A family of eight hold on to newspaper sheets loaded with puris, rice and vegetable curry inside a railway compartment, making one ponder over how much time the women might have spent in the kitchen to prepare the meals for their long journey. In another photograph, a pet dog sitting on the lower berth of a first-class AC coach and covered in white bedsheet, is seen looking into oblivion through the window. A frail old man revels in the company of a book of bedroom jokes, bringing back memories of seeking solace in the company of comics such as Chacha Choudhary, Amar Chitra Katha, Champak and Tinkle, while travelling on the train as children. The Window Seat Project by Shanu Babar is an attempt to recollect all such myriad memories of train journeys, while also serving as a travelogue to capture the essence of India, as seen through the window seat.
What started as a college dissertation project has now turned into a crowdsourced photography series on Instagram and Facebook, where photographs can be submitted under the hashtag of the Window Seat Project (#windowseatproject) and Indian Railways. So far, the project has received over 26,000 entries and garnered more than 23,000 followers. Babar — a cinematographer by profession — says, “While studying at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune in 2015, I wanted my dissertation project to be a travel documentary. So I, along with a few friends, undertook a 10-day train journey from Pune to Kanyakumari, and chronicled the kind of India people saw when they looked out of the window. Most of them discussed issues like education, women empowerment, pollution and the population.”
Among the 926 pictures going viral online, is an image by Manpreet Singh of a line of milk cans hanging from the windows of a train; two coolies laugh and race on the platform against an approaching train in Trivandrum; while in another frame, a cycle is seen tightly roped to the window.
After graduation, as he moved to Mumbai, Babar decided to take the project a notch higher. “I took up a job doing post-production work for films and was expected to mostly sit in a room. Since I couldn’t travel much, I started putting together footage and pictures from my earlier travels on Instagram. It picked up and people started commenting on how it was so nostalgic and they too had stories to share. What started as a personal project soon turned into a travelogue of train lovers online,” says the 26-year-old, who has shot for several TV shows, including So You Think You Can Dance and MasterChef India.
Part-time journalist Divya Dugar’s photographs of her pets, her companions on most of her train journeys, continue to capture eyeballs. “A lot of people do not know about the paperwork involved in taking along a pet with you. We have decided to collaborate and soon post on how to travel with pets on board,” says Babar. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”appears like an apt caption for a submission by Alex Perret — of a platform overcrowded with monkeys, who are seen gorging on the food left behind by travellers.
This March, Babar once again embarked upon a month-long rail trip, hoping to capture the length and breadth of India, as seen through the windows of multiple trains. A food-borne disease forced him to halt it midway on the 13th day but he hopes to resume his trip, and also undertake train journeys overseas. But Babar says he feels proud of the fact that he has recorded his “Chaiyya chaiyya moment”, sitting atop a train much like Shah Rukh Khan did in Dil Se, when he boarded the Gwalior Light Railways via the Gwalior-Sheopur railway line. His fellow passengers — farmers armed with rifles, vendors selling peanuts who moved swiftly from the engine to the bogie, and singers — are also part of the moment.
The photograph of an old man smiling and peeking into the tinted glass window of a train, perhaps looking out for his family members, is an ode to railway-station goodbyes. “These are pictures anyone who has travelled on a train, can relate to. Someone or the other, be it loved ones, friends or relatives need to see you from the window to bid their final goodbye,” adds Babar.