Rarely does an era come to an end with as much fanfare as it did, say, in the case of India winning independence from colonial rule in 1947. So is the case of the second phase, beginning in 1947, in the over 150-year history of the Indian Railways. Like the Indian Postal Service, it has, at some time or the other, touched most of us.
Last week, a small advertisement in national dailies revealed that the Indian Railways was looking for a new logo to replace the existing one. It essentially solicited competing designs with the promise of Rs5 lakh to the winner and, of course, the unsaid: The pleasure of being associated with probably the most popular brand in India. The country’s largest transporter was signalling that it was looking to move on and give itself a contemporary look consistent with the new India.
The transition seems to be hurried, however, because the deadline is just a little over a week from the time the advertisement was placed in the papers and a press release issued by the Indian Railways. Rather strange, considering that at stake is the enviable ethos of a brand developed over decades and something that means so much for this country. Conspiracy theorists could well wonder whether a design has been pre-decided and what we are seeing is only the rigour of routine. Or it may well be something more benign, a symptom of the chaos and arbitrariness that has overtaken the railways ever since its leadership shifted to an absentee minister a year ago. The existing logo (shown above) is circular with the frontal shot of a steam engine equipped with the signature cow-catcher guard as the centrepiece; the unique emboss of the government of India is in the middle, conveying a sense of sovereign comfort. Circularly enclosing the steam engine are 16 stars, representing the railway’s administrative zones in the country.
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It is an image that brings back nostalgic memories of growing up as part of a family of south Indian immigrants in Delhi. Part of this was the annual summer ritual of boarding a train and journeying over four days with two transits to our final destination in north Kerala. The most fun part was the journey itself: of being with common friends, savouring snacks and peering through the grills of our second-class coach to catch a glimpse of the steam engine spewing black coal dust, the childish pleasure of removing the dust from the matted mops at the end of four days—and the ultimate pleasure of glimpsing up close the hissing steam engine at station halts.
I am sure the Indian Railways means much more for many others, especially in terms of the utility that it provides millions of passengers and in moving freight around the country.
The nostalgia aside, you would think that the reworking of an existing logo, especially of one such as the Indian Railways’ with millions of stakeholders, would in the first place engage the public a lot more and also convey the sense of history and underlying ethos to fire the creative mind of designers. The advertisement, however, does not carry any such references and only lays down some broad markers, including that it should be innovative, generate an impact and have recall value.
This may well be because an official record pertaining to the origins of the existing logo is hard to come by. While it is certainly not on the Indian Railways website, the director of the Railway Museum in Delhi hazards that the logo must have been created sometime in 1952-53; a former Railway Board chairman had no clue and neither did a raft of serving officers. What is apparent is that the logo has been updated as the railways has progressively added zones: It began with six zones in 1950 and expanded progressively to 16 in 1996. (I am hoping that some Mint reader would be able to communicate the sense of history that underlies the imminent transition from the old logo to a new one.)
For any company the logo is critical—a half-bitten apple reminds us about probably the most innovative force in technology, Apple Inc. So is the case of the Indian Railways and any makeover should recognize this basic fact. Among all the attributes that go into the recall value of its existing logo is that it is a repository of the economic and political history of post-independence modern India and yet connects us to our troubled colonial past. It is a living symbol of the idea of India.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor ofMint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org