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Homeopathic knowledge in colonial Bengal

April 15, 2010

By Shinjini Das

In autumn 2007, I began working on my project on the production and circulation of homeopathic knowledge in British India, with an emphasis on colonial Bengal. The historiography of health and medicine in colonial South Asia has predominantly engaged with various facets of state-sponsored Western medicine or with that of ‘indigenous’ practices. However, as David Arnold and Sumit Sarkar have pointed out in a recent article, the status of ‘other’ Western medical ideas such as homeopathy, with deep roots in British India, which fall outside a strict ‘Western/indigenous’ paradigm, awaits thorough historical investigation.

The fun of studying homeopathy resides precisely in its ambiguous, ‘in-between’ status. A set of Western ideas with claims to indigeneity, equally persistent in its claim of being traditional and modern, homeopathy inhabits a liminal space and escapes the watertight categorisations often made by historians. A few illuminating articles have dealt with homeopathy’s cultural appeal and on the role of individuals in its propagation; they hint at the possibility of unearthing a rich social history, involving people from myriad class and social backgrounds.

Such so-called ‘alternative’ or marginal medical practices as hydropathy, homeopathy, osteopathy, nature-cure and the like, in their European milieu, began receiving historical attention from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Interestingly, works that opened up the possibility of studying histories of such practices were also the ones to label these practices as ‘alternative’. Hence these works often ended up reinforcing the orthodoxy/alternative binary. The historical constitutions of these categories – of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘alternative’ – have received less historical attention. I take my cue from recent work by scholars such as Roberta Bivins, who are more aware of such risks. In my work, I contest the anachronism involved in labelling practices marginal to today’s biomedicine as always and already marginal or alternative. Deeper explorations into homeopathy’s 19th-century pasts dispute such labelling. In a colonial context such as British India, ‘orthodox’ Western medicine itself was an imposed category struggling to find a strong foothold in society beyond the state-protected colonial enclaves for the greater part of the 19th century. The fluidities of the boundaries between ‘orthodox’ and ‘alternative’ are more obvious in such contexts.

During the course of my extensive, 11-month-long fieldwork in libraries and archives in and around Kolkata I became more aware of these fluidities.

As I shifted my focus from the conventional state archives (where sources on homeopathy admittedly were fewer) to alternative registers such as old publishing houses, private family collections, records of old pharmacies etc., I was able to locate an intricate network of homeopathic practitioners, manufacturers and publishers. The lively market in medical print reveals a strong presence of these ideas, keenly competing primarily with ideas of allopathy/daktari/Western medicine/scientific medicine (all labels attached to Western orthodoxy) and Ayurveda. A range of homeopathic journals and especially manuals scattered over various large and obscure libraries reconfirm the proliferation of such a network. They point towards extensive circulation of drugs, pamphlets and advertisements associated with homeopathy in the big cities such as Kolkata and Dhaka, within the mofussil, and also in villages in late 19th- and early 20th-century Bengal.

A thorough exploration of such myriad sources made me aware of deep entanglements and overlaps between historical literature about homeopathy and the institution of the family in contemporary Bengal. The literature around homeopathy invokes the institution recurrently. The family features broadly in two crucial ways. First, there is an interesting network of elite or upper-middle-class ‘bhadralok’ families who were invested in homeopathic treatment in various capacities – as practitioners, drug manufacturers, publishers, journal editors, authors of books and manuals, and eventually, in the 20th century, as patrons of institutions. Most of these families had links with business involving homeopathy for over two or three generations. Directly invested in commercial enterprise around homeopathy, many of them wrote tracts on the tricks of conducting successful business. They regularly published journals that systematically circulated their own and other practitioners’ biographies. These serialised biographies often helped to project such practitioners as authorities of a coherent discipline. A close study of how these families competed and collaborated with each other reveals a fascinating study in ‘medical entrepreneurship’.

At another level, works published by these big families also had a profound engagement with the institution of the family. These publications involving homeopathy reflect a deep anxiety about the preservation of familial health in an era of intense Westernisation and commercialisation of social relations. Such writings repeatedly project an ideal family life and celebrate virtues including self-cure and economy, attainable through the propagation of homeopathic knowledge. Warding off the figure of the alien doctor and his expensive medications from the domain of the family remained the main concern of these tracts. They provided extensive guidelines to develop the self-curing potential of every household. One cannot but locate resonances of contemporary swadeshi, nationalism, within such concern. The issue of indigeneity and the suitability of particular forms of medicine on the Indian body were also widely discussed. Elaborate reports of homeopathic experiments with Indian flora and fauna were regularly published. The householders were actively encouraged to take part in such experiments by practising physicians. There was an ongoing discussion on the contemporary decline of Ayurvedic practices. Homeopathic texts claimed that such a decline necessitated that families be equipped with knowledge of homeopathy that was modern, Western and yet extremely suitable for the Indians.

The figures of women self–trained in homeopathy frequently featured as the vanguard of familial health. Furthermore, homeopathic literature engaged deeply with the reproductive economy of the family. Female health, especially reproductive health as the potential repertoire of future citizens, was exhaustively discussed. A related concern in such texts was the cultivation of the healthiest sexual practices. Child rearing and children’s health too formed an enduring aspect of such discussions. Such texts reiterated virtues of an ethical family life. Studied in intricate detail, these texts demonstrate how the institution of the family and knowledge of homeopathy in contemporary Bengal were mutually constitutive.

By promising to produce self-trained democratic citizen-doctors, homeopathy promoted a unique professionalisation model. However, that posed serious problems for the discipline, especially in the wake of the Medical Registration Acts passed in the early part of the 20th century. A heightened spate of institution building followed, which included schools, colleges, hospitals and professional associations. Yet various acts of transgression and corruption were noted in the ways in which homeopathic degrees were produced. The role of the entrepreneur families was also significant in this context. Their negotiation with the state on the one hand – and the countless amateur practitioners on the other – helped to promote a pure space of ‘authentic’ homeopathy in the mid-20th century.

My doctoral project thus studies the interface between homeopathic knowledge and notions of familial wellbeing. It looks at the ways discourses around homeopathy and on the family in colonial Bengal informed one another. It also looks at the processes and practices through which certain medical ideas were projected as a coherent ‘system’. Scholars such as Jean Langford now urge us to go beyond the ‘seduction of systems’ and be aware of the ‘emptiness’ of such terms in capturing the varied perspectives on specific medical practices. While such warnings are very important, the other side of the spectrum also awaits exploration. It is historically necessary to investigate what goes into the making of a ‘system’ of knowledge. Studies on the processes of codification of canons, emergence of authoritative voices and the reception and celebration of figures such as Hahnemann are all extremely relevant.

Shinjini Das is a doctoral candidate at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

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