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Healing, our way

Darshan Shankar, Director, Foundation for the Revitalization of Local Health Tradition, has played a vital role in making the world see the value of traditional Indian medical practices. He is being felicitated in New York today

DARSHAN SHANKAR wins you over at first acquaintance. Because even his initial answers prove that he has lived by the experiential creed he swears by. A creed recognised by the prestigious Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Award to mark the 10th anniversary of the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, to be presented at a New York ceremony today (November 20).

As Director of the Foundation for the Revitalization of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), based in Yelahanka, the award recognises his "outstanding contributions to the revitalisation of traditional health care in India, towards the conservation of medicinal plants in India and the development of extensive databases on the materia medica of Indian medicinal plants." The award panel commends FRLHT "for establishing a quality control and product development laboratory which is attempting to interpret traditional knowledge with the aid of modern tools, and for initiating the development of a national herbarium of medicinal plants".

But who is Shankar, besides being low profile, soft-spoken, driven by belief? A statistics graduate from Mumbai University, he despaired at the intrinsic disconnect he perceived between textbook education and real life, especially in an exam-centric system. Yearning to set this right, he persuaded the Vice-Chancellor and the Government of India to set up a two-year, post-graduate, scholarship-based University Experiential Learning Programme from 1973 to 1980.

"Why should a student's dreams depend on their marks? Why do graduates lack confidence in applying knowledge to real life situations?" Shankar asks gently, with conviction. "If he or she, whether from science or arts or medicine, works with the community under a university guide, receiving a certificate for their final dissertation, they learn a sense of social concern."

The result was a succession of unusual non-government organizations (NGOs) and enterprises. Including a Kolhapur project by an agriculture graduate who concentrated on micronutrients and organic fertilisers. And the 25-year-old Shram Jeevi Mandal that works with shepherds in Maharashtra's Satara district.

When the university programme was scuttled by conservative elements, Shankar settled among the tribals of Karjat in rural Maharashtra from 1980 to 1992. And his belief in the grassroots as growth-affirming sprouted new shoots. While at its Academy of Development Science that catered to the taluk, "I had access to local medicinal plants and traditional health practices. The 30,000 people in that area knew of at least 400 different healing plants. Their knowledge proved very reliable in treating snake bites, cuts, dysentery, diarrhoea, jaundice, even cases of a cow with a prolapsed uterus," he recalls.

Curious to know more, even to validate tribal knowledge, Shankar initially approached pharmacologists, who were unable to put a judgment on the practices. Because modern medicine, which is based on compounds, rarely relates it to the original plant. To study each plant in detail would prove prohibitively expensive, they argued.

So, Shankar turned to the Nanal family, famed as generations-old Ayurvedic practitioners in the Mumbai-Pune belt. "I was so happy to deal with them," he reminisces. "When a Nanal speaks, he seldom voices his own opinion. Instead, he quotes from classical texts like the Charaka Samhita with reference to each plant, its parts, their effect on body tissues or a disease. Even their systemic effects. In modern medicine, we don't know of the systemic effects of any drug. Is it toxic? How will it impact the immune system?"

It was a natural corollary that Shankar was chosen to head FRLHT (see box) in 1993. With each sentence, he taps into his experiential knowledge-base, sharing secrets of why the Rajasthani neem heals better than that of lush Kerala. Or introducing us to maps of medicinal plants in peninsular India, highlighting endangered species.

Today, when the world takes note of traditional Indian medical practices, Shankar is logically at the heart of it all. For, to him, doing is believing — in a life all the greener for it.


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