It is often extremely bizarre how stories, anecdotes in random conversations leave a considerably deep impression in our minds. Sometimes, so much so that we start pursuing them as a challenge, as another exciting story and most importantly, another experience. More so, if one is a journalist by profession, a tad (read: extra) bit inquisitive one, like me. I remember the celebrated photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri once mention a chapter in Amit Chaudhuri's book Calcutta: Two Years In The City [Penguin India, 2014] which has a picture of a man photographed with his dead wife in the eeriest fashion. But what is even more astounding is the fact that the picture was taken in a studio in Kolkata's Hooghly area, minutes before the dead wife's funeral. Amit Chaudhuri, in his book, writes about it saying, "Pictures of this kind are unusual, but not unheard-of," and that is what piqued my interest and I embarked upon this journey to find one (or more) of these 'photographers of the dead'.
Death, in India, is often seen with the lens of spirituality and mysticism. West Bengal, in fact, the entire belt of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, is considered a hotbed for practices like necromancy, sorcery etc. There are many tales of how funeral grounds, especially during the night, would become notorious sites for tantriks and cult groups who would engage in cannibalism and consumption of illicit drugs and liquor. Keoratala cremation ground, one of Kolkata's largest, was once one of these haunting grounds where people would hardly ever come except for conducting the last rites of their deceased near and dear ones.
In this Keoratala crematorium, were once a set of five photographers whose daily job was to shoot pictures of dead bodies — day in and day out. As morbid as it may sound, it was a popular and flourishing business in the area. Shanti Ghosh, aged 57, is probably one of the last from the quintet who still can be seen at Keoratala, once in a blue moon. He doesn't shoot pictures anymore; he just comes to his shop once a week, or sometimes even less frequently, to check his its condition, which is no less than around 200 years old.
"People used to say we are photographers of the dead. They would often mock us socially. We felt bad, but then what else can we do?" says Ghosh, who is the third and last generation of photographers from a family that had otherwise no links to the art of writing with light. Originally, a resident of the village named Sashan (ironically translates to ‘funeral ground’) in West Bengal’s Baruipur district, Ghosh's grandfather came to the city of Kolkata in search of work and chose the then just-in art of photography as a means to livelihood. Why he confined himself to clicking pictures of the dead is not something Ghosh is aware of.
The other four photographers — who Ghosh mentions by the surnames include a certain Datta, a Mukherjee, another Mukherjee and a Manna — have left the place; sold the shops and settled either in their ancestral villages or taken other jobs. Some are dead.
Today, with the advent of smartphones with smarter camera specifications, the need for a photographer to document a dead family member seems to be both an insensitive as well as redundant. But until a few years ago, around 2007, these photographers were rather in vogue. They made money out of this generation-spanning business; bought lands and properties back in their native lands. Today when there is no job, they are living off on all the savings from years of clicking pictures.
Ghosh says in their heydays, these photographers used to be treated like VIPs and were given "jamai aador" (translated: the love and privilege of an Indian son-in-law). "They used to literally beg in front of us to go and click pictures of their deceased relative. We used to be too busy anyway during the busier days, but they would offer us pick and drop services and what not," fondly reminisces Ghosh. He further informs that equipment from their studios were also used in films (including the 1969 Bengali film Shesh Theke Shuru) and several stage dramas. "I have also shot pictures for a wedding or a family function. Travelling with the entire camera set up (including a heavy large-format camera along with its iron stands) used to be one hell of a lot of effort, but it was good money," he adds. Otherwise, on any ordinary day, they preferred to stick around their area of comfort — the burning grounds of Keoratala and Shirdi Shimultala, a little further away.
"Those days, we had a turn system; each of us would go out one day to shoot. And mind you, our duty lasted for the entire day, which is full twenty-four hours. There were five of us, so each of our turns would come after a gap of five days. Clicking these last-moment pictures were in rage those days. Suppose my shift ended at 10 am and a body arrived at 10.01 am, we literally would get into fist fights to decide who gets the slot. You see, there was a crisis of photographers those days," recalls Ghosh. And this dearth of photographers always worked for their favour. "The fare for these photographs, during the time of my grandfather, used to be somewhere around Rs 30, which was a huge amount then. We would make three copies of a single picture in black and white... I am talking about the pre-Independence days. When I was photographing, we used to charge somewhere around Rs 150 per picture and make at least Rs 3000 a day. Our rates were higher than many photographers in the city; people used to haggle but the rates were fixed. Both photographing and availability of photographers were a rarity those days, unlike today where everybody is clicking a picture every now and then."
Charging hefty money for the last picture of a person with their close ones might come across a little insensitive, but doing whatever it took to make their ends meet was their only option, as this was their only occupation. Behind this professional viewfinder and the task of capturing death, these photographers also had a human, living heart. "Initially we used to take 80 percent of the money beforehand and the remaining after handing them the pictures. But later, people didn't bother to come and collect their pictures and we lost on money gradually. So then, we made it a rule that we were paid first and only then we would click pictures. In some cases, where we could see that the customer doesn't belong to a financially-strong background, we clicked pictures at very cheap rates. After all, humanity always precedes monetary gains, more so at the gates of death," says Ghosh.
Capturing dead bodies — day after day, year after year — has sort of made them "used to" death. "We've seen burnt bodies, rotten bodies, infected bodies; bodies of men and women; bodies of stillborn," mentions Ghosh and elucidates his various experiences in the job. He adds, "There used to be dead bodies [of people] who had been either murdered or burnt alive. Their relatives would ask us to click their pictures after they stripped the bodies off any clothes so that those pictures could later be used as pieces of evidence. In the case of dead bodies of women, we would refuse straight away; we could never click pictures of women in that state, not even for money. Then, there were many who would ask us to click the pictures of the dead body alone, without any living relative around. These pictures were clicked because there wouldn't be any other picture of the deceased while he was alive. So we would click one last and probably the only picture of the departed which was used to perform all the final rituals. You see, people then worshipped parents like gods and goddesses. Today none of that happens."
Speaking to Ghosh, one can almost trace the evolution of photography — both as an art as well as a practice — over the turn of a century and a half. While clicking pictures on camera phones today might seem like a complete no-sweat, back then when the camera, as equipment, was itself evolving, photography was a complex as well as a cumbersome activity. Starting from cameras with glass slides to the ones with negative films, Ghosh explains how more than the equipment, their technical expertise mattered in capturing the pictures.
"The technology of the camera wasn't as sophisticated as that of today. We had to be very careful about the aperture: while we had to arrange for an external shutter arranged with a light bulb (in older days, a mixture of magnesium and potassium chlorate, called the flash powder was burnt as an external flash) during the night; it was pretty normal photography with natural light during the day. At night, we used hurricane lamps to mark positions in a frame. You see, in pitch darkness, a lot can get cut out if not marked properly. More so, if there were a large number of people. Sometimes, more than a hundred folks of the deceased would come to pay their last respects. So we had to use those hurricane lamps to ensure that anyone’s head, and more importantly the dead body, is not cropped out of the frame," says Ghosh.
Since keeping photographs of oneself wasn't something common those days, for some, these pictures (clicked after their death) were their only photographs ever, their last image. So, any goof-ups while photographing them meant there won’t be any token of remembrance of the deceased for the posterity. "Today, one has a picture on their voter card, PAN card etc, but those days all of this wasn’t around. So, for them, this last picture was all they ever had — or all that they left back as a visual memory of themselves. In many instances, we had to guarantee the relatives of the dead that we will click usable pictures; we wrote this in their bills!" he says.
While three generations of Ghosh's family earned money and recognition with photographing dead, this practice somehow lost its need and relevance with the pacing time. Why did Ghosh's offsprings not take up this as a profession? "This will not work in today’s day and age. I have no sons, but only a single daughter. And, girls don’t do this kind of a job... clicking pictures of dead bodies... not at all. But majorly, if you see, with time the practice of clicking these pictures is dead. Today people have smartphones; they can click pictures whenever they want — of the dead and the alive — at equal convenience. But, clicking pictures of someone you love being dead is difficult. Maybe that’s why people prefer not to click them and hence it has become obsolete these days. Plus, if they want us to click pictures they also need to pay for our services and why would someone do that when their smartphones can do it for them for free?" says Ghosh, while unlocking his bicycle and shutting his shop for the day.
All the archival pictures are shot by Shanti Ghosh. The exact year when each photograph has been shot isn't known. By and large, the above pictures were shot over five decades, from the late 1960s to early 2000s.
Other pictures (of Shanti Ghosh) were photographed by the author.