Varanasi is decidedly one of the most inspiring destinations for photographers. Of all the stepped ghats, Manikarnika is one of the most coveted spots; ancient temples, cows, kachauri and lassi sellers, early morning worshippers and death processions, make for intriguing subjects in the cramped labyrinth of lanes. The haze of smoke from pyres, often mingling with the orange rays of the sun, adds a fantastical touch to the unwitting subjects.
Walking down the Manikarnika street, with touristic morbidity to photograph the burning pyres from atop a hospice, I stopped to give way to a cow, the more rightful occupant of the narrow street. That's when my eyes fell on the jumble of cremation paraphernalia, packed in a small shop. Amongst incense, flowers, ladders, stacks of wood and bright shining sheets, I spotted a dusty frame that hung precariously on a wall, camouflaged between photo frames of Gods. A collage of people with cotton-stuffed nostrils, eyes forcefully shut and sullen faces surrounding the dead peered at me. Here, was the unglamorous side of photography--pictures of the dead. After a morning spent enquiring about this bizarre photographic need, I was finally introduced to the man behind the lens.
Young Imran joined me at the shop, still rubbing off the sleep from his eyes; there had been a work call at 2am. The Manikarnika ghat never sleeps. Pyres burn through the night and the supporting infrastructure of tea stalls and the cremation shops remain open. Two cups of tea later he started telling me about his unique job of being an indispensable part of the cremation ceremony. Many villagers, who come to cremate a loved one, often want a picture with the deceased. No, this is not entirely for posterity, just a re-iteration or possibly the only way of affirming their relationship with the one on the last journey. Armed with a print of this proof of their association, they can now claim to be the valid heir to the property left behind. So amidst the grieving and chaotic ceremonies, this picture is an essential part of the process. Of course, there are some who find it a befitting time to take a last picture.
Imran picked up the camera as a young boy of thirteen. He admits that at first, it was heart wrenching to point a camera towards a dead, but the awkwardness soon evaporated. He was able to brush aside the morbidity, logically pegging it against the grave need of the photograph. After all, this is what the relatives wanted. The job once reaped colossal benefits. He admits that business seems to be on the decline. With everyone wielding a smart phone, his skill is rapidly becoming redundant. Imran poignantly points out how city possibly sell the prints for profits. On the other hand, his photographs are devoid of artistic appreciation, though taking them is more emotionally involving.
When I ask if I can take a picture of him, he averts his gaze, a clear sign for me to not press the trigger. Imran is quite camera shy himself.