'Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India’ examined the history and contemporary practice of sustaining human health in one of the world’s great civilisations. The exhibition featured dazzling antiquities and modern vernacular art in an aesthetically seductive, intellectually rich mix of art, science, history and the ordinary made extraordinary.

Tabiyat is the common Indian word for both physical and psychological health.

Traditional midwives, bonesetters, faith healers and heart surgeons sustain tabiyat through radically different practices. Healers in India are as varied as its religions and languages.

Visits to an Indian home, street, shrine or clinic show that practices meet and sometimes blend. But underlying the variety and combinations is a recurring difference. Analytical approaches, like Ayurveda, Unani and Western medicine, contrast with those where spiritual belief predominates.

Tabiyat was shown at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaja Vastu Sanghralaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum) in Mumbai. Museum professionals from London and Mumbai came together to realise a vision for Tabiyat

Exhibition views of Tabiyat.

The exhibition comprised over a hundred exhibits arranged in sections relating to four generic locations.

The Clinic

Places specifically equipped to treat the sick have existed in India since antiquity. Religious tradition argued that identifying oneself with one's physical body is spiritually inhibiting. Set against it, rational scientific enquiry led to early, advanced medical knowledge and practice.

Surgical operations requiring detailed, practical knowledge of anatomy are described in ancient manuscripts, but without illustration. In later history, illustrators adopted styles of anatomical drawing based on the body as seen both by Indian and other civilisations. The quest continues in India to develop innovative medical care for the nation and humanity.

The Shrine

India is dense with places dedicated to God, deities or holy people said to have power over illness.

Making peace with deities associated with diseases or with danger reflects Indian realities. As historically common causes of death, the awesome potencies of smallpox and snakes have been both feared and worshipped. 

Amulets are objects believed to have divine or supernatural power. Indians have always worn them. They have taken many forms, from simple lockets to ornate jewellery and whole garments. Usually worn or carried as general protection from injury or harm, they may also be prescribed for specific illnesses. 

The Home

India's traditional systems set medical treatment within a larger view of health and the lifecycle. Tabiyat, the resilience of individual bodies and minds, begins at home.

Diet is paramount in Indian thinking about health. Across India, hundreds of medicinal plants are used domestically. Exercise is concerned not only with physical fitness but also has a contemplative aspect. Hygienic rituals are concerned not only with physical cleanliness but also with spiritual purity. Personal grooming matters not only for appearance but also as the performance of duty.

As lives begin and end, bodies change and household dynamics shift. Childbirth is full of promise, but also jeopardy for mind and body. Death is full of sorrow, but also release. Life’s transitions are marked by distinctive and evolving cultural practices. 

The Street

Health issues and health commerce loom large on India's streets. In poor settlements insanitary conditions threaten individual and public health. To relieve tough working lives, millions use a narcotic masticant, paan.

Bonesetters are one of a great variety of health-related occupations in a vast street economy. In North India they are associated with wrestlers, who learnt how to treat dislocations and sprains.

Over the past century, as pockets of affluence have grown, traditional medicine has been commodified and marketed in extraordinary new ways. 

From the Curators

ratan vaswani

‘Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India’ is about particular ways that one of the world’s great civilisations has addressed a universal concern: human health. The exhibition doesn’t attempt to survey the long, glorious history of medicine in India. Nor does it articulate a thesis about the present or future of health care in India’s riotously diverse, fast-evolving society. Our aims have been not so much didactic as affective. We will be pleased if, when visiting, there is even a small change in awareness of, or attitude towards, the historical and contemporary striving of men, women and children, rich and poor, to understand and sustain tabiyat, in at least a few senses of that subtle and beautiful word. In the sense that it is used in Unani medicine, a key one for this exhibition, it means something like ‘resilience’.

About 100 objects are presented in four sections, each of which covers a generic location. The exhibition as a whole is an invitation to look beyond the generic locations, at actual homes, streets, shrines, clinics; indeed anywhere and everywhere that we strive to stay well. An early encounter when I came to India from my home in London was with a Mumbai taxi driver, who told me that the Hindu idol on his dashboard was to protect him from injury in road traffic accidents. An outsider’s perspective can be misinformed, but can also indicate extraordinary aspects of a society that insiders overlook. I hope instances of the latter outnumber the former.

— Ratan Vaswani, Curator, ‘Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India’


supriya menon

Curating the medicinal plants exhibit for ‘Tabiyat’, while very exciting, has also been challenging. I’ve never worked with exhibits that needed to be kept alive. 

