“Why didn't Raja Ravi Varma, who painted so many gods and goddesses, ever paint our medical legends? Why do our miniatures only have courtyards, beautiful women and scenic beauty and not the healers of those times? Why doesn't anyone know anything about the first X-ray machine that came to India around World War I or about the government-established dispensary with X-ray facilities somewhere near Jama Masjid?” Shubhadarshini Singh's anguish is clearly visible as she raises these questions sitting in India Habitat Centre's Visual Arts Gallery, the venue that is displaying her latest artworks based on the theme of medical science.
Disappointment gives way to pessimism when the journalist-turned-artist expresses her wish of starting a medical museum. “I would want it to be like a mela , recreate an atmosphere of celebration, a must-visit for every tourist who comes to the city. But how? I have hardly anything in my collection. I keep asking doctors, families of doctors, to fish out old stethoscopes and other vintage medical instruments but you don't find a single instrument from those days. How can anybody throw such things away? I am ready to buy anything, be it even a white coat worn by a doctor 100 years ago,” complains Shubhadarshini.
Till that turns into reality, Shubhadarshini is busy rolling out exhibitions at frequent intervals, sharing with the viewers the little-known tales of the history of medicine and, simultaneously, nurturing her passion for painting. In ‘Medical Dreamtime', the artist has once again pored over history to focus on great healers of yore, like Charaka, Jivaka and Susruta. Her sister Sunirita Lama has also collaborated with her and is exhibiting Tibetan Thangka paintings that have healing effects.
So, there you find her canvases graced by Susruta, the ancient healer hailed as the father of surgery, performing a suture or stitching on a patient while a few other healers, Indian and Chinese, look on with awe — Susruta would use the heads of giant ants to close a particular kind of wound; and Avicenna or Ibn Sina, the phenomenal Persian physicist, poet and scholar, reading a book against a backdrop teeming with medicinal herbs, flowers, jars, etc. Jivaka, Buddha's physician, though doesn't appear in the current series — he remains a seminal figure in the field. “Buddha had said that as long as he would be remembered, Jivaka's name will be remembered as well. But who remembers it now? How many of us know that he was Buddha's doctor and even made an aamrakunj or a mango orchard for Buddha to sit because it is good for health. Buddha had become frail. I have heard that Jivaka was very handsome. I looked for his image, any artistic rendition, but only found one on a Thai website. I couldn't find any visual medical personalities or depiction of procedures,” says the artist citing the paucity of visual record in the realm of the history of Indian medicine as the main reason for taking a plunge into the subject through visual arts.
The interest, the painter says, had existed ever since she was on the medical science beat as a print journalist. The turning point happened while she was producing a medical science magazine for Doordarshan.
Another work evoking the bygone era is titled ‘How Homeopathy came to India', depicting Maharaja Ranjit Singh's pulse being checked by German homeopath Dr. Horniger.
“Having cured Ranjit Singh, Dr. Horniger was requested to stay back in India. He lived in India for 35 years, and that's how homeopathy came here,” she explains. Then, another canvas throws light on the relatively little-known aspect of rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam through the depiction of the rebellious poet in a mental asylum in Ranchi.
“I wish the place with so much significance had been preserved but nothing is there now.”
A few other installations and video art complete the show. Over the last two days of the exhibition, the place will be abuzz with several activities, like video presentations and talks on topics like medicine in art and the need for a medical museum.