In Her Element

The life of a poet and poison healer in Kerala

01 August, 2018

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.

Lakshmikutty was born into the Kani community, which has long used traditional knowledge to make plant-based medication. Her mother, a midwife, taught her the rudiments of this practice, and she grew up surrounded by village elders who brewed medicines regularly. She soon began experimenting on her own, maintaining diaries with details of every patient she treated. Despite the practice belonging to her community, Lakshmikutty is skeptical about the prospect of passing on her knowledge to others, telling Dias that young people are not interested in learning about traditional healing anymore.

She does not have any written records of any of her recipes, preferring to work instinctively with the hundred or so unlabelled bottles of oils and ointments that she keeps in a wooden closet. “I can prepare about five hundred medicinal treatments from memory. I have not yet forgotten them,” Lakshmikutty told Dias. Although she grows some herbs in the patch behind her kitchen, and acquires others from men who forage in the forest, she is now too old to make new batches of medicine regularly. Her patients usually show up unannounced, often looking somewhat confused as they trudge along a dirt path towards Lakshmikutty’s home and stop at a small hand-painted sign outside her home that says, in Malayalam, “Shivajothi Poison Treatment Centre.” Lakshmikutty does not charge her patients for healing and medication, though, accepting only what they choose to give her—a habit that she hinted is instilled in the Kani community.

In 1995, Lakshmikutty received the Naattu Vaidya Rathna award for naturopathy from the Kerala government, following which her practice became better known in Thiruvananthapuram and surrounding villages. Earlier this year, she won another prestigious award—the Padma Shri, for her contributions to alternative medicine. But Dias speculated that Lakshmikutty, whose practice is driven by her love for the work rather than a desire for recognition, will probably end up packing away the award in a trunk and carrying on with her life.

Poetry is Lakshmikutty’s other passion. She left school after the eighth grade, but acquired a love for Malayalam poetry at a young age and read as many newspapers, magazines and books as she could get her hands on, even learning Konkani from a man in her community. She has written poems on alcoholism and the changing face of Kerala society, and is occasionally invited to speak at cultural events in local schools, where she reads out her writing. Lakshmikutty has also participated in workshops and training programmes related to alternative medicine, organised by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute and other institutions.

Although Dias set out to document Lakshmikutty’s solitary life, and her series does feature a single protagonist across several frames, the larger takeaway is the unconventional dynamic she has captured between Lakshmikutty and her immediate surroundings. One image, for instance, shows Lakshmikutty rummaging through a bush, presumably searching for medicinal leaves, with only the lower half of her body visible. In another, a cat, half-hidden, peeks out from between thick bushes. These vignettes gesture towards Lakshmikutty’s seamless relationship with nature—a woman at home in the secluded Ponmudi forest.

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