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Unsound Soundscapes

Manali, the women's ward, Ratnagiri Mental Hospital, Ratnagiri, India (Author's Photograph)

John Murray, a 19th century European traveller recorded the 'cries of unhappy lunatics' that were constantly heard from the Colaba Lunatic Asylum. Noise was a common feature of nineteenth-century asylums.

Bombay's colonial asylums had extremely unruly soundscapes. Meagre funding and poor management meant that superintendents could do little to manage sound. One inexpensive method superintendents used to quieten noisy patients was labouring them to the point of exhaustion. Despite their efforts, however, Bombay's asylums remained noisy. Sound management remained an important concern for colonial officials. And since superintendents failed to regulate the asylum soundscape, after 1880, colonial officials built new asylums in more isolated locations. Unlike the nineteenth-century, today, government officials are no longer apprehensive about 'noisy' mental hospitals.

Today, a stoic silence has replaced the 'cries of unhappy lunatics'. In 2014, when I visited the Ratnagiri Regional Mental Hospital for fieldwork, I felt like I had walked back in time. The asylum built in 1886 now functions as the Ratnagiri Mental Hospital. This asylum served as one of the main asylums in the Southern Section of the Bombay Presidency. Little has changed in terms of the architecture of the building, and little has changed in terms of care.

The Ratnagiri Mental Hospital had no psychiatrist. A doctor from the government General Hospital visited a couple of times a week. Subordinate staff mainly managed the hospital. Since the hospital was not providing any treatment, I inquired why patients were hospitalized in the first place. One warder replied that without the hospital, patients would have to fend for themselves. The staff there seemed quite content at the fact that they at least provided patients their daily meals.

These meals, however, come at a price. Patients have to assist with various chores around the hospital. The Ratnagiri Mental Hospital Report, 2013 listed ‘bagh wuh sheti kam’ (gardening and agricultural work) as one of its treatment methods. The hospital mainly feeds, clothes, and occupies its patients rather than treating them. Such 'treatment' practices were characteristic of colonial asylums. Colonial superintendents described it as ‘common-sense treatment’.

Erving Goffman’s argument rightly describes the condition of the Ratnagiri Mental Hospital: ‘Inmates and lower staff levels are involved in a vast supportive action – an elaborate dramatized tribute – that has the effect, if not purpose, of affirming that a medical like service is in progress here and the psychiatric staff are providing it’. As hospital staff continue to adhere to a clothing, feeding, occupying treatment regime, it solidifies their ‘self-conception’ of providing curative treatment to patients.

Despite the silencing of the hospital soundscape, the treatment cultures within these hospitals can be best described as 'unsound'. Since I began my research in 2013, several stories have emerged in the media about the abuse within Indian mental hospitals. Policy makers and professionals need to take a stance against such cultures of abuse and patterns of coercion.

Policy makers and professionals have traditionally blamed the mental health care crisis on the apathy and superstitious beliefs of Indian families. However, it is time for policy makers and professionals to accept responsibility rather than place blame. Those suffering from mental illness deserve more than 'common-sense treatment’, they deserve care.


Goffman, Erving, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (New York: Anchor Books, 1961).

Murray, John, Handbook of the Bombay Presidency: With an Account of Bombay City, 1814–1883, Second Edition (London: J Murray, 1881).

Pinto, Sarah. A., Lunatic Asylums in Colonial Bombay: Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Primary sources include files from the Maharashtra State Archives, Mumbai, National Archives, Delhi, and the British Library, London. For details see. Pinto, Sarah. A., Lunatic Asylums in Colonial Bombay: Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Dr. Sarah A Pinto is a social historian who researches the history of mental health institutions. She is the author of Lunatic Asylums in Colonial Bombay: Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Through her research, she intends to interrupt legacies of trauma and enable new narratives in mental health care.

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