Memory, oral traditions and spirituality came into play in my research. Some Indian folk medical systems are rooted exclusively in the use of plants for healing. Nearly every community in India recognises their value as medicine and incorporates them into their daily lives, wherein they also acquire religious importance. Tulsi, decocted ubiquitously to treat colds and cough, is also beloved of the gods.

Tulsi is one of the plants in our display. Another is aloe vera, that low-maintenance and over-enthusiastic resident of domestic gardens. Spiky on the outside, slimy within, it soothes irritable skin. 

From the congested lanes of Mumbai (look out for lone tulsi plants carefully tended in humble tin cans and plastic mugs) to the ancient, sacred groves of Kerala, we come across many botanical medicine corners. We turn to plants in moments of physical or psychological crisis. As I write, dengue fever plagues Mumbai. Around the city, copious amounts of papaya leaf juice are being consumed to recover from an illness that, as yet, defies all formal treatment. The plants we trust in ancient medical systems and trusted home remedies also drive whole industries. Cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies thrive on selling products that promise botanical goodness. 

The medicinal plants exhibit in ‘Tabiyat’ is designed as an oasis. We invite you to come sit among leafy friends and reflect on the role they play in our lives.

— Supriya Menon, Curatorial Associate

lina vincent

Each object in Tabiyat tells a story. My role as curatorial-research associate allowed me to explore the stories, and connect remarkable histories. Researching to build relationships between objects from Wellcome Collection, displayed in India for the first time, and loans from Indian lenders, revealed fascinating associations. A star piece from London is the ‘Ayurvedic Man’, probably of Nepalese origin (Circa 18th century CE), the only known historical illustration showing the interior of the human body as understood in Ayurveda. There is a meaningful visual and conceptual link between it and a 16th Century CE palm leaf Ayurveda manuscript borrowed from India’s leading institute, in Bangalore, that researches traditional Indian medical systems. There are similar links with some inscribing knives from the private collection of Brigitte and Christian Sebastia, key scholars in the field. For various reasons we couldn’t borrow some important pieces from Indian establishments. However, with innovative curatorial thinking and investigation of alternatives, other equally interesting pieces, crucial to the story, became part of the exhibition.

Under Ratan Vaswani’s direction, the selection provides glimpses of the multi-layered nature of India’s healing cultures, and also breaks hierarchies between classical art and popular creations, between folk expressions and urban fine art, between what is considered traditional and what is accepted as modern.

From chatting about enema syringes over dinner, to scanning church bazaars for votive offerings and digging among objects in museum storage, preparing for Tabiyat has kept my pulse racing. 

— Lina Vincent, Curatorial Associate



The Design Story

Kahani Designworks created a wordmark for Tabiyat in three scripts: Hindi, Urdu and English that reflected the diverse audiences and multicultural influences on Indian medicine. The brand identity was supported by a colour palette inspired by Indian medicinal herbs – indigo (blue), sandalwood (red), turmeric (yellow) and henna (green). The design team developed a range of publications and promotional materials in English, Hindi and Marathi.

An exhibition guide comprising a single sheet, uniquely folded, offered interpretive support, with tabs for each of the four generic locations – The Shrine, The Home, The Street and The Clinic. The guide included photographs and information about actual shrines, homes, streets and clinics locations in Mumbai : a call to action to explore the exhibition's themes beyond the gallery. 



Print and online promotional material

Print and online promotional material



Exhibition Guide in English, Hindi and Marathi

Exhibition Guide in English, Hindi and Marathi


The Making of Tabiyat

These are some of the stories, processes and people involved in making Tabiyat.

The Dhanvantari statue

This graceful statue was made entirely out of fibre glass at Santosh Kamble's idol-making studio in Lalbaugh, Mumbai. First a statue is carved in its entirety in clay; a cast is created from this, to make the fibreglass version. Santosh and his team of artisans pay special attention to the idols 'attributes'. The different objects an idol holds in its hands are important symbols and help distinguish it from the many other gods! Although we can't see all his hands here, Dhanvantari holds a bowl of nectar, a conch shell, neem leaves and an Ayurvedi text. 



the joris

Wrestlers in India use joris in their practice. Joris are large clubs that the pehlwans (wrestlers) use to strengthen their arms and back. They vary in weight and size but are usually made from a single block of wood, and are often painted and decorated. We had a pair of joris made especially for the exhibition that came all the way from Benares.



The Plant Story

Aarijata, neem, tulsi, aloe and brahmi were some of the medicinal plants that our Curatorial Associate, Supriya Menon, sourced to create an oasis within the museum. The plants were strategically placed in the hallway leading to the exhibition gallery so receive maximum sunlight. Three large stepped structures, evoking the traditional Indian step well, were designed so that visitors could sit (while either entering or exiting the exhibition gallery): an invitation to enjoy and see the medicinal plants against the backdrop of the museum gardens. 


