The rise and fall of Varanasi’s corpse photographers12 min read . Updated: 28 Jun 2019, 03:05 PM IST
- It is between the years 1999 and 2000 that the profession of corpse photography began and really took off on Manikarnika, because of red tape on the ghats
- With the advent of smartphone cameras, and resident photographers being displaced because of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, the profession may be nearing its own demise
What can one say about the future?" asks Dilip Chaurasia, sitting cross-legged on a gaddi at his paan bhandar(roadside stall). He is unperturbed, even mildly amused by the idea of death. “A few days ago, a drummer was part of a procession carrying a corpse," he says. “Bajate hue, achanak raaste mein hi khatam ho gaye (and while playing, he suddenly collapsed and died on the way). A middle-aged gentleman sitting on the steps nearby chimes in, “Yahan murda zinda hote dekha hai (Here, we have seen the dead come back to life). You probably think this is a joke but I have seen it five times, the body just got up and started walking."
This is a place where mortality, it seems, is sometimes comic relief, always commonplace, and on this particular day, crammed into every corner.
“Moksha ke marg mein traffic jam (a traffic jam on the road to salvation)" read local headlines on 18 June in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, nearly a month after his decisive re-election and a day after we speak to Chaurasia and his companion. In the sinuous by-lanes leading up to Varanasi’s Manikarnika ghat, where Hindus from across the country bring the dead to be cremated beside the Ganga, there is chaos. A particularly cruel summer has filled it to the brim with bodies.
Flanked by shops—decorated with Modi masks and posters that read “Kashi ki shaan, mera PM, mera abhimaan"—which sell everything from gutkha (chewing tobacco) to firewood, an orchestra of male voices chants Ram naam satya hai. These disharmonious vocalists are groups of men, standing dutifully behind an endless train of similarly incanting clusters, each carrying on their shoulders a corpse shrouded in a dazzling orange and gold chunnis. Just before the landing near the ghats, ahead of a now-shuttered Raga Café (with a Rahul Gandhi sticker plastered on it to drive home the jibe), lie close to 25 fabric-swaddled bodies waiting to be cremated, as those already burning throw up ash and smoke. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag planted firmly by local boatmen into the rocks on the ghat flutters above the remains and rubble.
Meandering through the bedlam is the stocky Raghu Pandey, 28, wearing a bright orange shirt and black trousers. With a camera bag slung across his shoulder, he navigates the burning pyres purposefully, until he spots a family laying a deceased old lady on a stack of firewood. Pandey approaches the head of the family—a man with a ritualistically shaved head, wearing a white gamcha and dhoti—and asks if he would like a picture taken of the corpse. The man agrees.
Pandey whips out his SLR and, for the next 10 minutes, takes a variety of pictures, subsequently showing them to the mourners for approval. He photographs the face of the corpse on the pyre, the family posing around the body, the head of the family touching the feet of the deceased, and various stages of the cremation process.
“We got the photograph taken for prayer and as a keepsake," says Kundan Kishore Prasad, the man in the white dhoti who performed the last rites. An advocate, he has travelled to Varanasi from Nawada, Bihar. “She was my mother, and we want something to remember her by," he says. Pandey charges according to the size and number of images a family selects. It’s ₹120 for three copies of a 4x6-inch-print, ₹150 for 5x7 and ₹250 for 8x12. As the body burns over two-and-a-half hours, the young photographer will run over to a nearby lab and get the images printed.
Even through the 24-hour din of death on Manikarnika, age-old barriers of caste and profession remain visible. From the Doms, who it is believed have been cursed by Lord Shiva (and persistently by an oppressive system) to be corpse burners, to the boatmen and barbers, right up to the pandits, who perform pujas, the roles are rigidly enforced. Flouting these conventions somewhat are a recent addition to the shamshaan ghat ecosystem—the corpse photographers of Manikarnika.
