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.”