Tabiyat Live Events

A series of Live Events were curated and organised by Rashmi Dhanwani and her team as part of Tabiyat's public programming initiative. Events reflected the diversity not only of India's health practices but also its rich variety of cultural forms. Artistes included dancers, musicians, comedians, tea connoisseurs, history enthusiasts and an incredible troupe performing Mallakhamb, Maharashtra's particular form of athletic and martial yoga. 

Singing and indian Medicine: An illustrative performance on vocal care practices in Indian art music

Neela Bhagwat and Amarendra Dhaneshwar are well-known classical Indian singers. Both vocalists have varied, intensive vocal care regimes that help them maintain their singing voice. Neela and Amarendra demonstrated the demands that are placed on the voice in Hindustani classical music and shared some of the home remedies they use to nurture and maintain their voices. A panel of Ayurveda
and Unani doctors joined in the discussion and gave the singers and audience several insights into the best ways to care for the voice
and throat. 


draupadi kuruvanchi: a kattaikuttu performance from tamil nadu

Against the backdrop of the magnificent Victorian architecture of the Prince of Wales Museum, four Kattaikuttu performers take their place on stage. The elaborate two hour long make-up ritual has its impact as the audience soaks in every dramatic detail. The actors and musicians tell the story of Draupadi disguised as a medicine woman/gypsy lady who goes undercover to stop two feuding families from eliminating each other. She travels across Hastinapura dispensing her herbal medicine to people in need, a series of animated events follow until she comes across the king’s palace where she meets the king and queen. The adventure is filled with song, dance, drama and, of course, comedy! The story is told through Kattaikuttu, a theatre of the rural people of northern Tamil Nadu, India. The group are Kattaikuttu Sangam, a performing arts organisation that ensures sustainable careers for its performers.


mallakhamb performance

Audiences at the museum were treated to Mallakhambh, a rarely seen martial art tradition of Maharashtra where gymnasts perform feats around a rope or a vertical wooden pole. Uday Deshpande, a renowned Mallkhamb practitioner and trainer, and director of Shree Samantha Vyayam Mandir, directed the awe-inspiring performance which featured Aditi Deshpande, a national champion on rope Mallakhamb. Aditi was joined by 30 Mallakhamb performers, both young and old, who were between the ages of 6 and 80 years. The performance was followed by a discussion on the martial art’s health benefits. 



Classical kathak dancer Debosmita Roy Chowdhury took the stage, performing at Cross Maidan during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. Choreographed by Debashree Bhattacharya, the kathak performance included Vandana, an invocation to Agni; Dhamar, (a pure dance presentation in a 14-beat time cycle) and Tarana, a dance composition. Debosmita’s dance performance was preceded by a spoken word performance by poet Preeti Vangani. Debosmita grew up with a birth complication in her foot. She underwent various medical procedures to help her walk—and dance. Overcoming adversity, she completed 14 years of Kathak training. The prosthetics she uses includes the Jaipur Foot, which she modifies constantly to suit the complicated and vigorous movements of Indian classical dance. Debosmita’s commitment and passion showed on stage as she left the audience spellbound after a dynamic performance.


making kohl

Kohl, also known as surma or kajal, has been used since antiquity as an eye cosmetic and is used on an everyday basis by men and women alike in India. There are different, often opposing ideas about its health benefits. Our kohl-making demonstration offered people a chance to see how this extensively used product can be made.


In collaboration with the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, a royally entertained audience enjoyed an evening of comedy organized with the very talented Patchworks Ensemble. The trio wove together local histories, personal stories and of course, humour, as they diagnosed India’s healthcare problems. Anuvab Pal, Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid performed to a packed hall. At the end of the evening everyone agreed that laughter is indeed the best medicine!


bandra and the bombay plague of 1896

Historian Shriti Tyagi led a group of incurably curious people through Bandra (a Mumbai suburb) visiting sites related to the outbreak of the Bombay Plague of 1896. Shriti revealed the many secrets of the neighbourhood and narrated accounts of the role some local churches played during the deadly outbreak. Who knew that the streets of Bandra are home to over 150 crosses? People erected these crosses where they believed evil spirits would gather, like isolated area, empty wells, or the point at where three roads met. Plague crosses were raised on streets and inside homes to drive away the evil of plague. During the outbreak, many natural cures were sought, including regularly drinking a special brew of ‘plague tea’.