Ayurvedic Man: our new exhibition exploring 'the knowledge of long life'

‘Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine’, Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition, shines a light on some of the treasures in our archives, from intricate anatomical diagrams and surgical tools, to erotic manuals and spiritual manuscripts.

19th-century gouache painting of a man in a yoga posture

The focus of the exhibition is Indian medicine and Ayurveda, a centuries-old but evolving set of medical practices translating to ‘the knowledge of long life’. It reflects Henry Wellcome’s interest in the art and science of healing through the ages.

The exhibition takes its title from a unique 18th-century Nepalese painting showing the organs and vessels of the male body according to classical Ayurveda, long a source of inspiration and fascination for researchers and academics.

The displays are framed by newly unearthed correspondence to and from Dr Paira Mall. He was sent to India in 1911 to collect cultural objects for what was then the Wellcome Medical Historical Museum. He was also tasked with obtaining botanical knowledge and medicinal plants for the Wellcome Chemical Research Laboratories.

The letters chart 11 years, tracing the movement of medical knowledge and museum objects across continents and cultures.

CJS Thompson, then curator of Wellcome’s museum, wrote to Dr Paira Mall in 1917:

“I hope that on your return from India we shall be able to go into this very interesting theory that you mentioned on the unity of matter and life. As you say, there is a lot that was known in the past that has been utterly forgotten, and will well repay research.”

The exhibition also features a new commission by artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar that reimagines an outbreak of plague in 1896. 'Drawing the Bombay Plague' (2017) depicts some of the unpopular measures imposed by the British colonial administration and a range of local responses.

Featuring goddesses, technology, architecture, riots and fleas, this detailed work highlights perceptions and misconceptions of disease and epidemics.

The exhibition’s curator, Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, says: "At a time when we are fascinated by different approaches to health, ‘Ayurvedic Man’ reflects on how ‘alternative’ medical practices evolve and the encounters that shape them.

"The exhibition questions notions of authenticity and reflects on the ownership of heritage, both medical and cultural, all the while examining our own collections and history."

'Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine' runs until 8 April 2018.

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