Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

The Mysore Syndrome

British Psychiatry: History of Madness and the Phenomenology of Mental Illness in Colonial India: The Mysore Syndrome
by Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD

Description, Aims and Objectives, Timeline

This project involves an in-depth investigation of the medicalisation of madness in India under the Raj (even in regions where British sovereignty had not reached, but its disciplinary paradigms had, as what concerns here most, in the Princely State of Mysore). The study examines the way in which British authorities managed mental pathology and behavioural disorders among the natives using medical categories, imported from Europe. In the process, the indigenous, native system of managing madness (unmaadi), its own resources deriving from a long tradition of ‘inner science’ approaches, such as yoga, unaani, ayurveda, folks medicine, integration into cultural life, etc., were completely undermined. Where the medical model did not work, the British literally pushed cannabis, and introduced mesmerism, lobotomy, incarceration, ECT, and other invasive treatment regimes. But the prognosis was always flawed, and the British medical authorities and their Macaulayite team were confounded when traditional non-medical, native or folk systems yielded far better results than their own draconian approach to what they painted as a ‘menacing social problem’. Resistance to British presence and spontaneous behavior that attempted to reclaim traditional patterns were invariably diagnosed as ‘pathological disorders’ and the ‘patients’ confined under criminalized laws introduced across the board. There is a fascinating story that has to be told, and much of it is recorded – but for a corrected non-Orientalist hermeneutic of interpretation – in the archives preserved in the hospitals and State Archives in the area.

The psychiatric system in India was the largest established by a colonial power in a colonised region. It was the most extensive attempt to transplant western notions of mental health and mental illness into a non-western context of very different pre-existing understandings of such concepts, with other indigenous and folk practices. These were replaced variously with experimentations in mesmerism, homeopathy, cannabis or hemp therapy, and spiritualism, followed by the harsher methods of incarceration, whipping, and starvation, eventually giving way to intrusive convulsive therapies, leucotomy, and lobotomy. The institutional medicalisation of insanity destabilised traditional analysis based on Caraka, Sushrata, and tantra (alchemical) systems, by stripping from them all traces of cultural, religious and mystical perturbations of the mind, or disorder in the inner sense, (indriyamanasaroga) or distressed intellect, traditionally thought to be brought about by an imbalance of humours or excess of elemental spirits. This made the sufferers and their kin wholly dependent for the diagnosis and cure on the professional doctors and expert institutions of psychiatry.

No significant study to date has been made of the legal framework imposed by the British authorities through the various ‘Lunacy Acts’ (beginning in 1858) across the Empire, which codified mental illness as a culpable criminal act on a par with other socially threatening conditions and forensic offences. Alternatively, insanity was stigmatised as an ‘incurable disease’ analogous to classified bodily diseases (e.g. leprosy). Either way, the judgement sanctioned confinement of the afflicted patients (or deportation in the case of some expatriate patients, especially white women given to ‘tropo’, or excessive addiction to alcohol). These echoes of the Common Law and penal codification have yet to be fully re-appraised, let alone reformed at the nation-wide level with sensitivity toward human rights and minority issues. It cries out for informed academic input.

A team of researchers comprising the Proposer (Prof Bilimoria), Dr Renuka Sharma (an Australian-trained medical psychiatrist), Dr John Mills who is associated with Wellcome Trust (though Wellcome Trust would not fund a project that is too critical of the British misdeeds in India), with colleagues in NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-sciences, Bangalore) have been investigating the interaction of the British-style asylum culture, classification system, and institutions for the mentally ill with indigenous responses and traditional practices. The inquiry draws extensively on the unique and endangered archival sources in India, and colonial records on mental health services. This study will make a major contribution to contemporary understanding of identity and mental health in colonial construction, and its corrections, as have become the concerns of cross-cultural psychiatry.

The project seeks to preserve the sources. The wealth of these sources derives from the fact that they have remained at the hospitals in question and State Archives but the modernization of Indian health services has placed these under threat. Indeed, the damage to the colonial records at Bhuj in Kutch and to the Mental Hospital at Ahmedabad during the recent earthquake emphasizes that there are not just bureaucratic threats to these rich sources. This project, in realizing the importance of these records, seeks not just to use them but to preserve them for future generations of scholars interested in the origins of modern psychiatry and of modern medicine.

The part that is pending the systematic archival scanning, recording, and classification of the relevant sources, which will be digitalized for analysis and easier access to future researchers. Equipment such as a digital camera mounted to a PC for scanning purposes and associated items, along with funding for employment of technical and research assistants are required.


This project is already quite advanced and should complete by the end of 2002.