The interpreter of maladies

Through an array of antiquities and contemporary materials, an exhibition explores the history and modern practice of medicine in India.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: January 17, 2016 3:05 pm
An ear cleaner at work by unknown Delhi artist, 1825; The Ayurvedic Man, an 18th century drawing, possibly of Nepalese origin An ear cleaner at work by unknown Delhi artist, 1825; The Ayurvedic Man, an 18th century drawing, possibly of Nepalese origin

“One can learn as much about civilisation from a tongue scraper, as from the Taj Mahal,” says Ratan Vaswani. The London-based curator makes this quip at the end of a long conversation about his latest project, the exhibition ‘Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India’. A visit to the show, which is on at the Premchand Roychand Gallery inside Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), illustrates Vaswani’s point — the large array of objects, which ranges from miniatures and manuscripts, public health posters and clothing, utensils and personal care items like combs, hair dryers and tongue scrapers, tells us how, despite our growing contemporary preference for “Western” medicine, the over two millenia-long history of Indian medicine continues to impact the choices we make, even today. “The tongue scraper is a good example of this. Most Indians still look on it as an essential part of their oral hygiene routine and yet, the earliest mention of this instrument is found in the Charaka Samhita, which is over 2,000 years old,” says Vaswani.

‘Tabiyat’ is the centrepiece of Medicine Corner, an initiative by the Wellcome Collection, a UK-based cultural venue which is a part of the Wellcome Trust, a global health charity. The Wellcome Trust was founded by Henry Wellcome, a pharmacist and medical entrepreneur, whose passion for medicine led him to amass an impressive collection on the subject, from all parts of world, spanning many centuries. Many of the objects from this collection are now at the CSMVS as part of ‘Tabiyat’, alongside exhibits from the museum’s own vast collection, private collections from across India and specially commissioned pieces.

The exhibition is divided into four sections — Home, Shrine, Street and Clinic — but Vaswani’s curatorial approach is more ambitious than merely separating traditional Indian medical practices according to the spaces they occupy. While he states that there is no official manifesto for the exhibition and that the idea is to lay out the facts of history as they are, one can discern a few distinct ideas that have determined the way Vaswani has arranged the exhibits.

The corridor that leads to the gallery, for example, is lined with pots of medicinal herbs like holy basil and aloe vera, following them is a set of recent photographs from Meghalaya of the Garo people, mostly Christians, working with medicinal herbs, just like their ancestors once did. Thus, Vaswani’s intention of showing the continuity of Indian medical traditions is immediately laid out for the visitor.

This historical continuity is further highlighted inside the gallery, where ancient objects sit next to modern pieces. For example, a lota which was ordered via mail by Vaswani for this exhibition, sits next to an 18th or 19th century vajri, or foot scrubber, from the CSMVS permanent collection. Then there’s the gouache painting of an ear cleaner at work which was commissioned by Colonel James Skinner in 1825. Placed right below are the instruments that one of the curatorial and research associates, Lina Vincent, purchased from a ear cleaner in Mumbai.

A touch of humour comes from tiny toy soldiers striking various yoga poses. Inspired by the hyper-masculine toy, GI Joe, there is something rather ridiculous about these ‘Yoga Joes’ doing the virabhadrasana or bakasana in full military gear, but to Vaswani they are also good objects with which one can comment on the journey of yoga across space and time. “I got them for a couple of dollars,” he says, “and I found them funny because in the West, there is a perception that yoga is a ‘female’ exercise. In Indian tradition, of course, yoga is meant to be a holistic system that addresses physiological, psychological and spiritual problems, but in the West, its importance has been reduced to the physical benefits that it offers. And the interesting thing is that this idea of yoga has now circled all the way back to India.”

The show also confronts one with common assumptions about medicine. Vaswani says, “While Ayurveda is definitely an Indian tradition, it is not necessarily a Hindu one, as is popularly believed.” He uses Buddha with Five Ascetics, a 1948 Li Gotami copy of a Tibetan fresco, to highlight this idea, propounded by Kenneth Zysk in his book Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India. “Ayurveda is highly compatible with Buddhism. They’re both about seeking the middle path and avoiding extremes in order to find solutions to problems — physiological, for the former, and psychological for the latter.”

