Portrait of a Model Railway Enthusiast

THE YOUNG LAD STOOD before the towering 'wada' that stood next to his home. He had but to step out of his home to spend an evening with his friends who lived in the wada belonging to Jhandelwal saab. His boyhood was spent in the idyllic surroundings of the wada, amidst cries of play and the long silences of evening.  Today as he gazed up at the palatial home his heart missed a beat. For it was Ganpati Utsav time, and Sitalamata Bazar where he lived was alive with color and excitement. The 'jhankis' or colourful tableaux set up during these days were a great favourite with the kids, but this time Jhandelwal saab had set up the most unusual jhanki in his home. It was a model rail jhanki -- a live exhibition featuring an HO gauge electric train set he had brought from England. How dazzling were the lights shining onto those coloured trains and engines as they playfully purred along on the oval track! It was a show that enthralled both children and grown-ups alike.

The city of Indore where Narsingh Das grew up was a quiet place in those days, a far cry from the malls, the multiplex cinemas and expressways that are now so much a part of city life. Traditionally Indore has been the seat of great cultural activity. The excitement reached a crescendo at Ganpati festival time when a never ending string of performances -- the mushairas, kavi sammelans, and various other programmes were staged by Ganpati Mandals spread across the city. The whole town wore a festive air during those ten memorable days.

A notable feature of the ongoing celebrations was the 'jhanki' -- colourful tableaux done up with great taste, each depicting a theme and lit with bright incandescent lamps. These jhankis were hugely popular and families could be seen strolling at leisure till as late as midnight in the market place moving along from one jhanki to the next.

Growing up in a place so vibrant with art and culture had a decided influence on the young boy. Today as he stood watching the model train staged in Jhandelwal saab's wada he was entranced. The trains, diminutive in size, whizzing along tracks and halting at tiny stations on the way,  captured his imagination as nothing else had done before. Already a train enthusiast, young Narsingh Das was siezed with an irresistible desire. He decided that one day not far in the future he must go on to set up his own model railway show. He would not be a mere spectator, but would own his own model railway and would hold his own shows.

Narsingh Das Bang was but a lad of 15 when he dreamed his great dream. He was born in a business family living in the Sitalamata Bazar area of Indore. His father Shri Ramakishanji Bang was an industrious man who owned a wholesale kirana business in Siyaganj Mandi, a business area of the town. Narsingh Das finished school and went on to join Holkar Science College graduating with a degree in Science in 1966. It was thought that like his brother Narayan Das who held a master's degree in Commerce, Narsingh Das would go on to take higher education but things did not work out as planned and this together with family constraints made the young man abandon plans for further education and instead he joined his father and brothers in the family owned wholesale kirana business. 

Over the next forty years Shri Bang would remain in Indore doing business. His work ethics and fairness in dealings made him a highly respected member of the business community of the town.  During his career as a wholesale merchant he has been the recipient of several honours ; in 1990 he was elected to the much coveted chair of President of the Siyaganj Wholesale Kirana Merchants' Association.

A year after he joined the family business, Narsingh Dasji's world revolved around one overriding concern, and this was to excel in business. The turning point in his life came when his elder brother Purushottamji presented him with a battery operated HO gauge train set made by Crown Railway of Bombay. The year was 1975 and for Narsingh Das it was long cherished dream come true. It was a memorable year in his life.

The train set could not have come at a more opportune moment. It was Ganpati Utsav time and Narsingh Das and his brothers lost no time in setting up their show using a plywood baseboard measuring 6 feet by 12 feet which was erected in front of the home.

It was full fledged tableau. When evening came and the lights were switched on, visitors were delighted to see a colourful panorama of a toy train threading its way through points and crossings, making its way through stations, and rumbling over bridges and viaducts. 

The Crown Railway jhanki held at Ganpati
festival in 1978

The jhanki was a runaway success, drawing 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the crowds who thronged the stall throughout the evening. It was truly a novel idea, for nowhere in town would you come upon a tableau at festival time with a train as its theme.

The model train diorama gave its owner as much pleasure as it did to the visitors to the stall. Narsingh Das Bang's mission was now clear. He knew he must hold his exhibition each year when festival time came round. He would use his model railway both to entertain visitors as well as to impart to them a knowledge of the way a railway was run.

Narsingh Dasji's fascination with staging model rail dioramas has never waned and with each passing year he has added improvements to his layout. Beginning with a Crown Railway train set, he has now moved on to Marklin which is known for its authentic detail and fine workmanship. He now owns an impressive layout in his home complete with figures, homes and streets.

Much of what Shri Bang owns today on his model railway originated in two purchases he made in the early 1980s. He loves to recall how he discovered Marklin : "In 1982 I had been to Bombay where I visited the Crown Railway factory in Andheri and met the owner Mr Ashwin Mehta. Mehta's unit produced battery operated HO gauge train sets copying certain English designs. My meeting with Mehta proved to be fruitful and he soon became a friend. He even gave me a copy of a Marklin model train catalogue he had with him."

