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Medical encounters between the East and the West

Brbara Rodrguez Muoz, curator of the exhibition 'Ayurvedic Man' at London's Wellcome Collection, on the flow of medical knowledge between South Asia and the West

(Left) The ‘Ayurvedic Man’, 18th century; and ‘The Holy Cow personified As World Mother’, late 19th century, from the Raja Ravi Varma press. Photo: Wellcome Library, London
(Left) The ‘Ayurvedic Man’, 18th century; and ‘The Holy Cow personified As World Mother’, late 19th century, from the Raja Ravi Varma press. Photo: Wellcome Library, London

In 1995, when the University of Mississippi Medical Center was granted a patent for the medicinal use of turmeric to heal wounds, the Indian government successfully argued against it, citing that turmeric’s healing properties have been known to generations of Indian households. After a drawn-out legal battle, the patent was revoked in 1998 and the case provoked a vigorous debate: Who can own traditional medical knowledge?

The ongoing exhibition Ayurvedic Man: Encounters With Indian Medicine (on till 8 April) at London’s Wellcome Collection looks at this issue of ownership and medical exchanges between the East and the West. Through medical objects, manuscripts, letters and paintings, the show charts the flow of information during colonialism. It brings to light, for the first time, the correspondence between Paira Mall, a doctor of Indian descent, and Henry Wellcome, a millionaire pharmacist (also, the forefather of the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline). He dispatched Mall to India in 1911 to collect historical medical artefacts for his museum. Wellcome’s cabinet of medical curiosities would later form the Wellcome Collection.

The show’s curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz spoke to Lounge about the exhibition. Edited excerpts from an e-mail interview:

What triggered the idea for this exhibition?

The exhibition is inspired by our rich collection of South Asian manuscripts and artworks, and the letters that shed light on their provenance. In particular the one that gives its title to the exhibition, the Ayurvedic Man.

This unique 18th-century Nepali illustrated anatomical painting provides a visual interpretation of the organs and vessels of the male body according to classical Ayurveda. It is surrounded by verses from the third chapter of the 16th-century Sanskrit Bhavaprakasha from north India, which focuses on anatomy and embryology. Scholars suggest the painting resulted from a collaborative process between a physician, who was also a scholar of Ayurveda, one or more artists, and a calligrapher who copied the texts but may not have been fluent in written Sanskrit, resulting in various errors and unintelligible terminology. Sanskrit medical manuscripts are not illustrated, making this painting unique.

It came from Nepal via India to the Wellcome Library through an art dealer. This trail adds to the multiple cultural encounters that had already shaped it and point to the European fascination for what has been labelled as “alternative" medicine.

For me, it became the springboard to trace how narratives of healing and their cultural expressions have been expanded, contaminated, misinterpreted and exoticized through encounters with different cultural contexts.

What do you think the most significant letter in the Paira Mall correspondence reveals about the prevalent medical traditions of the time?

There is an excerpt in one of the letters that I felt unlocked the narrative for this exhibition. It was sent in 1917 from C.J.S. Thomson, Henry Wellcome’s Museum curator at the time, to Dr Paira Mall, the collecting agent who was sent by Wellcome in 1911 to South Asia to acquire a wide range of historical objects for his museum:

I hope that on your return from India we shall be able to go into this very interesting theory that you mentioned on the unity of matter and life. As you say, there is a lot that was known in the past that has been utterly forgotten, and will well repay research.

This quote, alongside the 11 years’ worth of correspondence between Mall and Thomson that we are presenting in the show reveals that Mall was not just instructed to collect museum objects, but also to acquire traditional knowledge by copying and translating ancient manuscripts and bringing indigenous medicinal plants such as those used in Ayurveda to the Wellcome Research Laboratories.

How did the public health policies of the British colonial administration affect the development of Indian medicine?

The title of the exhibition includes the word “encounter", to allude to collaboration and exchange as well as conflict. The first plague epidemic broke out in Bombay in 1896, catching the authorities by surprise. It soon spread to other areas of the Bombay Presidency, endangering thousands of lives as well as the course of European trade. In order to contain it, the Bombay Plague Committee enforced rigorous measures such as inspection, disinfection, segregation and hospitalization, which ignored traditional taboos of caste, community and gender, and thus triggered vigorous opposition from native populations.

By the end of the 19th century, Western biomedicine had acquired a significant degree of authority across British India. New biomedical hospitals, modelled on Western examples, spread across the country, while indigenous systems re-emerged in different forms by way of response and reaction.

What do you make of the claims by a few Indian public figures about how plastic surgery was invented in India, citing ancient Ayurvedic texts?

Those statements would be at odds with our approach, which is to challenge claims of ownership in medical heritage and reveal, through the material culture in our collections, how it is shaped by different cultural encounters (Tibetan, Greco-Islamic, European and others) rather than celebrating a single approach.

What I can tell you is that Henry Wellcome was indeed very interested in traditional Indian surgery—a few letters reveal Mall’s quest to find an old copy of the Sushruta Samhita (an ancient Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery). We have also included copies of some of the procedures covered in the Sushruta Samhita, like bloodletting and rhinoplasty or nasal reconstruction.

Can there be a balance between sharing and protection of heritage?

We hope that the exhibition challenges the notions which equate medical heritage with a wellness commodity or those that claim ownership and authenticity for commercial, cultural or political agendas.

We are premiering a wonderful new film by Nilanjan Bhattacharya that further examines the link between uncodified knowledge and natural resources, and the associated problems. It is centered around two local medicinal practitioners from India: Kunjira Mulya, from Mala, Karnataka, and Thendup Lachungpa, from Lachung, Sikkim. They discuss the loss of medicinal plants due to deforestation, the current complications for knowledge exchange with neighbouring nations and the future of uncodified knowledge. I love the part when Kunjira complains that his son is not invested in the tradition, but that he has found another person, this time a girl, to pass on the traditional knowledge.

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