Not that he’s trying to make a political statement, Vaswani says quickly. “We’re not trying to say anything about the efficacy of one system over another. But if there is one overriding feature to the exhibition, then it is plurality. Throughout Indian history, traditions have met and blended together, there have been syntheses between different schools of thought and this has produced a rich tradition of health and healing,” he says.

For example, in the Shrine section, are wax and metal votive offerings, made in the shape of different body parts. Devotees offer these at certain shrines like Mumbai’s Mount Mary Basilica to pray for health and healing. “The metal votive offerings on display were picked up from outside St Mary’s Catholic Basilica in Bangalore and the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. There is no way to tell which is from a Hindu shrine and which is from a Catholic shrine, because they’re so alike. This is a clear example of certain beliefs cutting across faiths,” says Vaswani.

The synthesis of ideas is best demonstrated by a series of anatomical illustrations, beginning with a drawing from an 18th century copy of a 14th century Persian medical text called Tasrih-i-Mansuri. The circular head and squatting pose of the figure is typical of the Persian style, and one finds it imitated in an Indian anatomical painting from the 18th century. The Indian illustration reconciles the “Islamic” depiction with Hindu metaphysical ideas by superimposing the chakras on the figure, along with text in old Gujarati.
One can also see evidence of a Trans-Himalayan commerce of ideas in the highlight of the exhibition, an 18th century anatomical illustration of possibly Nepalese origin called The Ayurvedic Man. This is the only known historical illustration of the human anatomy as understood by Ayurveda. A closer look at the style, particularly at the out-turned feet of the figure, shows that it is at least partly inspired by the Tibetan style of rendering anatomical drawings, as it appears in a pair of illustrations placed right next to The Ayurvedic Man.

One can also see evidence of a Trans-Himalayan commerce of ideas in the highlight of the exhibition, an 18th century anatomical illustration of possibly Nepalese origin called The Ayurvedic Man. This is the only known historical illustration of the human anatomy as understood by Ayurveda. A closer look at the style, particularly at the out-turned feet of the figure, shows that it is at least partly inspired by the Tibetan style of rendering anatomical drawings, as it appears in a pair of illustrations placed right next to The Ayurvedic Man.

Similar to the dialogue between various exhibits in “Tabiyat”, is the dialogue between this exhibition and other events organised in Delhi and Kolkata. The series of 19th century paintings commissioned by Colonel Skinner, which depict street medical practitioners is linked with ‘Trick or Treat’, a project by Delhi-based mixed media and performance duo, BLOT!, that looks at India’s vast parallel health system of informal practices like street dentistry. In Kolkata, Latika Gupta has curated a show called ‘Jeevanchakra’, which explores the life cycle of the human body and its link to medical practices. It features photographs, videos, paintings and multimedia installations by contemporary artists like Gauri Gill, Nilima Sheikh and Mithu Sen. In fact, one of Gill’s photographs of the moment the umbilical cord is cut right after birth, is displayed at ‘Tabiyat’, establishing a direct link between the two exhibitions.

When talking about the genesis of the exhibition, Vaswani often narrates his encounter with a handcart puller who told him that chewing paan is what gets him through the day. “It’s interesting he said that, because that seems to be true for a lot of Indians. And the surprising thing is that even though chewing paan is a very Indian tradition, the areca nut (betel nut) is not native to India. How then did it come to be so widely-used in India? I find that these are the aspects of civilisation, our everyday habits, which are worth enquiring into,” says Vaswani. After all, if the Taj Mahal tell us about how Indians once viewed death, the tongue cleaner shows us how we once lived.Eye 2016
The Mumbai exhibition is on till March 28. ‘Jeevanchakra’ is on till February 15.

The Delhi event is on January 22.