Dastkari: Embodied Empiricism and the Dignity of Labor at the Madrasa Tibbiya, 18891930

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Sabrina Datoo, University of Chicago
The study of traditional medicine in modern South Asia has long been embroidered into histories of resistance to the knowledge projects of colonial states. Avicennian medicine in India cannot easily be accommodated into such narratives since its inaugural moment under Muslim dynasts included a voracious translation of Hellenic medical knowledge, making an assertion of its epistemic difference from ‘western medicine’ difficult to sustain. Avicennian medicine in India was, however, grounded in the lifeworld of the north Indian Muslim gentry, and marked by the mores of that class. My paper elucidates how those mores were implicated in the reformation of this humoral medical tradition in colonial India. I focus on a single site, the Madrasa Tibbiya of Delhi, a medical school founded in 1889 by an aristocratic lineage of Avicennian practitioners (hakims). The Madrasa was a pedagogical experiment in which hakims sought to integrate modern empiricism, as a practice, into their knowledge tradition through manual techniques such as dissection and surgery, collectively known as dastkari. Such practices, however, entailed an intimacy with the bodies of others that had hitherto been the province of subaltern practitioners and as such were an affront to the mores of gentility (sharafat) to which aristocratic hakims subscribed. In this essay I explore how the reform of Avicennian medicine in Delhi proceeded through managing sharafat as an aesthetic and ethical sensibility in order to dignify the manual labors required by scientific empiricism. To this end, I explore the Urdu language print culture generated by the Madrasa, including its annual reports and alumni memoirs in order to suggest that the work of Avicennian medical reform had less to do with overcoming the incommensurability of concepts, and more to do with enabling a positive ascription of value to manual labor amongst the north Indian Muslim gentry.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>