Gabi Alex: Folk medicine in South India: Representations of diverse identities in medical encounters

Folk medicine in South India: Representations of diverse identities in medical encounters

India, as a long-standing plural society, has operated with plural medical systems (Leslie 1976, Nichter 2002) for centuries. The state currently recognises seven different medical systems (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Biomedicine), all of which are incorporated into the national health care system. However, biomedicine constitutes the biggest sector in the institutionalised health care arena, thereby taking a hegemonial position.

Once representative of the colonial power, biomedicine is today synonymous with the Western World (Arnold 1993), and traditional and indigenous medicinal systems have experienced a revival in the context of recent anti-colonial and anti-western movements. The last decades have seen a modernisation of the Indian traditional medical systems, one that is characterised by procedures of standardisation, institutionalisation, commodisation and the increasing production of branded medicines (Bode 2006). Medical systems operate within and in dialogue with other ideological and religious systems, and besides their healing properties they are linked to, for example, ethnic or religious qualities, from which they gain their power and knowledge. Medical systems therefore mirror already existing diversities, but they also create a platform where diverse ideologies are represented. How this happens and what it involves is the object of this study, which is concerned with a specific branch of folk medicine in India, one that is widely termed “tribal” medicine.

Furthermore, this project investigates how the health system and regulations articulated by the modern Indian nation-state and the institutionalisation of medical practice shape and influence healing practices as well as ideas about the efficiency of different medical systems. The current data suggest that the ideas and (self)–images different groups hold about themselves and each other are articulated and influenced by the field of medical knowledge and practice. Ideas surrounding the traditional, natural, side effect free indigenous Indian folk medicine are contrasted with those surrounding biomedicine, which is generally termed English medicine and considered to be effective but harmful because of its side effects, as well as considered modern, but unnatural, and coming from the outside. At the same time, the Indian medical systems (e.g. Unani, Ayurveda, Siddha, ‘Tribal’ medicine) present a system of classification that is used to express and negotiate the intrinsic qualities and specific relations between different social groups and etiological categories in various ways. The diversity within the plural medical landscape interacts with the ideas and representations of different levels of diversity within the society: class, age, caste, religion, etc. The folk healers use these ideas about the traditional and indigenous qualities of their medicine in order to negotiate their identity and status within the wider society. At the same time, these representations shape the discourse within the Indian nation-state, where the labels of ethnicity and caste are strongly conditioned by affirmative action. The relationship and interaction between the different fields of encounters (community-state, healer-patient) and the respective representations that are employed in these encounters have so far not been studied and will form the major part of this ethnography.