From the Curators
‘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’
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
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.
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.
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.