When Arun Vijai M began photographing mortuaries, he chose not to focus on death. Instead, he turned his lens on the lives of Dalit sanitation workers, who don aprons every day and assist pathologists in dissecting corpses during post-mortems.

A stunning collection of Vijai’s stark and evocative photographs are on show at the University of Madras as part of the ongoing Chennai Photo Biennale. In these 50-odd images, the 30-year-old photographer from Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, captures the self-evident – the workers, their blood-stained gloves, blue aprons, forensic instruments, and the corpses. At the same time though, there is an attempt to look deeper through photos of the hamlets where the Dalit workers live, their short lunch breaks, and the odd siesta in the mortuary.

“The work that was considered dirty or lowly, and especially the work associated with the dead, was given to Dalits,” said Vijai. “Men who belong to the Dalit community are still forced to clear dead animals in our villages. They are the ones who bury or cremate the dead or even announce the news of death. This tradition seems to have evolved over a period, with [these] men now being assigned to perform dissection of corpses during post-mortem.”

Inside a mortuary.

In 2011, Vijai, a computer science graduate, was attending a programme in Oracle when he realised that his “true calling was photography”. To fuel his passion, he got admission at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. This was the time when there were several so-called “honour killings” in Tamil Nadu, and he had been left deeply disturbed by them.

“Initially, I wanted to choose this [honour killings] subject for my [photo] project,” he said. “Since I was studying in Gujarat, I got in touch with the Navsarjan Trust.” Navsarjan is a grassroots organisation dedicated to securing human rights for all. Its mission, it says, is to eliminate discrimination based on untouchability practices.

Members of the trust introduced Vijai to sanitation workers in mortuaries, who had been inducted by doctors as assistants for conducting post-mortems. “Since it is considered a dirty job, hospitals prefer sanitation workers who belong to the Dalit community to do this,” he said. “A month after joining the work, they are trained to dissect corpses.”

Sanitation workers mop a mortuary's floor.

“Excluding cases referred by the Revenue Department Officer, custodial deaths and those afflicted with HIV, the sanitation workers do the job of cleaning the corpses, dissecting and removing viscera, stitching and preparing the corpse to be give it to the family of the deceased,” said Vijai.

Despite all these additional responsibilities, the designation of the sanitation workers doesn’t change. Nor do they get any extra pay. “They remain sanitation workers while doing the work of lab technicians,” said Vijai, who is now part of the Photographers for Environment and Peace Collective and a visiting faculty member at the Woxsen School of Art and Design in Hyderabad.

A body cleaned in a mortuary in Tamil Nadu.

During his time in Gujarat, Vijai visited at least 27 mortuaries. His first visit was to a mortuary in Kheda in February 2016, nearly 70 km from his college in Gandhinagar. After three failed attempts to watch a post-mortem, when he did reach the morgue on time, he had to leave within two hours.

“I began to shiver watching the corpse being dissected,” said Vijai. “The stench never left me till I reached the hostel. I took a bath, washed all my clothes and my bag. I felt [as though the] corpses [were] sleeping next to me. I started looking at everyone as corpses and it complicated my relationships. I even thought of reconsidering my project.”

Nevertheless, three days later, he visited the mortuary again. This second visit helped him get over his fears – to an extent. He began interacting with the sanitation workers, went to their living quarters and took some photos. But permission to shoot inside the morgue was refused: “The doctors felt it was too sensitive to allow someone to photograph the workers in mortuaries.”

In April 2016, Vijai tried his luck in his home state, and managed to get the consent of doctors and sanitation workers in two hospitals. For the first three-four weeks, he visited mortuaries without his camera to build a rapport with the sanitation workers. “Once they started feeling comfortable with me, I took the camera I’d borrowed from my friend to shoot.” After taking a few pictures, he printed them and showed them to the workers. “This helped me explain my project to them and gain their trust.”

Once the shoot began, there was no turning back. Vijai photographed at least 100 to 150 post-mortems over a year in Tamil Nadu and accumulated around 2,200 images. One photo features a sanitation worker eating his lunch in the mortuary. Another shows half-empty juice bottles left on the windowsill. Both these photos poignantly illustrate how the life of a sanitation worker is centred around the mortuary, but there is not much economic or social mobility.

Vijai sent his work to at least eight places after graduating from the National Institute of Design, but there were no takers until the Photo Fest in Houston accepted it in March 2018. Late last year, it was exhibited at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. He is now thinking of turning his photo project, Millennia of Oppression, into a book.

Vijai, who delivered a talk on his work at the Chennai Photo Biennale, knows his images will not change the lives of sanitation workers. Maybe that was not even the intention. “This attempt is to show the world how the oppressive caste system continues to evolve with the evolution of science,” he said.

A place for the sanitation workers in a mortuary to keep their belongings.

All photos courtesy Arun Vijai M.

Arun Vijai M’s photos will be on show at the University of Madras as part of the Chennai Photo Biennale till March 24.