Life in death

Federico Carpani and Indra Jha’s book on Varanasi peels off the city’s multiple layers

Published - February 17, 2016 08:40 pm IST

Federico Carpani and Indra Jha (left) in Varanasi

Federico Carpani and Indra Jha (left) in Varanasi

For Italian photographer Federico Carpani, his book “Maa” presents a real portrayal of Varanasi. Take away its stereotypical image of romanticised spirituality and what you see happening around is very casual and natural is the belief of the young artist.

“Maa” is about the funeral rituals performed on Manikarnika Ghat, one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi where the dead are cremated according to Hindu rites. Images of the dead along with everyday pictures from the ancient city form the crux of the book. Designed interestingly, the book comprises gatefolds with the outer sequence bearing 108 head shots of the deceased. “Everything else happens within these pages, this is the philosophical layer in the book. Goddess Kali wears a garland of 108 heads around her neck. Hence the outer sequence in the book is a stream of 108 heads as a tribute to her,” says Federico.

But isn’t the subject a little too disturbing? “Yes it is shocking. It does have pyres and gods and goddesses. And for an outsider it might seem hard and harsh but when you are in that space, it seems very natural and casual. It forces you to think about something we wouldn’t want to,” says the photographer who travels across the world. “Last time, I had a home was in 2014 in Berlin,” he says.

But Federico hasn’t clicked these images. He has selected from a collection of 10,000 photos taken by Indra Kumar Jha. A photographer at the ghat, he takes pictures of the rituals, customs, grieving relatives and the dead and offers the prints to those interested for a fee. “Indra is also the keeper of a small Kali temple on Manikarnika. He takes pictures everyday. When I met Indra first, he was just shooting and printing. So, we had to start afresh with creating a backup of all the pictures,” recalls Federico who has also published the book. Coming to India since 2008, Federico has shot Mahakumbh Mela and Sarnath over the years. Federico did another book in 2012 on the similar subject but wasn’t too happy with it. And then last year, Federico released “Maa” with well-known photographer, curator and publisher Martin Parr hailing it as one of the best books of the year on Photo-eye blog.

He is now busy promoting the book. At Rajasthan School of Arts in Kishanpole Bazaar in Jaipur, as part of Travel Photo Jaipur, the first edition of the open-air photography festival which concluded recently, Federico made a presentation on the book and also screened a short film. A presentation is slotted in Milan on the 27th of this month. “I want to do a public screening in Varanasi as well and since Tokyo also has a vibrant photography scene, I am keen on doing something there as well.” But eventually, Federico will return to Varanasi to complete another project, he has already started working on there.

(To order your copy and further details about the book visit

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