From Kensington to Kashi
It was in 1999-2000 that the profession of corpse photography really took off on Manikarnika ghat. Though the demand for their services is now on the decline, with camera phones making their way into the market, Bachche Lal Nishad, 74, one of the pioneers of the profession, remembers how it all began.
“In the age of black and white photography, and after 1984, even with colour photography, everything had to be done by hand. With the digital camera and the smartphone, the demand for us photographers underwent a change," he says, seated in his blue-walled home in a village named Katesar, across the river.
Nearly 20 years ago, Nishad set up Albert Studio, whose signboard still hangs on the long wall on Manikarnika ghat, two years after his retirement. The little space behind it now sells garments.
Part of the boatmen community, Nishad recalls how he chose to name his studio after a concert hall in South Kensington, London. “Naam dhoondne ke liye hum bohot prayas kiye, par koi kayde ka naam mila nahi (I tried very hard to come up with a name for the studio, but couldn’t find anything suitable)," he says. “I believe you shouldn’t name your business after anyone in your family so I started watching films," adds Nishad. But cinema proved to be a dead end, and the search continued. Until one day, he heard a Lata Mangeshkar record at a friend’s home. “I picked up the record sleeve and saw ‘Albert Hall, London’ written on it and I loved the name. So I named my studio after it."
Nishad grew up in a poor family on Dashashwamedh ghat. His father was a carpenter and mother a homemaker. As a young boy of 13, he would help at a photography studio near his home. For a small sum, Nishad would buy tea and paan for the staff, until he worked up the courage four years later to ask if he could learn photography as well. “I learnt how to develop images in a darkroom, how to process them, the nuances of sketching and touch-ups," he says. Nishad can rattle off camera brands and the chronology in which he owned them off the top of his head—a Yashica was his first.
A few years after he photographed everything from fairs to marriages across Bihar, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, Nishad found his way to Manikarnika as a corpse photographer. There, he built a life over 17 years, until severe pain in his knees forced him to retire. He now spends his days watching TV or playing Ludo by himself.
Before he set up Albert Studio, Nishad says there were two other corpse photographers at the ghat, but they disappeared shortly after he came on the scene. One, he says, was reprimanded and asked to leave Manikarnikaby a magistrate from Delhi when he failed to deliver photographs of the irate juror’s deceased mother, and the other allegedly got caught up in a crime of passion and now roams the ghats of Varanasi as a sadhu.
The reason photography took off, it turns out, is more straightforward: They stopped keeping records of the deceased on the ghats, says Nishad.
Red tape on the ghats
Until 17 February 1998, an officer from the local Nagar Nigam, called murda munshi (corpse clerk), would sit in a rented office on Manikarnika ghat. It was his job to register the name of the deceased brought to the ghat—this would then serve as proof of death, and, the slip he issued had to be given to those who would handle the body in its final moments. The system worked well until families began to game it. “The name of the body brought in would be Ram and the entry would be in Shyam’s name," says Narsingh Das, deputy chairman, Varanasi municipal corporation. “This would lead to a lot of confusion and litigation with the Nagar Nigam as a party in these cases, and a lot of complaints started coming in."
This was particularly common in cases of land disputes, residents of the ghat say. Family members would pay bribes and have living relatives declared dead to gain ownership of property. So Hardeo Singh, who served as Nagar Nigam commissioner in 1998, ended the practice and all the records are now considered invalid. The Nagar Nigam in Varanasi still houses the original registers maintained by murda munshis, dating back to 1980, but officers there say they have been instructed not to give out certified copies since these records have no basis in law.
“The rule now states that you have to go to the birth and death registration office at the place of death of the deceased within 21 days of the death, along with relevant ID proof and witnesses. Once the form is filled and relevant documents submitted, a death certificate is issued," says Das, citing the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969.
Enter corpse photographers, whose photographs serve as evidence of death—helping to register the death at the office concerned, as well as in other proceedings or disputes.
