An Exclusive Interview With Nandakumar Narasimhan
Lens Magazine|March 2021
The Little Red Train
By José Jeuland

JOSE JEULAND: Nanda, could you share a little bit more about you? Your Background, where grow-up? Education or previous jobs?

NANDAKUMAR NARASIMHAN: I was born in Bombay (now Mumbai). I spent the first 14 years of my life there before moving to Singapore with my dad in 1997. I did my degree in Environmental Engineering through NTU, and I haven't worked as an engineer for even a day. I don't even know if I can find my degree certificate today. So I've worked as a photographer since 2009, and that is clearly my field.

J.J.: Before digital photography, were you a photographer using film?

N. N.: Oh yes. I happened to be the Photographic Society president in my University, and I spent more time in the darkroom than in the lecture and tutorial rooms in NTU. I started with photography using my dad's Zenit EM camera back in 1998 and never really shot with a digital camera until 2007 when I did some portrait assignments in my University that required me to shoot on digital. For me, It's always been film cameras. Even today, around 95% of my personal projects are done on film.

J.J.: You did incredible work about the Indian Railways. Could you share with us more about this work? Which area was this? When did you start working on this series?

N. N.: Thanks, José. It's been over 4 years now since I started this project, and it's started as a labor of love, which fast became a bit of a race against time. The project basically covers the lesser-known railway lines that still run on one meter's smaller track width. Most of the Indian trains run on 1.6-meter track width. It's not this technical matter that fascinates me, though. It's the fact that the few remaining lines on the smaller gauge ply through some of the most remote territories of the country.

These are places that are hard to find on the map, and it's a bit like traveling back in time. Some areas have no electricity, so it's a whole different world there.

These areas are in 4 states of India: Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan (not the touristy parts), Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat. One more line is a UNESCO world heritage site, and that's the line between Mettupalayam and Udhagamandalam in Tamil Nadu. This line is well preserved, but the others will either be closed or converted and modernized any day from now, so I am really racing against time (with this annoying pandemic) to make sure I get enough photos before they're gone for good.

J.J.: What drove you to this particular subject?

N. N.: My dad had a flat near a big railway yard in Bombay. This was back in 1991. Maroon-colored trains would pass by, and they'd be cleaned at the yard in front of my house. In a span of about a decade when I didn't travel much by train (I moved to Singapore in 1997), these maroon trains vanished and became blue liveried all of a sudden.

I was a bit shocked because I connected the maroon color with my youth. I used to travel in those trains when we visited relatives in other parts of India. I thought it was one of the many nostalgic things that I'd never see again. Then, in 2015-16, I chanced upon a video where I saw that maroon liveried trains were still running on the smaller gauge network, which was still around 3-5% of Indians rail network in 2015-2016. Now it's less than 1%, so it's really vanishing fast. And thus began the chase.

All my photo projects ground to a halt, and I started chasing the maroon trains. What started off as a mere chase for the maroon train ended up opening up a part of India that even many Indians haven't seen, such as villages without electricity and telecom network, stations smack in the middle of national parks with only tigers, elephants, and other fauna for company… the list goes on.

J.J.: What is your favorite photograph from this series?

N. N.: Honestly, none. The best is yet to be. I'm still on the hunt for two or three more photos, and until I get them, I really won't be able to pick one image and claim that to be the best or favorite. So, as of now, none. They could all be improved upon in one way or another.

J.J.: Do you have any exciting stories to share with us from this series?

N. N.: Quite a few. Hard to pick one. But I guess the one with monkeys would be worth a mention here.

At one of the stations smack in the middle of a tiger-occupied jungle, I was spending the night at the waiting hall. Trains used to arrive and depart in the pitch dark night, so there was a small but real risk of a tiger straying into the station. But I slept in the station, waiting for the hall in a sleeping bag, putting complete faith in the station staff to warn me should any wildlife appear. No tigers came that night. But in the morning, the station manager had dozed off, so the monkeys made the station their home in the storeroom inside his office. If you see station managers locking stations when they go for tea in completely uninhabited areas, it's likely because they do not want animals to go in and make themselves at home. This station master got a bit too comfy, I guess. To think I had partially entrusted him to warn me of tigers.

Still a bit groggy after my first tea in the morning, I walked into the station master's office and straight into a room full of monkeys frantically looking to escape from the very door I walked in! The one seated atop the door conveniently used my head as a touch and go point; the sack of wheat that had been stored in had been ripped open, and out came 2 monkeys clad in wheat flour, screeching and panicking at the arrival of the party intruder. I quickly reached for my tripod and threatened two of them seated on my backpack. They found an escape route, too, with one of the monkey's tail brushing against my hand. My heart was racing as well. Lucky they prioritized their escape over fighting a war with me. I'd not have stood a chance had all of them decided to defend their new conquest.

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