Cremation Rites with the Youngest Son, Calcutta 1944
The photographs depict a Hindu cremation site, or burning ghat, in the city of Calcutta in 1944. The first photo shows the men of the family, including the deceased's sons, seated in front of the corpse, which lies shrouded and bedecked with flowers on a bier. The child sitting on one of the men's laps at the head is the youngest son, a child of no more than 4-6 years old. The photographer, U.S. airman Robert Keagle, stated that it was the duty of the youngest to light his father's funeral pyre. In the first photo the boy is wearing a shirt and some form of waist covering. In the second photo, the boy's head has been freshly shaven and he wears a white loin cloth. The photographer's annotation states that the turbanned man assisting the young child is his grandfather. The photographs are two in a series of over a half-dozen photographs taken on the same occasion by three different servicemen. This fact requires the viewer to imagine what is outside the camera's viewfinder; at least three foreign servicemen in uniform are snapping pictures of the same solemn scene, which appears to proceed as if no outsiders were present. Further, the photographer's annotation states, “Family assembles for photo with deceased relative before cremation at burning ghat.” The presence of the foreigners may have added a very untraditional element to the ritual occasion. We do not know whether the family received a print of the photos. These U.S. servicemen were stationed in South and Southeast Asia during World War II, were reconnaissance photographers for the military who often accompanied one another on photo excursions among civilians, and had access to darkroom facilities. Keagle stated that the prints were shipped home to the United States as personal possessions of the photographer.
"The Digital South Asia Library - Cremation at burning ghat," http://dsal.uchicago.edu/images/keagle/large.html?id=0003; "The Digital South Asia Library - Cremation at burning ghat," http://dsal.uchicago.edu/images/keagle/large.html?id=0004, Digital South Asia Library (accessed July 14, 2009).