In Her Element

The life of a poet and poison healer in Kerala

01 August 2018
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IN THE DENSE FOREST OF THE PONMUDI HILLS, in the southwestern ghats of Kerala, lives a 75-year-old poet, herbal doctor and poison healer. Lakshmikutty Kani, whom locals fondly call “Amma”—mother—or “Vanamuthassi”—grandmother of the jungle—is well known for her extensive knowledge of alternative medicine. Over the last 45 years, she has prescribed treatments to over 800 patients for various illnesses, including snakebite, cholesterol and cancer, with plant-based concoctions.

In March 2017, the Mumbai-based photographer Karen Dias came across an article about Lakshmikutty’s work and travelled to meet her. She lives in a sparse village, in a half-built mud house with a thatched roof. She had received some government money to build a house but it ran out before she could complete it, a turn of events that frustrates her even today.

Dias’s series depicts Lakshmikutty’s isolated life, deep in the forest, with two cats, Kunjan and Kunji, who keep her company. She lost her family under tragic circumstances: a wild elephant killed one of her three sons, another died of a heart attack and she became estranged from the third. Her husband passed away soon after. “It’s like he went with his sons,” she told Dias, suggesting that grief shortened his life.

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    Karen Dias is a Mumbai-based documentary photographer whose work focusses on stories about women, the environment and indigenous communities.