One Last Shot

The corpse photographers of Varanasi.

Albert Photo Studio’s Inder Kumar frames a shot at the Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi. MITHILA JOSHI FOR THE CARAVAN
01 June, 2013

UNLIKE MOST ESTABLISHMENTS in Varanasi, which down their shutters well before 10 pm each day, the photo studios at the city’s Manikarnika ghat have unusually busy schedules. Services are offered around the clock at each of these five studios, located on the narrow lanes leading to the crematorium at the ghat. The reason for this becomes apparent on a closer examination of the photo collages on their display racks: the photographers at these studios specialise in photographing corpses. Since the ghat itself is open 24 hours a day, the services allied to the cremation ceremony also remain available continuously. These include barbers who perform the ritual shearing, wood sellers for the funeral pyre—and corpse photographers.

“It’s a fashion,” said Kaushal Jha, a lean 22-year-old in a faux Nike cap, who manages Shmashan Nath Photo Studio, and whom I met one afternoon in the third week of April. “Then there’s the fact that they want something to remember them by. These pictures are kept in their pooja-ghar and worshipped.” Jha, who is also regularly hired by the Varanasi police to photograph profiles of undertrials, has been in the business of photographing corpses for about seven years.

Locals gathered around as I spoke to Jha, and he showed me some pictures he had shot. There were chiefly two kinds of composition: one, of the body flanked by relatives, the other a closer top-shot of the body on the bier, a kind of horizontal headshot. “These photographs also work as a proof,” said 38-year-old Pandit Ganesh Pandey, one of the onlookers who had assembled at Jha’s studio. “You don’t get death certificates at this crematorium. Those coming from far off take pictures of the dead bodies and use them to establish the death of a person. Many aren’t even related to the deceased, but with the date and time printed on the photograph, they use it to claim their share in the deceased’s property.”

The oldest studio in the area is Albert Photo Studio, which has been operational for 13 years. I found the manager, 68-year-old Bilaal Nishad, sitting on the steps of his studio, seeming almost in a meditative mood as he waited for the next passing funeral procession. Earlier a tourist photographer at the nearby Assi ghat, Nishad started his business in the year 2000 after a landlord friend proposed the idea and offered him the use of one of his shops. “The first time I made money from photographing the dead, I could not bring myself to use it for my family,” he said. “Then I thought, this is what I do for a living. I can’t shirk my responsibilities.” Of late, he has handed over the primary work to his 16-year-old grandson Inder Kumar. I asked Kumar if he planned to make a career out of the work. “I don’t know,” Kumar replied with a weak smile.

Chants of “Ram naam satya hai” filled the air, growing louder as a procession approached. Nishad looked up. “Photu khichai, bhaiyya?” (Want to take a photo?) he said in Bhojpuri, his voice booming across the lane. The carriers ignored him. Nishad gestured at his grandson, who scurried after them. “They seem like they would be interested,” he said to me.

As it turned out, they weren’t, despite Nishad’s persistence. But on the ghat, I found that Jha had managed to crack a deal. He was on the steps leading to the cremation spot on the river bank. An oppressive heat radiated from nearby pyres. Standing between two pyres nearly burnt ashen, Jha was instructing the relatives of the deceased on preparing for the photograph.

The convener of the group untied the coir rope tethering the body to the bier. Six layers of white sheet were peeled off the face. The deceased was an old man, probably in his sixties, eyes shut, stubble on his leathery face. Jha asked the relative to adjust the angle of the head so that it faced straight up. They gathered around the body. Almost on theatrical cue, the chants of “Om Namah Shivay” in the background increased in tempo. Gusts of hot winds lashed our backs. Nearby, cows chomped on marigolds. A tourist out to experience Incredible India looked on curiously, sipping on a soft drink. An undertaker pushed a log deeper into a pyre raging some distance away.


Back in Jha’s shop, a group had gathered again. Photographers all, they were nevertheless shy about being photographed themselves. “Would any of you like yourself to be clicked after you are dead?” I asked them. “Of course not,” came the unanimous answer. Deepak, of Hari Om Studio was quick to add: “Who would?”