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Science And Nature

Haunting images revisit the railways that united Bengaluntil India’s Partition divided it

Published August 12, 2022

11 min read

Born four decades following the 1947 Partition of India into what eventually became three nations, Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick, 36, has been documenting the fragments of “united” British Indiahomes, inheritance, transportthat stay in today’s Bangladesh. His canvas in this project may be the rail system that left the British Empire’s lasting mark for India that has been first referred to as East Bengal, before becoming East Pakistan in 1947, and lastly Bangladesh in 1971.

Proticks photographs have emptied the area of individuals; what we see instead are skeletal train tracks and the traces of commerce, habitation, manufacturing, and entertainment that was raised for this architecture of connectivity. You can find occasional human figuresa nurse, an entertainer, a mysticbut those individuals carry an air of confusion, almost as though the experience that surrounded these train depots for a hundred years has vanished, plus they forgot to catch the final train leaving the station.

Bangladesh includes a complex position within the narratives of Indias 1947 Partition, since it was, in one perspective, left out. British mapmakers split Bengal, a northeastern corner of India that had a shared language and culture, along religious lines. It had been splintered into Muslim-majority East Pakistan, which decades later became Bangladesh, and West Bengal, an Indian state to which an incredible number of Hindus fled following the new lines were announced. Today’s Bangladesh features in partition stories as a bucolic “before times” that has been lost and abandoned.

That notion of being left out in 1947 may be the portal by which I enter Protick’s images of the East Bengal Railway, now the national railway of Bangladesh. East Bengal was the fertile, lush agricultural heartland of Indiabut its connectivity to the British administrative capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata), also to the others of British India, was hampered by the densely riverine landscape.

The initial railway system on the planet was setup in 1825 in England; within 40 years the British had setup an exclusive company called Eastern Bengal Railway to corral the remote elements of eastern Indiaits people and resourcesunder British imperial oversight, using rail lines. As the railway system resulted in hyper-development of imperial capitalism, in addition, it enabled human connections, a rising middle income and business community, and a newly empowered polity that allowed the flourishing of all-India political alliances. These pan-India movements became national forces behind the “Quit India” independence movement that finally expelled the British in 1947, if they were exhausted by World War II.

Thus railroads that resulted in a zenith of British colonial expansion also laid the tracks because of its eventual annihilation.

Inside a plethora of crossings and junctions, what’s salient is that several rail lines were only available in one country and ended in another one after 1947. Trains across Bengal were the conduit for refugees fleeing into and out of India,. Passenger flows continued for just two decades after independence, however the lines of control hardened following the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Today what remains may be the Bangladesh Railway, a decrepit and moribund institution suffering from the woes that fuel under-developed disenchantment: decolonization accompanied by homegrown corruption and the incompetence of state management.

The railway continues to be the chosen mode of transport for a massive working-class population, but an ever-expanding highway and bridge system now provides faster options for people and goods. Proticks vacant, haunted photographic tableaux evoke the sensation of that which was left out by decolonization.

Much like his earlier projects, a rigorous layer of mist and fog lies over most of the images. The opacity of vision and diffusion of light captured by his camera suggests both end of a tale, and a expect a fresh arrival. In a coda image of the series, an orange, rain-soaked light envelops the beginnings of a train entering the frame. You can find no visible signposts, and I imagine a superimposed palimpsest image of two trains traveling in opposite directions, entering Bangladesh and India simultaneously. At night of night, the railway carries passengers who dont desire to go back home past giant machines whose operators have passed on, and toward a wooden puppet in the form of the British Queen’s palace guards. Watching over this nightscape is really a broken clock that tells the proper time only twice each day.

Divided Bengal cannot now be united, however the viewer could find in these images the revival of a phantom India-Bangladesh train network, a imagine suturing the open wounds of Partition.

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