Dileep's Steam Trains

I HAVE RECEIVED some days back a most charming gift from a friend in Delhi. Shri Abhimanyu Shaunik was here in Nagpur on business work and when I went to see him in his hotel room, and we sat down to talk of our mutual fascination for the railways, Mani stunned me by producing an article that was so charming, so pretty, I could only exclaim "Wow !!"

It was a tiny pocket book. A book with pictures of trains in it. Yes, they were pictures of steam trains. And all shot on a film camera by veteran photographer Shri Dileep Prakash.

Dileep is a master photographer who needs no introduction. He is married to June Davy, an Anglo Indian, and besides his interest in steam trains, he has also created a charming portfolio of pictures of Anglo Indian families in India. Now why should this be charming ? Those who love the railways of the raj need no explanation why Dileep’s portfolio is so pleasing. They know the answer.

So here I am with a copy of Dileep’s pocket book on steam railways. It is called "Whistling Steam—Romance of Indian Rails". And it is truly a masterpiece in miniature, a lovely portfolio of pictures. I would go so far as to say that it is a collector's item.

To appreciate Dileep’s skill with a camera, you need to actually see the pictures for yourself. Like me, he has a keen fascination for steam railways, and like me, he arrived on the scene with his camera a bit late, at a time when steam trains were becoming a fast disappearing species. So then, whatever was left of those rusting old birds, he captured on film. He knew he was running a race against time, so he had to hurry, for he knew his beloved engines would not be around forever. And so, when we turn through the pages of this book, we will meet Jama Jiva, the loco fitter at the Wankaner shed. We are introduced to Nal Bahadur, the Loco Foreman on the Darjeeling Hill Railway standing against a B class locomotive. We are taken on a tour of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and its quaint engines. And we can step into the Nilgiri workshop to take a close up peek at those double-toothed cog wheels that help propel trains up the hills of Ooty. There are pictures of broad gauge locos being readied in sheds, a lone engine owned by the Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board carrying along a load of wagons on a bridge. And you have a grand collection of pictures showcasing the Darjeeling Hill railway too.  

Here is a book you can't put down easily. When I got my copy, I went through the text as well as the pictures several times. There is something about these pictures that marks them as different from the rest. I think it is a kind of "atmosphere" surrounding each picture. I was in Darjeeling only once, in 1985. Although I never did ride the toy train, I did spend time at the station in Darjeeling. I saw school children walking the road as the train chugged alongside, I would stand watching the train taking a curve next to a pretty little cottage. Those images are forever etched in my mind. Now three decades later, when I flip through the pages of this book, it brings back fond memories. And I exclaim to myself , "Ah, that's Darjeeling !" 

Dileep's pictures have been skillfully crafted, and he has undoubtedly used burning-in or dodging to achieve his spectacular effects. This together with his composition (sometimes tight, sometimes all inclusive) results in a startling 'atmospheric' effect ; his pictures arouse emotion. I liked the dark, sombre tone that is so reminiscent of India's steam age, now a thing of the past. Atmosphere is evident everywhere in the book. It is there in the coal train at Korba, and in the Mettupalayam shed and workshop, in the Darjeeling train winding its way past a dream cottage, and in the group of schoolgirls descending the wooded hillside fascinated by a B class engine shunting nearby.

Richly textured and with superb detail, these pictures are a pleasure to watch.

Ravindra Bhalerao