The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Petals on a wet, black bough.
– In a Station of the Metro.
…unforgettable as an expression of a poetic experience of the highest order. The inexorable spell of these two lines by Ezra Pound weighs upon me whenever I catch sight of a typically Indian scene crammed with people. The lines recycle themselves into visuals as I scratch around for the right frame to showcase my perception of the Indian reality. Particularly when my camera chances upon the mess one finds so frequently in the unreserved general compartments of a railway carriage.
Travel the length of the country. Board a train, thrust your way through the crowd to some messy corner of a general compartment and you start loosing your identity. One can safely predict a traumatic journey to the destination of absolute facelessness.
What the series seeks to capture is the chaos of a sick, thick throng gasping for air. It takes you straight into the heart of the muddle and the mess. It makes you listen to the muffled voice of individuality.
Ruthlessly robbed of your right to breathe, you are already there, sharing with the hapless masses the unbearable tightness of being, bearing with them the full burden of an inescapable Indian experience.
Editor’s Note – Anil Cherukupalli
Gasp. Tight. Mad. Confined. Sick. Insane. Breathless. These are but a few of the adjectives that come to mind upon viewing Ronny Sen’s expertly framed photo essay on overcrowding in the general compartments (as they are called) of Indian trains. As the photographer puts it so accurately, in this mad crowded suffocating rush “you start losing your identity”.
The photo story begins sedately, almost normally, with a romantic view of a train journey through a standard photo of a passenger looking out at the horizon. This is the image most of us carry of travel on Indian trains. Sitting comfortably on a reserved seat, reading, chatting and looking out of the window and staring into space. That is as far as normal goes for bang with the next photo the photographer punches your visual plexus with a crazy scene. For a second you forget to breathe. There are people everywhere. Women and men are packed together tighter than the proverbial sardines. There is madness on the edge of the photo. The bulbous eyes of the women haunt and hold you in horror. You quickly move on to the next photo. But there is hardly any let up in the intensity. Frame after frame, people can be seen grasping for that one inch of space that will prevent them from going insane. No space is wasted. Lower or upper berths. The floor between the berths. The space by the door. Or the space by the toilets. Every possible surface is covered with flesh.
You begin to marvel at the human ability to adjust and adapt to such conditions. You also begin to notice little details. Two children sleeping so peacefully on the floor oblivious of the crowded conditions. The surprised look on a man’s face as he surveys the chaos below. The desperate attempt by an old man to find a space above the human chaos. Until finally, the essay is brought to a close with a photo that is so empty that it is almost comical. Only the photographer is present in the frame occupying the lower right of the frame. Vast empty seats and spaces stretch to the horizon. You almost breathe a sigh of relief. Here is privacy. Here is space. Everything that middle class India struggles for and strives to keep. The small comforts that money can buy. An island of sanity encircled by a wide ocean of chaos. How long before one swallows the other?