The model catalogue deeply impressed Narsingh Das and he began to hope he would be able to get a Marklin train set for himself. Fortune seemed to favour him for barely had a few months passed after his return to Indore when the phone rang in his home. It was Ashwin Mehta on the line and he had good news to share about a Parsi family in Bombay who wished to sell their HO gauge Marklin train layout.

And so Narsingh Dasji found himself in Bombay once again. He visited the Parsi home where he inspected the layout and its rolling stock and locomotives. The model railway seemed to be in good order and he purchased the whole set for a sum of Rs 7000. He was now the proud owner of a top grade HO model railway !

He was now on very close terms with Mehta. "I was new to the world of model railways and Mehta gave me my first lessons in this fascinating hobby," he tells us. "Mehta also gave me addresses of 15 German model train manufacturers. I wrote to all these firms and ordered their catalogues. " 

Correspondence with Germany revealed that Marklin had its distributor in Hong Kong. In 1985 Narsingh Dasji planned a trip that would help him pick out the precise models he was looking for. He had a relation staying in Hong Kong working for the diamond trade with an office in Bombay. He bought $ 3000 from his relation at a rate of Rs 17 per dollar (the exchange rate at that time was only Rs 12). Thus armed with finances Narsingh Dasji was able to make a trip to Hong Kong and finally returned with all the model railway parphernalia he had wished to have.

On his return to India Shri Bang turned his attention to staging shows on a large scale. He was now in possession of an extensive collection featuring both HO and 1 gauge layouts. In 1986 residents of Indore were startled by newspaper reports of a grand model railway exhibition to be held in the Sitalamata Bazar area of the town. This time the jhanki was quite different from the ones he had staged thus far ; it was larger in scale, and it was inaugurated by the Mayor of the city himself in a glittering function attended by prominent citizens and important personalities. "My show was open for the general public for a whole month," remembers Narsingh Dasji. It was a momentous event, one that townsfolk would remember for a long time to come. 'Jhanki wale' they would call him, for Narsingh Dasji had established his reputation as the lovable model railway showman of the town.

The Collector of Sehore at the
rail exhibition
Invitations asking him to stage his shows elsewhere soon began to pour in. "A group of people had arrived in Indore to see the model railway all the way from Sehore," remembers Narsingh Das. "They were greatly pleased with the rail jhanki and asked me if I could arrange a show in their own town."  And so when Navratri came along Narsingh Dasji and his friends packed up their boxes and carried the whole set to Sehore not far from Bhopal for a 10 day show. "Transportation and boarding cost nearly Rs 10,000 which was borne by our hosts," he recalls. "As in Indore, my show here proved to be a popular attraction and the whole town turned up to watch the jhanki. Amongst the visitors was Virendrakumarji Saklecha, a leading politician. Everthing went well as planned and the show turned out to be a grand success."

Shri Bang's Marklin layout created
a sensation in Sehore
Narsingh Dasji Bang is no longer a kirana wholesale merchant  today. This ambitious enterpreneur has moved to Nagpur and is in the manufacturing business. Working in collaboration with his son-in-law, he has factories in Borgaon manufacturing water pipelines and automatic gates used on irrigation dams. Nagpur was home to a rail museum and would open up further avenues for him to put his model railway to good use. "I visited the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum here in Nagpur but although the museum houses an amazing collection, I found there was nothing of railway interest here that would appeal to children," says Bang. What better way of treating youngsters to the joy of model trains than by displaying his layout in a rail museum !

With this thought in mind Narsingh Das went to the Divisional Railway office in Nagpur. He was doubtful if his idea would be received favourably, but when he met the DRM of the S. E. C. Railway and told him of his model railway, he was pleasantly surprised to find the official as enthusiastic over it as he himself was. Official permission was granted and in February 2010 Shri Bang's model room was formally inaugurated in the railway museum. 

Over the next two years Shri Bang's model layout would delight hundreds of visitors arriving at the rail museum of Nagpur. School children loved his trains, and Bang tells us that during the two years he was at the museum, his rail layout was visited by nearly twenty schools.

A dedicated model railway enthusiast, Shri Narsingh Das Bang's vision remains clear as before. Beginning with a Crown Railway train set nearly forty years ago, he has held 10-day rail exhibitions at Ganpati festival each year ever since. The crowds can still be seen thronging his model room in his home at festival time ; school children accompanied by teachers find it a tremendously exciting adventure. And Narsingh Dasji is always present on these occasions to offer instruction in railway operation to eager eyed learners. "My model railway is meant to both educate and entertain," he says.

Ravindra Bhalerao