In Arun Vijai Mathavan's photo project, a look at how caste has seeped into postmortem procedures
Western medicine is relatively new in India, and despite coming from a region where caste divisions didn’t exist, discrimination seems to have made its way into the Indian system, says Arun Vijai Mathavan
Arun Vijai Mathavan's photo project documents scenes from mortuaries in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where most staff members are Dalit.
Unofficially trained sanitary workers perform postmortems with little or no tools, Arun found.
The task of dealing with the dead is still delegated to Dalits in such mortuaries.
As you enter a room at the Senate House at Madras University, one of the venues of the Chennai Photo Biennale, you find a set of images displayed with tools. The instruments are large, harsh and could easily come from a mechanic’s shop. But look closer and you will see haunting images of corpses sewn up, pools of blood, sanitary workers, and their lives in a morgue. There are empty operation tables, empty chairs and piles of clothing — all of which are haunted by the looming presence of what was once there.
Arun Vijai Mathavan, hailing from the Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, studied photography at NID Ahmedabad after a short stint at at BPO in Bengaluru. His interest in capturing environmentally and socially relevant subjects led him onto the search for one for his graduation project, that would enable him to visually map the evolution of caste-based discrimination in a technologically advanced society.
“This was also the time when news of several 'honour killings' in Tamil Nadu was out in the media. That caste-based discrimination exists is something we know. I wanted to focus on the fact that it often evolves faster than technology and finds a place in modern/Western systems quickly,” he says, “For instance, we have seen enough technological advancement to look for a partner online, but still rely on a caste-based search. Some portals are even named after castes."
He chanced upon the Ahmedabad-based Navsarjan Trust and heard about sanitary workers from the Valmiki community, who perform postmortems in hospitals. Unable to document their work, he came to Tamil Nadu in 2016 with access to photograph. What began was a journey to uncover the grim, often morbid reality of sanitary workers, all of whom belong to the Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
“Postmortems are often performed by forensic pathologists in other parts of the world. In India, the norms may be relaxed, but a registered medical practitioner is still needed to perform them,” he adds. The ground reality is very different: Unofficially trained sanitary workers perform postmortems with little or no tools. “It’s much like a mechanic being inducted into the profession, learning on the job from his seniors. The methods too are primitive and risky. For instance, a sanitary worker would determine alcohol consumption in an accident case by smelling,” he explains. Gloves come in a few standard sizes, failing to provide protection to those with smaller hands, he adds.
The stories are endless, and the only incentive that drives them is the distant dream of a government job. “The task of dealing with the dead was traditionally relegated to Dalit communities. Western medicine is relatively new in India, and despite coming from a region where caste divisions didn’t exist, discrimination seems to have made its way into the Indian system,” he explains.
During his initial visits to the morgue, Mathavan spoke to the workers, to hear their stories and establish a rapport. He took no pictures; in fact, he did not carry a camera. “This lasted nearly month, after which I began taking some pictures and showing them to the workers. In due course, they forgot I was there and I had effectively become a fly on the wall,” he says.
In the course of documenting every part of the process, Mathavan encountered numerous stories. “One of the oldest workers came to the hospital from a village in Andhra Pradesh in 1965, giving up farming in the pursuit of a lucrative job. He began as a sanitary worker at the hospital, and one of his duties was to clean the mortuary. Slowly, the doctor began asking for help in physical tasks, such as lifting up the body. Over time, he began performing the postmortems,” he says.
“Since he is a Dalit, he was asked to bring in more workers from his community,” he says, explaining the many unofficial ways in which caste divisions creep into new systems. He was also witness to the skills being passed on to newer recruits. “I met a young boy who took up a job there. He began with helping lift up the body and smaller jobs. After three months, he was performing autopsies on his own, under supervision,” explains Mathavan.
What started out as a graduation project — as his take on systematic caste-based oppression — became an exercise in documentation, with a scope much larger than he had imagined. Mathavan plans to take the self-funded exercise to other states where he can get access.
“I had a few unexplained bouts of infection during the project and anxiety attacks that made me consider abandoning it. I had to be hospitalised on one occasion and developed several irrational fears,” says Mathavan of his own trauma during the project. “None of the sights were pleasant, and some of the things I observed made me re-examine the caste system and life at large. During an autopsy, when the throat is slit and the organs removed from the body, all that remains is a cage (rib) and flesh. Every person is no more than that, no matter what the caste,” he says.
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