too crowded to take their photo. "

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