This exhibition displays objects related to medicine as a form of art

  • Soma Das, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Dec 31, 2015 18:39 IST
Spraying jets of water onto a street affected by plague, Bombay, 1896, (Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

Come January, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) will house a micro-museum dedicated to medicine. Just ahead of the Premchand Roychand Gallery, you will spot artificial stepwells, surrounded by medicinal plants like neem and aloe vera. The walls will be lined with photographs of plant remedies from Meghalaya and neem chewing sticks (datun) used for oral hygiene.

These displays lead to the sanctum sanctorum of Tabiyat, an exhibition featuring 100 artefacts pertaining to India’s wellness practices. Tabiyat is the Mumbai chapter of Medicine Corner, a multi-city programme funded by the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based charity involved in medical research. This is their first overseas, country-specific initiative.

The exhibition is divided into four sections — the home, shrine, clinic and the street — spaces where healing and medicine (alternative and allopathy) are practised. Some of its highlights are an 18th century board game of Snakes and Ladders, originally a game about facing ill-health (the snakes) with equanimity as well as the Ayurvedic Man, the only-known historical illustration of the interior of the body, as understood in Ayurveda.

The man of the hour is Ratan Vaswani (55), London-based curator and the project head, who has been planning this event for two years. We meet him at the museum, clad in a no-fuss blue jacket, black T-shirt and white pants, as he sets up the exhibits.

The artefacts at Tabiyat range from the old to the new — the oldest exhibit being an albarello (earthenware medicinal jar) from Persia dating back to the 12th century and the most recent being a tongue scraper bought in Fort. Most of the artefacts are sourced from the library of the Wellcome Collection (a public cultural venue run by the charity), as well as from the Science Museum in London.

The most artefact is a tongue scraper bought in For

“The exhibition is ethnographic (a study of people and culture),” says Vaswani, adding, “It features objects that you won’t recognise immediately as having a medical connection. But the broad idea is that medicine is a fundamental aspect of human culture.”

Significantly, most of the exhibits are from India but have never been showcased here before. The irony is not lost on Vaswani, but he considers it a positive thing: “(Pharmaceutical entrepreneur) Henry Wellcome was one of the world’s great collectors, who sent expeditions around the world. These objects were brought on collecting missions in the ’20s and ’30s. Everything is legally acquired. Probably, the only fate of a lot of these works would have been destruction. In fact, there is a lot of Indian heritage better preserved in London than in India,” feels Vaswani.

While Tabiyat highlights the plurality of medical techniques, it refrains from judging the efficacy of the treatments. “I use a musical metaphor — point and counterpoint — for this exhibition. We are not trying to pass judgments or talk of efficacy; we are here to observe and learn,” says Vaswani.

For Tabiyat, Vaswani did a lot of desk research as well as spoke to people on the streets to glean information. Yet he is aware of being an outsider looking within: “I am a brown Englishman and sometimes there is a danger in misinterpreting things. However, an outsider’s eye can see things that other people take for granted,” he adds.

Astronomical diagram representing sun and moon eclipse. Early 20th Century.

Case in point, he refers to the exhibit of the tongue scraper: “People in India think that it is universal but it is actually south Asian in origin. The tongue scraper is mentioned as a key aspect of oral hygiene in the Charaka Samhita, the foundation of Indian medicine, dating back 2,500 years. It is a mundane aspect but has such amazing pedigree.”

The aim behind Tabiyat, he explains, is to make people look at ubiquitous objects differently: “Sigmund Freud had a theory that you de-familiarise the familiar and make it something new. That’s what I want to do; I want people to look again.”

Know the curator

Born in Nigeria, Vaswani grew up in Manchester and is now London-based. Before his museum career, he taught languages in schools, colleges and universities in Spain, France, Russia, the US and the UK. He has an academic background in Russian studies.

“Just before I turned 40, I made a huge decision to turn my leisure interest into a job. So, I did a post-graduate degree in fine art curating from the University of Essex, and that was my entry into the museum,” he says. Spraying jets of water onto a street affected by plague, Bombay, 1896. Attributed to Captain C Moss of the Bombay Plague Committee. Facsimile.

A 19th century enema syringe. Weiss and Sons. English export to India. An Ayurvedic medical practitioner taking the pulse. Commissioned by Colonel James Skinner. Unknown Delhi artist, 1825

Vaswani grew up in Manchester and is now London-based (Photo: Aalok Soni/ Hindustan Times)

Don’t miss

Tabiyat is on display from January 12 to March 28

Where: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Fort.

Call: 2284 4484

Tongue scraper, bought in Mumbai in 2015.

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