About India’s Disappearing Railways – by Catherine Anderson

On Thursday 20th November, we published India’s Disappearing Railwaysa stunning, photographic journey by Angus McDonald. Angus died suddenly whilst travelling in Burma in 2013 and the book was put together by his partner Catherine, who has also established a charity in his memory, The Angus McDonald Trust, to fund healthcare projects in remote corners of Asia. Catherine has been kind enough to write us a piece for our blog. 

It’s a curious fact of life that when someone dies, their stock increases. Such was the case when my fiancé, the Australian photojournalist Angus McDonald, died early last year – in February 2013 – when we were travelling together in Myanmar. Less than one year previously he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Six months before that, he asked me to marry him on a windswept monsoon beach on the Krabi peninsula of Thailand. As Joan Didion said in her searing memoir of love and grief,

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.

Catherine and Angus

By contrast, the astonishingly beautiful landscapes and placid humanity of the rare and remote narrow-gauge railway lines of Angus’s book India’s Disappearing Railways, published yesterday by Goodman Fiell (Carlton Books) and his last major work, are steeped in timelessness. There is little that is fast or sleek about these lines. There is nothing instantaneous about them. From the 150-year-old Dabhoi Railways of Gujarat to the relatively spritely 90-year-old Kangra Valley Railway, each has evolved as a unique being, as self-sufficient microcosms of life shaped by landscape, history and community. Angus spent over five years, on and off, documenting these gems when he could manage to get away from the photographic assignments that took him all over central and south-east Asia, building a vast archive of images in the process. Whether it was trekking the Great Wall of China for National Geographic, or climbing Mount Everest as official photographer on a fatal Indian civil expedition, or picking his way through the debris of the decimated south-Indian coastlines following the tsunami of 2004, Angus documented all he encountered with grace and humility. India’s Disappearing Railways is no exception: from the Western Ghats of Maharashtra to the fertile alluvial plains of Madhya Pradesh, from the Blue Mountains of Tamil Nadu to the foothills of his beloved Himalayas, via conflict-riven Assam, this is a tribute to the country he loved. Not only have Carlton produced an incredibly sophisticated publication, but you will be able to see the images exhibited at the Royal Geographical Society’s Pavilion Gallery in London, from December 1st 2014 right through to January 9th 2015.

When people ask me whether it was difficult, to edit the book and to bring to life the work of my late fiancé, I answer that it was a complete joy. Not only have I now been able to travel these lines with Angus, and to share with him the experience of their meandering serenity, but I have been able to bring to the widest audience possible the sheer wonder of his work. That Angus is not alive to see this magnificent project receive the recognition it so deserves will be an endless source of sadness to me, yet I take solace in the fact that – in these images – he lives on and touches more lives than he could have imagined. All author proceeds from the book will go directly to The Angus McDonald Trust, the grant-making charity I have established in his name to donate to grassroots healthcare projects in Myanmar, the country he both loved and died in. We plan exhibitions in both Sydney and New York next year to coincide with the publication of the book in those territories, and a UK tour planned for 2016 will begin with a revival at the Nehru Centre next Autumn. The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer, the BBC, the Evening Standard, Sky News, ITV, Geographical magazine, and many many more have either covered, or are planning to cover, the work. And as the days shorten and the temperature drops, these images in book and exhibition form will transport readers and viewers to incredible feats of engineering in some of the farthest-flung corners of the sub-continent.

A friend, who shall remain anonymous, compared Angus to the late Indian photographer Raghubir Singh – who also died at a very early age and whose small format street-photography and use of colour in the ‘70s was pioneering – and declared Angus the better photographer ‘…because of his human empathy’. In the small details of human life along these historic railways Angus finds exuberance and sadness, solitude and clamour, heritage and modernity. Never does he impose his presence, and the result is the work of a true great.


India's Disappearing Railways

India’s Disappearing Railways | Published by Goodman Fiell | 9781783130115

For more information about The Angus McDonald Trust, please click here.

A fundraiser for the Trust is being held at the RGS’s 700-seat Ondaatje Theatre on 17th December at 7pm, when historian and broadcaster Michael Wood will deliver an illustrated lecture entitled Travels in India – tickets on sale here.
For more information about the Royal Geographical Society’s exhibition, click here.

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