The medical culture of India is perhaps among the world’s most complex, integrating the scientific and metaphysical realms. It is also perhaps the most pervasive, with rich medical visuals and health-related objects present in all facets of daily life. Health and healing are achieved well beyond the confines of clinical spaces, affecting how people think, worship, and go about other every day activities. Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India, an exhibition organized by the Wellcome Library in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), draws from a broad mixture of artworks, texts, and objects that come from clinics but also from the streets of India, shrines, and personal homes, from centuries past to the present-day. The show is part of the Medicine Corner, a project to examine the country’s multilayered approach to medicine, and occurs in conjunction with Jeevanchakra, an exhibition that focuses on the human life cycle.
The word “tabiyat,” curator Ratan Vaswani explained, shares a similar meaning with the word “resilience.” The common term in many Indian languages to refer to health, it has a definition that extends far beyond medical implications.
“It encompasses psychological, spiritual health, and wellbeing in the broadest sense,” Vaswani told Hyperallergic. “It’s to do with the internal capacity rather than external agency or either medicine or a healer. It’s about the ability of the body and the mind to heal themselves, which is a theme throughout many different forms of medical and health practice in India.”
Such a view of the body gave rise to a number of its illustrations that integrate tantric visuals from chakras to kundalini symbols, including curious anatomical renderings that disregard scientific accuracy and replace internal organs with these colorful forms. Rather than focusing on the biological functions of the body — the traditional approach of the West — these tantric views explore how individuals may use the body in different ways to better oneself.
“The body, in many strands of Indian thought, is seen not primarily as substance — it’s not seen as flesh and blood,” Vaswani said. “Mind trumps flesh and blood. The body is seen as a vehicle of consciousness and, therefore, the instrument for achieving liberation.”
Other views of the interior body reflect foreign influences, showing attempts to reconcile this metaphysical view of the body with the anatomical, physical view. Tabiyat has on display an 18th-century copy of the “Tasrih-i-Mansuri,” a 14th-century anatomical manuscript from Persia that features detailed drawings of the circulatory and digestive systems. Such works influenced the 20th-century scholar Hamsasvarupa Maharaj, who, according to Vasawni, was one of the first in India who attempted to integrate biology into the established tantric understanding of the human body, as shown in a series of his published color plates. On display is also an incredibly rare, 18th-century anatomical drawing, “The Ayurvedic Man” — the only known historical illustration of the inside of the human body as understood in medical practice of Ayurveda.
“It’s not accurate anatomy, but it is definitely very biological in approach,” Vaswani said. “It sees the body as substance, which is quite rare in Indian thinking.”
Other objects on view are more quotidian. Tools of personal hygiene, for example, suggest daily rituals of personal care and devotion that would leave little areas of the body neglected, from a wooden comb to a decorated brass foot scrubber to an elegantly bent sliver of metal assigned to scrape tongues of all toxins. Outside the walls of the home, reminders of health are still all around: modern, hand-painted signs advertise businesses such as one for a bone setter — just one of many medical practitioners who at times work on the open streets.
As a series of early 19th-century watercolors show, conducting treatments in public is an old and lasting tradition. These small watercolors, commissioned by one Colonel James Skinner — an officer of the East India Trading Company — focus on people like an eye surgeon, a barber, an ear cleaner, and a bath attendant carrying out their duties. Sent back to England to show the public what the Empire was like, they highlight very ordinary aspects of lived experience rather extraordinary ones. Such fascination characterizes much of the works featured in Tabiyat, which were created not particularly as precious objects but functional ones and sources of information intended to better understand and improve human health.
Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India continues at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Vastu Sangrahalaya, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai) through March 28.