At Kolkata's Pavlov Mental Health Hospital, art offers a unique perspective into the experiences of patients

They are ordinary hospital beds — white ones, but rendered surreal. One bed has grown dreadlocks. Another bed has four feet. A banyan tree grows out of another.

Art in a mental hospital does not stray too far from the bed. These are beds as homes, beds as cells, beds as the boundaries of a circumscribed worlds.

“When we started unfolding the stories [of those residing in these hospitals], the common refrain was the bed and their relationship with the bed because that is where they spend most of their time,” says Ratnaboli Ray, founder of Anjali, a mental health rights organisation in Kolkata. “When they didn’t have lockers they used to keep their stuff underneath the bed just like we used to do when we were kids.”

One of the beds tells that story: it’s simple, with red sheets, in front of a pile of rubble. On it is a cloth bundle that symbolises everything the patient owns. Another bed has a giant cracked egg on it. Ray says an egg is very important for the residents. “It’s the only nutritious protein food they get. And according to them, the only unadulterated food — because you cannot tamper with a boiled egg.”

The egg, like all the other objects in the installation, is made of things discarded by the patients – old leggings, t-shirts turned into pulp and then into art.

Installations at the Pavlov Mental Hospital, part of The Kolkata Festival

Art installations at the Pavlov Mental Health Hospital, part of The Kolkata Festival

The Pavlov Mental Health hospital is in the heart of Kolkata, yet discreetly tucked away from view. A faded sign on the wall says 'Government of West Bengal, Hospital for Mental Diseases, Estd. 1936'. Once it used to be a hospital for leprosy patients. Across the street is a Muslim graveyard. Brightly coloured cycle rickshaws with hand-lettered signs like 'Imran-Sonu' trundle past. One can smell the open drains. There is a pond on the premises, in front of the beautiful brick-red colonial building with its wraparound verandahs. A rail line runs close by and the mournful whistle of passing trains punctuates the afternoon quiet.

It’s an unusual place for an art exhibit; moreover, an exhibition that is part of the first Kolkata Festival. The festival is a city-wide celebration of Kolkata’s art and culture, featuring icons like Usha Uthup and Tanushree Shankar. Ray says it was not easy to persuade some of the committee members that the Pavlov Mental Health Hospital could also be a venue for the Kolkata Festival: “They said a mental hospital is not part of the city. Secondly, they said why do you want to do a programme in a place which is 'dark', which should not be visibilised [sic] because it will only talk about the darker side of the city.”

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Artist Srikanta Paul, who worked for several months with the Pavlov residents, says he too had certain stereotypes. He thought he would see jagged lines, restless drawings showing some inner turmoil. Instead the paintings that line the passageway by the Out Patient Department are bursting with colour and life.

And the beds.

But in the artists’ imagination, the stark hospital bed now has an elaborately carved headboard — like a princess’ bed from a fairy tale.

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“Look at that one,” says Ratnaboli Ray pointing to a painting where the Goddess Durga and her children are standing on a bed. Underneath the bed are their various animal vahans. “Nanigopal Rajbangshi drew this. His logic was many people in the hospital cannot visit Ma Durga. So it’s best that Ma Durga comes and ascends on the bed.”

Rajbangshi’s work is amazing, says Srikanta Paul. His black and white art forms two panels on either side of the passage way. The rounded faces, the bold lines have all the vibrancy of tribal art. “Notice both his men and women have breasts,” says Paul. “I asked him why. He shrugged and said men and women are all the same, aren’t they?”

Paul told his team to not come with preconceptions about the kind of art they wanted. He says the first day was haunting. All the residents, excited by a new person in their midst came out and started shouting, some asking for a photograph, some wanting very small sums of money (Rs 2). He asked one young woman why she was there. She said she was lost and brought to this home. No one came looking for her.

Paul spent a month just hanging out with the residents, listening to their stories. Very quickly, he said, two themes emerged – home and the bed.

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Some 600 people stay in this hospital. Part of it is old colonial architecture. The newer buildings are in West Bengal government-issue blue. They are being torn down to be rebuilt as a centre for excellence. That rubble from that destruction has found its way into the art as well. A little house, almost like a doll house, is perched on top of a pile of rubble, its walls painted with birds and creepers and windows. “We used that rubble and put a house there, to show amidst this construction there is also somewhere a home for us,” says Ray.

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Of course in reality their “homes” are a dormitory. Sometimes there is water, sometimes there is not. Not all of them have lockers. They share two toilets, mostly without doors or privacy. On the other hand, says Ray, one day she counted how many locks and grills she had to navigate to get to them. “There were 11 kinds,” she says with a grimace.

It’s no surprise that much of the art features birds and butterflies, creatures with wings. A woman named Sita Maiti draws herself and her daughter in fairy tale gowns with fairy wings. Sita’s daughter is in a hostel. Anjali has been trying to get her visiting rights but to no avail. “They are not letting the daughter come and visit her,” sighs Ray. “No wonder her drawings are about having wings and flying off from here.”

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The stigma runs deep despite a Deepika Padukone breaking the silence about her struggles with depression. Estimates say more than 50 million Indians suffer from mental illness. An eight-city survey found at least 47 percent were “highly judgmental” of people perceived as having mental illness with 26 percent saying they were afraid of the mentally ill. Mental illness is a term of mockery and abuse. Ashwini Kumar Choubey — minister of state for Health and Family Welfare, no less — recently called Rahul Gandhi a “schizophrenic”.

Anjali has to battle that stigma every day. Ray recalls her struggle to get voter ID cards for the residents of the hospital. “We just wanted their name and address on it but they were insisting on writing Pavlov Mental Hospital,” she says. “I asked, what’s the point of giving them these identity cards when it’s going to further stigmatise them?”

She won that battle but she knows one art installation will not change the stigma. However, it allows Kolkatans to step across the lines that demarcate the world of the “well” and the “unwell”. Some of those in this hospital could also cross that line back into the world of the “well” if their families were willing to take them back.

“But they don’t need to go back to a home that tortured them or incarcerated them,” says Ray. “They need to go to a home which they create themselves with people who care, with their partners, their lovers. We need to create other kinds of families. That’s what we should be thinking about.”

For more information on The Kolkata Festival, click here.

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Updated Date: Feb 10, 2019 11:08:39 IST

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