A man in a white kurta crouching on the road as a mob surrounds him, sticks raised and raining blows. An overhead drone shot of hundreds of pyres burning in the night sky. Labourers trudging home, children on their shoulders, bemusement in their eyes. These iconic images from the Delhi riots of 2020, the second wave of the pandemic, and the migrant crisis of the first lockdown are just some of the works of photojournalist Danish Siddiqui doing the rounds in the wake of his death while on duty for Reuters in Afghanistan.
When I posted a few of these images on Facebook, I found them published with a trigger warning label. Such an irony, given that the same conglomerate allows dozens of videos of people being beaten, lynched, assaulted, and humiliated to be shared widely and triumphantly on WhatsApp, the messaging service it owns.
Facebook’s action comes on the heels of thousands of trolls taking to social media claiming that Siddiqui deserved to die because he had shared images of the funeral pyres of Covid-19 victims; trolls who gave sanctimonious justification for their anger, who insisted that the privacy of the last rites had been violated by Siddiqui and other photographers.
Yet, thinking back, what flashes in my mind’s eye are all-day telecasts of the funerals of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, with Rajiv and Rahul lighting the pyres of their parents. Images from glamorous world magazines that regularly trawl the ghats of Varanasi to capture the dramatic last rites conducted on the Ganga’s shores. Photo essays from inside burning ghats , which capture the minutiae of ongoing funerals, the sadhus who live there, the esoteric Tantric death rituals some of them practise.
Indians don’t flinch from death — they live with death all around them. It’s a joyously messy relationship that accepts and celebrates death as a rightful end. From childhood, we are witness to bodies being borne away not in silence and secrecy but in loud and public procession, accompanied by flowers and chants, and sometimes with loud drumming and abandoned, drunken dance.
Indians don’t hide from death or hide death. Rajasthan has its professional weepers or rudaali, women hired to perform grief, loudly and in public. Tamil Nadu has the oppari tradition, a complex genre of death music that’s both eulogy and dirge. Such rituals, which have their folk counterparts across the country, are accompanied by wailing, keening, chest-beating, and singing. Grief is exaggerated in order to be subsumed.
Given this far from private embrace of death, the outrage about photographs of funeral pyres and the hatred directed against Siddiqui and others are inexplicable, and one must seek the reasons elsewhere.
Through the second wave, a section of citizens insisted that data about deaths and the pictures and videos of pyres, graves and oxygen queues be kept out of the public domain. That such ‘negative’ news is demoralising. That people need to hear ‘happy’ news to stay upbeat. The concern, then, was not so much about privacy as about ‘negative’ news exposing gaps and deficits in the country’s administrative and medical preparedness.
This distinction is important — thrusting a mike into a grieving mother’s face is an invasion of privacy, but photographs of hundreds of pyres burning or graves dotting a riverbank are public records. They chronicle a moment in history. And history isn’t only a happy sequence of mehendi ceremonies, masala movies, and cricket matches. It is naïve self-deception, therefore, to expect continuous anodynes from reporters and photojournalists as well. As I was writing this, I stumbled upon an old cartoon by the inimitable RK Laxman, which shows the common man with his head buried in the ground, while on him lies a newspaper covered with headlines that say ‘Positive news’, ‘Good news’, ‘Happy news’.
Photojournalists like Danish Siddiqui risk their lives to be at the crossroads where history is taking a significant turn. Siddiqui took as many pictures of kite-fliers and festivals as he did of crematoriums and riots, but one hails the latter more because it’s disease and sectarian violence that can slip into the bloodstream unchecked if left unrecorded. It’s the fault lines of a nation that need watching so that the songs and the celebrations can go on like ever before. Danish Siddiqui did just that and it makes him a hero of our times.
Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark