Angus McDonald: India's disappearing railways

An exhibition documenting photojournalist Angus McDonald's final project - India's "disappearing railways" - has opened in Cumbria. Here, his fiancée Catherine Anderson, who curated the show and compiled an accompanying book, looks back on his life.

Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption A semi-nomadic Raika tribesman casts his eye over one of the Aravali Railways lines

Inspired by a love of travel, Angus McDonald traversed the globe.

From the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas to the splendour of China's Great Wall and portraits of the Dalai Lama, the renowned photographer captured countless striking images.

Published by the likes of The Guardian, The Observer and The Telegraph, he was also an author, having penned an account of his journey across China following in the footsteps of 19th Century adventurer George Ernest Morrison.

It was while he was working in India for the Associated Press news agency that he became engaged in late 2011 to Catherine Anderson. But just six months later came devastating news as he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He died, aged 50, in Burma in February 2013.

"It was so incredibly sudden," she says. "He died at the airport in Rangoon. There wasn't even an emergency room we could take him to.

"It was quick. There was no drawn-out suffering and it was in a country he loved."

Determined to create a lasting tribute to his talents, Ms Anderson returned home to Penrith, in Cumbria, and set about finding a publisher for the pictures and words he had gathered for one of his final projects.

Titled India's Disappearing Railways and published on 20 November, the colour and chaos of the country's narrow and metre-gauge railways - and "the life that surrounds them" - are encapsulated in 250 images.

Accompanying it is a 40-picture exhibition, which is running at Penrith's Rheged Centre.

Upon closing on Thursday, it will open on 1 December at London's Royal Geographical Society, where Ms Anderson is a fellow.

Proceeds will go to the Angus McDonald Trust, which has been founded by Ms Anderson to help health charities in some of south-east Asia's remotest areas.

Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption Overcrowding means many people are forced to travel on carriage roofs
Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption The Nilgiri Mountain Railway passes through colourful tea gardens at Ooty. The line was added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 2005
Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption Passengers duck for cover as the Gwalior Light Railway service passes under a metal bridge. About 15,000 people use it each day

Snaking their way across the subcontinent, the first narrow gauge railway line was constructed in the 1860s to transport cotton from Dabhoi to Miyagam.

Others soon followed. Among the best known is the Darjeeling-Himalayan track, which took tea to Calcutta (Kolkata) while the service from Kalka inched slowly up the hills to take the viceroy to his summer residence in the cooler climes of Shimla.

"These little trains are so much a part of Indian life that it is difficult to imagine the country without them," Mr McDonald writes in the essays that accompany the pictures.

"And they epitomise the breadth and depth of India. The trains run through mountains, deserts, steamy tea gardens and shivering fields of wheat.

"If there is a microcosm of Indian life in all its variety and fecundity, its pathos and its grace, its strangeness and its beauty, these trains are likely to be it."

That view is echoed by Alan Stokes, arts manager at Rheged. "The main attraction of the photographs is the variety of what you can see," he says.

"The democracy of Indian life is represented, while the landscapes are stunning - from the arid deserts to the dense forests and jungles."

But with the country undergoing rapid cultural and economic change, many of the railway lines actually face an uncertain future as India's government seeks to unify the rail system on a wider gauge.

Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption A youngster enjoys a snack on the Barak Valley Express. Vendors are a common sight as they work their way up and down the carriages
Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption A train on the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway approaches the Batasia Loop - a spiral of track which reduces the gradient of the mountain ascent
Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption Cutting through towns on its way to the famous tea-growing district, the Darjeeling-Himalayan line provides an intimate view of Indian life

For Ms Anderson, the project has been a rewarding one and the exhibition is set to visit Sydney and New York in 2015.

"It's been a complete joy to be surrounded by the pictures," says the 39-year-old, who works as chief of staff for Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border.

Reflecting on her fiancé's death, she says: "You think it's not fair, but fairness doesn't come into it. Cancer doesn't pick and choose its victims.

"Of course it was very difficult. In deciding against more chemo, he thought about his quality of life. Angus had six months of pretty much good health and we spent our time together as normally as possible.

"We went camping in the Outback and doing as much travelling around Australia as we could.

"Even to this day I don't know what the cause of death was. I suspect he developed a blood clot on the journey from Sydney to Burma.

"The post-mortem was fairly inconclusive."

As the second anniversary of his death approaches, Ms Anderson is clear about what she would like the book and exhibition to achieve.

"I would like people to come away with an appreciation of what an amazing photographer Angus was and how humble he was and lacking in artifice - the values he really embodied.

"He was very compassionate, he had a great respect for people and their place in the world, and a real sense of how small we are in the grand scheme of things.

"He felt it was his duty to document that."

Image copyright Angus McDonald
Image caption Catherine Anderson and Angus McDonald first met when living in the Indian Himalayan community of Mcleodganj, home to the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan community

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