Funeral pyres of people who have died from Covid-19 seen burning during a mass cremation at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, on May 3. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Weeks ago, the Indian capital ran out of space for its dead.
New Delhi’s public parks and parking lots were converted into sites for mass cremations of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. Cremations are an important Hindu funeral ritual, but Indian crematoria declared that they were out of wood for pyres, and burial grounds for the city’s Muslims and Christians reached capacity.
As the current wave of India’s Covid-19 epidemic has claimed tens of thousands of lives and infected hundreds of thousands each day, aerial photographs of grounds strewn with burning logs and piles of ash have made their way to the front pages of international newspapers and spread across social media.
On roads outside overflowing hospitals, desperate people await beds for relatives dying in their arms, and the bereaved break down. Inside, photos capture patients preparing to face their fate even as health care workers go about the work of keeping them alive. Then there are the pictures of front-line workers performing final rites — lighting pyres and lowering bodies into graves — of those they don’t even know.
These smoky compositions, punctuated by PPE-adorned figures, will be the defining images of India’s coronavirus nightmare. As an art critic, my work revolves around seeing and responding to images through language. Now, I find myself at a loss for words, dwelling on banal details outside the frame — how did people get to the hospital, where are the homes they return to, how are cremation workers processing the sheer number of pyres they must light?
One feature all these photos have in common is the haunted eyes above masks, expressing the range of emotions humanity is capable of feeling, from listlessness to devastation. Then there are the chilling ones, of endless queues of body bags waiting to be attended to. For many of us, this feels familiar — to be Indian is to be always in a crowd, jostling for space in our populous nation — albeit with a macabre, tragic twist.
But even as these photographs call the world’s attention to the apocalyptic situation in India, they have triggered a backlash, one that has highlighted Western media’s past failings in covering the subcontinent and its people, framing them as poor and backward.