Indian Posthumous Portraits

MAA by Federico Carpani & Indra Kumar Jha

Indian Posthumous Portraits

MAA by Federico Carpani & Indra Kumar Jha

Federico Carpani & Indra Kumar Jha: MAA, 2015.
The usual practice of portraying the dead before cremation at Manikarnika Ghat becomes an indicator of the unusual and exotic Indian culture, and although taking posthumous portraits has a long and continuous tradition in the Western world, we seemed to have forgotten about this art form.

The book MAA had received its title after the near-universal word for mother, which also happens to be used in India to denote various goddesses. It was editorially, conceptually and visually designed by Italian photographer Federico Carpani, who appropriated the archive of Indra Kumar Jha, an Indian photographer of the dead, who has been given the right to photograph at the Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation area in Varanasi.

The city of Varanasi, which lies on the Ganges River, is believed to have cleansing powers, and with its 5 km long Ghats, it is the main (Hindu) pilgrimage and the spiritual capital of India. Many Indians believe that to die in Varanasi leads to being released (Moksha) from the circle of rebirth, which is why thousands of pilgrims and tourists flood into the holy city every year. It is one of the most visited and most photographed cities in India. In the part of Varanasi called the Manikarnika Ghat, where ritualistic cremations of the dead take place, photography is strictly forbidden, and it is also where professional photographer Indra Kumar Jha works. Loved ones of the deceased can order a posthumous portrait to be made by the photographer for a few rupees and can take possession of these photographs after the ritual is over. Potential clients can view samples of these photographs, as these are displayed on a wall in the street where the photographer works. It is there that Italian photographer Federico Carpani had come across Kumar Jha’s work and saw his photographs as an authentic documentation of local life, which he as a tourist and foreigner could never have captured himself. Indra had given him permission to use his photographs in the book, allowing Carpani to use (his) perception of the Manikarnika Ghat and present it by (re)designing the already existing material. 

The result is a book comprised of a collection of photographs from a systematically selected archive of approx. 10,000 Indra’s photos, taken between 2012 and 2015. The book is designed so that its pages can fold in a way that allows the reader to view both, their inner and outer layer, giving it the illusion of following two simultaneous sequences. The outer parts mainly depict portraits of the dead, a total of 108, and represent Carpani’s tribute to goddess Kali, the personification of (the passing of) time, creation and destruction, whose neck, according to Hindu iconography is embellished with a wreath consisting of the same number of decapitated heads. The inner pages represent a counterpoint to the posthumous portraits, consisting of scenes from everyday life, from various portraits (of the living), images of temples and other interiors, to family photos of weddings, christenings and other celebrations. When browsing through these pages, the reader is witness to the unfolding of a colourful image of everyday life at the Manikarnika Ghat, where the omnipresence of death represents a common feature of the mundane life of the local inhabitants. 

Although MAA allows for various interpretation of its (for some problematic) content, it through its very form (if we understand the photo book as an independent artistic medium) presents the manner in which it should be read. Appropriations of (in one way or another) “found” photographs are not exactly novelties in the field of art. In order to appropriate them, it is vital to design their context and/or meaning, which also requires a context within which it could be understood as such. In this particular case it concerns the transformation of a handmade product into an art project, a re-interpretation of its intended use and re-location from one culture to another (from India to the West). The usual practice of portraying the dead before cremation at Manikarnika Ghat becomes an indicator of the unusual and exotic Indian culture, and although taking posthumous portraits has a long and continuous tradition in the Western world, we seemed to have forgotten about this art form. The widespread practice of portraying the deceased from the late 19th and early 20th century, due to radical changes in the general attitude of Western society toward death and dead bodies, eventually began to disappear, yet has not done so entirely. Intercultural comparisons are offered at all levels of reading and no matter from which perspective we undertake this task, it is hard to avoid the history of Western imperialism. The book MAA also raises a number of considerations and concerns that transcend the mere question of the photographic medium and autonomous modes of artistic expression. Has the West (westerners) adopted the view of Indian culture and evaluated it according to which images are worth taking a look at, or has perhaps colonisation (of viewing), which was (and still is), even with the help of photos, exercised by the West, anchored itself so deep that even Indians tend to observe their culture through the eyes of a westerner.

Self-published, 2015
220 pages
500 copies

The usual practice of portraying the dead before cremation at Manikarnika Ghat becomes an indicator of the unusual and exotic Indian culture, and although taking posthumous portraits has a long and continuous tradition in the Western world, we seemed to have forgotten about this art form.
Federico Carpani & Indra Kumar Jha: MAA, 2015.

Self-published, 2015
220 pages
500 copies

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