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Thursday, 14 November 2019

In the Morgue

A morgue freezer; images copyright Arun Vijai Mathavan

Thanks to \Prashant Panjiar for the pointer to Arun Vijai Mathavan who has made this work on Indian morturaries in Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh. It's a story about the dalit people who work in the morgue, the people who do post-mortems, it's stuck with me because it's so unexpected and the images are all about the people, the space and the little details like where they sleep and what they eat, and the poverty and prejudice that comes with their work.

Morgue stories usually focus on the dead and either how peaceful they look, how artful they look, the transformation of face to mask, and the conflict between symbols of life and symbols of death and the natural entropy that overtakes us all.

There's a curator of a museum of death in London who once said that we are never more alive than when we die, that our living body is a mechanism of defensive strategies for limiting the species that live in our body. Life, to her, is a controlled farming exercise where the human cells that make up 10% of the body's 100 trillion cells control the 90% of the  viruses, microbes, and bacteria that are not human. When we die however, these cells are allowed to flourish, as are the mass of other microbes, flora and fauna that devour our body. For her, a human body is never more alive than in the few weeks after death. Which is a pretty good perspective for a curator of a museum of death to take.

By the same token, here it's the life that surrounds death, that is created by the death of these morgue inhabitants that is the essence of the project. The bodies are not irrelevant, but they are a side detail. And that's an interesting perspective to take.

Here's a description of the story from Chennai Photo Biennale.

What we do with our dead, how we regard them, is dependent on the specific conditions into which we are born—belief, religion, language, place, sect, caste, gender and, in recent times, science. In India, those classified as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’ have been forced to handle the dead for centuries. The manner in which they are compelled to do this in modern, state-run hospitals has gone unnoticed and undocumented. My project proposes to shine a light on an unknown, shrouded world.

We live in a time when unnatural deaths are subjected to investigation. Before a surgeon handles the body, a team of trained staff prepares it. There are elaborate procedures relating to how the body should be handled and what the qualifications a technician should have. After the autopsy, highly skilled work is performed; the corpse is wrapped; the ventilators are removed; no visible incision is left to be seen; the viscera are carefully handled; and the body is reconstituted by sewing it back together. In all this, the coroner is assisted by a team of lab technicians.

In India, the reality of this process is shockingly different from our perception. In almost all hospitals in India, a range of tasks, sometimes even the opening of the torso with the Y-incision, is done by semi-literate, low-level staff. They belong to the Dalit communities. Official identity cards designate the men as “Sanitary Workers.” Much like other stigmatized work in a society organized by caste, such as handling all manner of waste (including human excreta), the cleaning of sewers, or the skinning of animal carcasses, this modern work too has become hereditary. The ill-equipped workers, with outmoded refrigerators and crude implements, perform heroic tasks in dismal conditions. They suffer from several occupational ailments and work-related infections from handling the decomposed, verminous bodies. Tasked with endowing dignity on the dead, they face a social death. The untrained, underpaid, Dalits cannot tell their friends and neighbors what they do for a living.

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