B.N. Das, a general manager at a hotel in Varanasi, hired a photographer on the ghats when his aunt died on 19 June. “We got her photograph taken before she was cremated on the ghats. First, taking a picture of her full face helps the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will later be born know what their grandmother looked like," he says. “Additionally, she worked in a government job, as a teacher. So in order to get insurance and other facilities post death, the photograph is a useful legal device."
Tricks of the trade
Back on the steps of Manikarnika ghat, Pandey is sipping tea as pyres burn a few yards away. Photography has long been a passion, and he learnt the angles and technology from his uncle Deepak Pandey, who has been a photographer for over two decades. Pandey says observation and experience have taught him that the face of the corpse must be clearly visible and the photograph needs to be framed so that the body is usually in the centre. “I am a Brahmin, so many people in my family are pandits, but photography was my passion and I knew I wanted to make something for myself, and help support my father, who is now partially paralysed," he says, going through his camera to show me some weddings he has shot in the past. “It’s very different shooting weddings and corpses... one is a moment of joy and another of mourning," he adds.
His paternal uncle and “guru", Deepak Pandey, 53, is not particularly fond of the limelight. An experienced photographer, he says he has dabbled in journalism, and enjoys “field work", which includes mostly weddings and birthday celebrations.
“In a sense, photographing a dead body is incorrect," says the senior Pandey. “But what can one do, several people need these photographs." Even so, he follows a strict self-imposed code and is clear that certain assignments are off limits. “If it is a young person’s body, we refuse point blank, and even recommend that the client not have the photograph taken, it will be very difficult for the family members," he says. “Here, we only see bodies being carried, but what that body means is something only the family can understand."
Photographer Kaushal Jha, who usually sits at the ghat under a board which reads “Baba Shamshaan Nath Studio", adds that he would never take photographs of corpses with cut-up or damaged faces.
In March, a month before he filed his nomination from Varanasi, Modi laid the foundation stone for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, which aims to make access to the Kashi Vishwanth Temple more seamless for the hundreds of thousands of Lord Shiva devotees who visit every year. Reports estimate that the project, which started in 2018, will cost ₹600 crore, clear around 45,000 sq. m of space around the temple and create dedicated pathways 50ft wide.
A small part of the area that will soon be razed includes Chaurasia’s paanbhandar and Pandey’s home on Manikarnika. Through the rubble of already cleared land, Pandey and I walk to his home to get some water before he gets back to work, steering clear of a JCB doing some heavy lifting overhead. We stumble over rubble on the way to his house—two yellow and green window-less rooms with a small courtyard, where he lives with his parents, uncle, aunt and their daughters. “Once the house goes, we will move to Domri village across the river," he says, equal parts apprehensive about moving out of a home his family has lived in for over nine generations and excited about a new start. “But there is no other place that feels quite like this."
Pandey’s father, Rakesh, says when the photography business was at its peak, they would earn anything from ₹200-2,000 per day and get at least 10 customers. But with the advent of smartphones, and resident photographers like Raghu and Deepak being displaced from the ghat because of the corridor project, the profession of death photography may perhaps be nearing its own demise. Daily income is diminishing, and several photographers have already taken up other professions.
Shubham Dey, 27, who took over from Nishad when he retired, says sometimes he would go weeks without making any money. “I waited for two months and couldn’t make ends meet, so I quit last year and looked for a job. Now I work with a state bank and help customers with credit cards," he says.
As the Pandey family prepares to leave Manikarnika over the coming weeks, the seat under the sign that reads Hari Om Studio, just like Albert Studio and Shankar Studio, will be left empty. “Now everyone has a mobile phone, so today if 100 bodies are brought to the ghat, maybe one or two will be photographed, and that too is difficult," laments Pandey. “But a camera is a camera, a mobile is a mobile, a photographer will always click far better-quality photographs."
Chants of Ram naam satya hai and a violent dust storm waft through the by-lanes once more. The young photographer gets on his feet and walks back into the thick of things—negotiating with mourners, surrounded by 18 simultaneously burning pyres, under the towering presence of the BJP flag.
What can one say about the future?