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In Session: Authority and its Contradictions: Expressive Traditions and Contested Futures in Kerala, South India
2: Health as Expression: Historicizing the Present through Nature Cure Revivalism in Kerala
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of Toronto, Canada
While first popularized in India by M.K. Gandhi, nature cure (prakriti chikista) has gained popularity in Kerala, south India as a low-cost intervention for revitalizing weak immunities. Research on medical traditions in South Asia have examined how practitioners draw on binary categories of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ as ‘legitimating signs’ in the cultural politics of nationalist authenticity (Langford 2002). As a processual alternative to more discursive approaches, this paper applies a performative lens to medical practice. By amplifying the extent to which nature cure is a non-elite, expressive tradition, what insights may we gain about the entangled production of caste, class, medical authority, and temporality?
Based on 2.5 years of continuous fieldwork, this paper juxtaposes two nature cure camp sites, where non-professionalized healers teach yoga, meditation, and music therapy. Through Malayalam-language books, pamphlets, articles, and social media posts, these healers charismatically garner public authority. In one site, a Christian psychologist assigns yoga and music therapy sessions as part of a structured curriculum. In another, a Gandhian activist runs an annual three-day water fast in remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where farmer-activists and healers provide classes that comment upon Hindu nationalism. Like a performative genre, participants in both contexts “historicize the present” through textual and enacted narrative retellings of these embodied therapies, drawing upon past myths and projected futures that produce competing and contradictory realities (Alter 2004; Soneji 2008). By collectively practicing these treatments, patients expressively link their interior, individual health quests with broader revivalist narratives of Kerala’s egalitarian and ecological exceptionalism.