Monday, 7 May 2012

Exhibition: Evergreen heritage

The exposition in Bangalore

(I wrote this piece in 2008)

How major a role have Indian spices, plants and native drugs played in world history? Was traditional medicinal and herbal wisdom from the subcontinent a known factor in pre-colonial times, long before the patenting of basmati, neem and turmeric became a contentious issue? Did European practitioners have access to Indian medical knowledge, as recorded in palm leaf manuscripts, as passed down by oral traditions?

Such Treasure and Rich Merchandise, an exposition of texts, maps and prints on Indian botanical knowledge at Bangalore’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (February 15 to April 30), answered some of these questions through a sharing of seven erudite illustrated European books from the 16th and 17th century. The exposition will relocate to Mysore’s National Museum of Natural History in June.

Realised within the architectural layout of the NCBS, especially its central open-air space, the show focused on knowledge culled from indigenous medical traditions and agrarian wisdom. An interactive, computer-based experience greeted us at the entrance, whetting our curiosity until we arrived at breathtaking outdoor panels of an Indian ficus or fig tree fluttering in the breeze. 

Copperplate engraving of the Malabar palm

We noticed a growing pepper plant at the base of a woodcut panel from Spaniard Christobal Acosta’s 1578 Tracto de las Dragos y Medicinas de las Indias Orientalis, based on his Indian experiences, mainly as personal physician to the Viceroy of Goa. Acosta introduced an earlier seminal work to Europe — Portuguese naturalist-physician Garcia da Orta’s 1563 study based on 30 years of first-hand learning from hakims, vaidyas and folk healers in Goa. Titled Colloquies on the Simples, Drugs and Materia Medica of India, it is couched as dialogues between Orta and an imaginary Portuguese physician, a newcomer to Goa!

As we went around the exhibition, we gasped at our collective ignorance. For these books were written around the time when Elizabeth I was on the English throne, while Akbar became the Mughal emperor in 1555. Orta, trained at the University of Salamanca, highlighted 57 commodities from the Indian west coast, each vital to the Spice Route.

The exhibition shares copies of fragile, ancient manuscripts from the depths of Oxford’s Bodleian library, besides knowledge repositories at California, New York, London, Delaware and Stanford. Among these treasures is the Bower manuscript, its ink calligraphy on 51 birch bark pages dating back to 350-375 AD. It was identified as the pocketbook of Yasomitra, a Buddhist monk physician. The 12-volume Hortus Malabaricus, published in Amsterdam between 1678 and 1693, includes 792 copperplate engravings compiled by the Dutch governor of Malabar, Henricus Adrianus van Rheede. He is known for ousting the Portuguese from Cochin, while crowning Vira Kerala Varma as raja. These books include contributions in Malayalam from traditional physician Itty Achudem and three Ayurvedic practitioners.

This exhibit also features a 1605 book by Charles E’Cluse, founder of the Dutch botanical garden at Leiden; De Historia Stirpium (1542) by German scholar Leonhart Fuchs; Dutchman John Huyghen van Linschoten’s Itinerario (1598); and John Gerard’s 1597 The Greate Herball.

Their scholarship is showcased through the multi-layered show, including a stone carved with botanical names in Malayalam, Sanskrit, Latin and Arabic scripts in a sunken-in space. There are quotations from Shakespeare, Milton and the Tamil epic Silappathikaram, and Hortus plants like gooseberry and areca sourced from Bangalore’s Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT).

The exhibition is the brainchild of Kerala-born, Stanford-educated cell biologist Annamma Spudich, who was a scholar in residence at NCBS. Moving away from basic research to documenting Indian scientific traditions in natural sciences, she spent five years on this project. The last two years saw collaborations with designer Sarita Sundar and her team at Bangalore-based Trapeze, who achieved a perfect visual and verbal balance. Fusing history, science and art, Annamma acknowledges in the impeccable catalogue that her trail began with Gerard’s book at the Cambridge University library, with its woodcuts of spices and the brilliant image of the ficus. “This history, or pre-colonial east-west interaction, is surprisingly different from what came after, during the colonial period,” she states over email. “I have travelled in south India extensively, seeking out practitioners of traditional medicine, and found scholarly persons at different socioeconomic strata.”

Sarita states, “While we drew up plans and sketched ideas, Annamma continued her ferreting at libraries around the world. Once in a while, a beautiful new image or story would land by courier or by mail.” The final show was put together by eight designers and four consultants, realised by 50-odd carpenters, stone carvers, electricians, architects, civil engineers, and gardeners.

To Sarita, “the ficus was the best symbol of knowledge and its spread through cultures such as NCBS. For, as in the Milton quote, its branches come down and are reborn.”

Through this journey of discovery, we encounter our roots anew. For instance, through nine exquisite botanical illustrations of, say, a Malabar palm, alongside a local dweller. Through Linschoten’s world map that marks the important ports of ‘Calicut, Goa, Diu, Guzarate and Cambium.’ Through learning that Elihu Yale, the governor of Fort St. George at Madras, once traded in diamonds, textiles, pepper, lac and other valuable commodities.

Like Annamma, we admit, “In our rush to embrace modernity and technology, we must not forget the scholarship that is indigenous to India.” That home truth is reason enough why this evergreen exhibition should tour more Indian locations beyond Bangalore and Mysore. 

(The Hindu Business Line 2008)

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