Take a walk into the Chennai Central station with eyes firmly fixed on the high walls. One is sure to spot at least five photographs of locomotives and trains from the 1960s, in black and white. The pictures take the viewer to the 1960s when the now antique locomotives were much bulkier.
The credits for the precious pictures go to an Australian by the name Ian Manning, who clicked the pictures way back in 1960, and to the Chennai-based photographer ‘Poochi’ Venkata Raaman, who digitised the invaluable images and made sure the public got to see them.
Ian Manning’s first visit to India was in 1959, when he, as a teenager, was on a world tour with his parents. He had captured India in his Kodak Retina 2B camera back then and had flown back to his life in Australia. After his college graduation came the chance for him to apply for an internship in any of the Commonwealth countries. Without batting an eyelid, Manning applied for an opportunity in India. An acceptance from Madras Christian College’s Department of Economics helped fuel Manning’s fascination with trains.
On a day off in 1965, Manning took a picture of a metre-gauge turntable in Chennai which happened to be his first picture of the Indian railways in the southern part of the country. Turntables are circular installations on the ground, with a piece of track on it. These are made to rotate so as to enable a locomotive to move back to its original place.
Meter guage turntable at Tambaram (1965)
“In many cases, I was in the spot in the course of general travels. However, some of the shots (particularly of the Chennai metre-gauge suburban trains) were taken by walking to spots and waiting for a train,” Ian Manning tells TNM.
It was there that he was spotted by Sivaramakrishnan, who was also a staff at the Madras Christian College. Curious to see a white man photograph railway installations in India, Sivaramakrishnan had come over to question Manning. But the duo hit it off almost immediately and what followed was a friendship developed over years of mutual fondness for trains and respect for each other.
Love for trains and travel
Ian Manning was always interested in the railways. Coupled with his love for Geography as a subject in school, Manning always wanted to take pictures of trains in different parts of Australia.
“Before I came to India, I took souvenir photos of Australian trains, and perhaps to some extent already knew the art of taking photos of trains, but seeing the country came first,” he says, adding that he started travelling around in trains as soon as he set foot in Chennai. Since college holidays were between April and June, he used the summer vacation for travelling long distances.
New Delhi station (1959)
“Sometimes, during term time, when I was not rostered to teach, I'd find my way onto an evening train going south, visit some place like Karaikkal or Karaikkudi, and come back the next night,” he reminisces. Manning flew back to Australia in 1970 and has stayed put since then.
Reconnecting with Chennai
In the early 2000s, when the internet was just blooming in the country, a group of Indians who had gone abroad for studies started a forum to share their memories of travelling by trains in their motherland. They called the forum ‘Indian Railways Fans Club’ and used it predominantly to share anecdotes and eventually pictures of the trains.
The forum slowly gathered more followers as people from all over the world wanted to be a part of the group owing to some remote Indian memory they did not want to forget.
Ian Manning discovered the group and one fine day, he sent an email to all the members of the group introducing himself. “He said that he had many old pictures of Indian railways and that he wants to digitise them. He was asking if there was anyone in the group who could help him digitise and preserve those pictures,” says ‘Poochi’ Venkata Raaman who still remembers that day.
Venkata Raaman grabbed that opportunity and expressed his desire to work with Manning on the invaluable pictures, and the process began in 2003-04 when Manning flew down to India with a bundle of negatives he had with him.
Electric locomotive at Tambaram (1968)
“There were around 3,000 frames worth material in that bundle. These photos dated back to 1959, when he had first visited India as a teenager,” Venkata Raaman says.
Bringing the negatives to life
Of course, breathing life back into the photo negatives taken at least 50 years ago was no mean feat.
“Only after I started digitising them, I realised how valuable those pictures were. I asked him what to do with these and he gave me full permission to do whatever I wanted with the negatives. He just told me to take care that the pictures are not misused because he wanted people to understand the value of the photos,” Venkata Raaman says.
Since Manning’s pictures came packed with a lot of detailing, digitising those took days and even weeks. Venkata Raaman says that since 2004 when he started working on those negatives, he has managed to digitise around 120 photos till date.
Steam train at Kodaikkanal Road station near Madurai (1966)
Indian Railways somehow got a whiff of what Venkata Raaman was up to and requested him to hold an exhibition of some of Manning’s pictures in the Perambur Railway museum. It also followed it up with printing out select images and displaying it at the Chennai Central.
“I was shocked to see our names in those prints, to be honest. Generally government organisations don’t really care about giving credits. But I guess the officers who are there now are really fantastic. It was a pleasant surprise to me,” Venkata Raaman explains.
Bangalore city station (1968)
Bangarapet station (1967)
Like Venkata Raaman, Manning too was surprised to see the photos in a prominent railway terminus in India.
Sharing his happiness with TNM, he says, “I did think that people might become more interested in shots of historic technologies. So I'm not altogether surprised that the photos should find their way into a railway museum but very surprised that they are on the walls of Chennai Central.” When asked if he had any regrets about his work documenting the machines of the yesteryear, he says, “I'm only sorry I didn't photograph the bullock-powered wells that were common in those days.”
Still renewing the Madras connection
Though Manning’s closest friend Sivaramakrishnan died a few years back, it has not stopped him from flying down to Chennai at least once a year.
“Yes, I miss Chennai. Many of my old and closest friends are no more, but I can visit their children, and also new friends like Poochi (Venkata Raaman). Nothing matches Chennai coffee and conversation and there's no substitute for Carnatic music,” Manning says.
As of now, Venkata Raaman is working on a series of Manning’s photos taken in various tourist spots in Tamil Nadu.
“He has taken many pictures in various places in and outside Chennai. I am trying to pick a few of those pictures, go to the exact same spot and take similar pictures. That would give us a glimpse of how that spot has evolved over the past 60 years,” he signs off.