Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Researching Archival Objects

This is an example of creating a narrative through research on the basis of the content of an archival object.

Among the documents available in the Sanghvi family’s archival collection was a letter from the Assistant University Registrar dated 30th August 1932. The letter was an intimation to LM Sanghvi that he had been awarded the Dr Tribhovandas Motichand Shah Scholarship for pursuing his medical education. The value of the Scholarship was Rs285/- per year for a period of five years, payable half-yearly, commencing from the 1st of April in 1932.

The Scholarship was instituted at the University of Bombay to commemorate the contribution of Dr Tribhovandas Motichand Shah to Indian medical practice. It was clear that he must have been a path-breaking medical practitioner of his times to have a scholarship instituted in his name. 

The historian in me had to find out more about this doctor. And what I found was a fascinating story.

Dr Tribhovandas Motichand Shah was the Chief Medical Officer of Junagadh in 1889. He was a pioneer of plastic surgery in India. Apparently, he had documented over a hundred cases treated by him in four years. He gave minute details of the operations he performed and discussed the advantages of forehead rhinoplasty, a plastic surgery procedure for “correcting and reconstructing the form, restoring the functions and aesthetically enhancing the nose.” He was among the first surgeons in India to use anaesthesia. Until then, there was no mention of anaesthesia in reported Indian medical cases. Apparently, patients used to be given wine to drink before surgery! Dr Tribhovandas Shah was a legend; it was said that “Kalu cuts the nose and Tribhovan reconstructs it.” Kalu was a local dacoit of that time who had an unusual signature for his dacoities; he used to cut off people’s noses after he had looted them. And, obviously, those he looted were well-off enough to go in for plastic surgery by Dr Tribhovandas Shah! 

Some sources say that the name of the dacoit was Kadu Makrani. To take revenge against the Junagadh State for punishing the informers of the state he used the popular method of punishment prevalent then; he used to cut the noses of these people. The nose in Indian society has been a symbol of dignity and respect throughout centuries. Naak-kata or nakata is one who has no self-respect or dignity. And it was common to hear someone say 'if I cannot deliver on my promise, I will cut off my nose!' (Main apni naak katwa doonga) In ancient times, amputation of nose was frequently done as a punishment for criminals, war prisoners or people who indulged in adultery. The practice of rhinoplasty began as a result of the need to reconstruct the external nose and later developed into a full-fledged specialisation. Dr Tribhovandas Shah is credited with the development of rhinoplasty as a modern science in India in the 19th century.

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