Amid the plethora of ancient objects on display were two provocative new commissions. One of these has already been mentioned: Ranjit Kandalgaonkar’s Drawing the Bombay Plague, which explores the eponymous 1896 epidemic. It’s an expansive and intricate drawing depicting the unpopular measures imposed by the British administration during the outbreak (sanitation, quarantine, hospitalisation), and the resulting local responses.
The accompanying interactive platform, developed with HATO, reveals Kandalgaonkar’s research in both the Wellcome Library and the Asiatic Library in Mumbai, where he drew inspiration from the satirical cartoons of Hindi Punch magazine.
Rodriguez Muñoz first came across Kandalgaonkar during her research trip to India, where she met his partner, the artist Vinita Gatne, at a café in Colaba. Kandalgaonkar had already been working on the plague and Gatne produced a folder brimming with his “detailed, raw and humorous” pencil drawings. “I was impressed by his ability to turn academic research around a very controversial moment in history into such engaging visual material,” says Rodriguez Muñoz.
When Kandalgaonkar came to London for six months to explore Wellcome’s collections, he spent the time “compulsively digging into our archives, challenging our institutional ways in the most constructive and enjoyable ways, and drawing – night after night,” says Rodriguez Muñoz. “He is very missed,” she adds.
The second original work is the film ‘Quiet Flows The Stream’, created by Calcutta-based Nilanjan Battacharja. In it, two contemporary Indian medics discuss their work: Kunjira from the south of the country and Thendup from next to Nepal in the north. A segment to look out for if you’re interested in the gender gap issue in the collection, Rodriguez Muñoz says, is when Kunjira complains that his son is not interested in his medical knowledge, but then reveals he has found another person, a girl, to pass on his knowledge to.
This small-scale evolution nods to the interminable shifting and reconfiguring that takes place in medicine in a wider context – one of the key takeaways from Ayurvedic Man.
Taking this angle wasn’t just an inevitable response to Paira Mall and Henry Wellcome’s collaboration. According to Rodriguez Muñoz, it’s also a vital message to promote in today’s political climate, where nationalism is on the rise across the world.
“These are enlightening ideas with which to fight narrow-mindedness,” she says. “With the current impulse to erode diversity, we ought to present medicine and healing as something fluid that has been shaped across millennia by different cultures, as opposed to belonging to just one community.”