“For me, the window seat is like a travelling cinema screen. Landscapes change, characters change, stories change. You get to be a part of so many different lives. Whatever there is to learn about India, it can be done by observing through the window seat – geography, culture, even history.”
This is what Shanu Babar says when asked about his perception of India from a train’s window seat. Born and brought up in the small Maharashtra town of Osmanabad, the talented 26-year-old cinematographer is the founder of The Window Seat Project, an amazing crowd-sourced photo project that documents places and people seen from the window seat of a train.
Shanu was just five years old when he first boarded a train and was left awestruck by the view from the window seat. This was the beginning of his life-long love affair with train travel.
“Like most of the people in this country, I started travelling in trains at a very young age. Whether it was visiting my relatives during summer vacations or travelling during college days, my favorite part was to sit by the window seat as the world sped past me and soon, taking pictures from this seat had become my favourite hobby,” says Shanu.
While doing his masters from Pune’s Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Shanu decided to train journeys for his second year dissertation.
“A lot of people were making fiction films – since it was a media school – but I somehow couldn’t relate with them. That’s when I decided to pursue what had always excited me – train travel,” he explains.
Shanu travelled on the train from Pune to Kanyakumari, asking a single question to a multitude of passengers — ” What kind of India do you see from the window seat of a train?”. And it proved to be the perfect vantage point to sneak into the undiscovered cultures and unexplored landscapes of an India that he had never visited, never experienced, never interpreted.
Passengers were more than happy to share their experiences and photos with Shanu. The content he shared on social media also got an overwhelming response, with stories and photos from contributors pouring in from across India. That’s where it all began.
“I realized that I was not the only crazy person who loved trains, there are thousands of them out there. And it is because of them that the Window Seat Project was born, ” says the Mumbai-based cinematographer.
A crowd-sourced visual library, the Window Seat Project seeks to capture the wonders of train travel — changing landscapes, cultures and emotions — in India through stunning images. It is also a refreshing attempt to enter the lives of strangers, to imagine what they must be thinking, and, sometimes, to understand what they must be going through.
“Joining the length and breadth of India like veins, train journeys touch the country’s heart like no one does. Which is why the kind of empathy evoked by the view from the window seat can sometimes be heartbreaking.
When you see old women walking for miles, carrying heavy vessels of water even in these modern times, it breaks your heart. When you see people still defecating in the open, it breaks your heart. When you see the kind of rubbish people throw from the trains, it angers you.
It is things like these that drive you to not just be an audience but do something about these stories. Make people aware, get them talking. As a platform, the Window Seat Project is also responsible for voicing out such concerns.”
Today, the Window Seat project has its own full-blown community of train aficionados who keep sending in their stories and pictures. Submitted under the hashtag ‘#windowseatproject’, the project has received over 26,000 entries and garnered more than 23,000 followers till date!
Among the many pictures of the Window Seat Project that have going viral online, is an image of a line of milk cans hanging from the windows of a train; a cycle seen tightly roped to a train window; two coolies laughing and racing on a platform against an approaching train; and an old man poignantly peeking into the tinted glass window of a train, perhaps searching for his family members.
Explaining the strategy he follows while selecting pictures to shared on his Instagram account, Shanu says,
“Criteria of what I choose to share is simple. It should primarily be a good story. The aesthetics are secondary. If I can feel the emotion or purpose behind a picture, I will download the picture and process it myself. Also, if the elements of the pictures have a perspective that has not been explored before, I share them. So I basically look for reasons, for purpose, for variety. And if a picture has got any of these, it’s on the page.”
Asked about his favourite train travel experience, Shanu says that it would have to be the 15 day sojourn he took aboard the Gwalior-Sheopur narrow gauge train in March 2017. Travelling on the longest light train route in the world, the train runs at a speed of 40-50 kmph and is usually packed with passengers, many of whom complete their entire journey on the roof.
“When I finally managed to board it, it felt like I was on a double-decker train. Vendors, singers, passengers, there were so many people on the roof. At one point, the train slowed down to cross a bridge and literally everybody on the roof had to bend and stoop to save their heads! The unusual train experience was thrilling and definitely the best I have had in these many years.”
Shanu now want to take his unique project beyond India. Knowing that this ambitious plan would require funds greater than what his savings can provide, he plans to rope in brands, sponsors and like-minded collaborators.
“The Window Seat is all about different places, different people and different stories. I am excited to know what lies beyond. It can be Sri Lanka, it can be Australia. Wherever there are railways, wherever there are people, I want to be there, I want to know their stories. Let’s see where this track leads me!”
Here are 10 photographs from the Window Seat Project that will inspire you to pack your cameras and ditch the plane for the train. And when you do, don’t forget to take a picture and share it on Instagram with the hashtag ‘#windowseatproject’ !
All pictures courtesy The Window Seat Project.