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

This book traces the historical roots of the problems in India’s mental health care system. It accounts for indigenous experiences of the lunatic asylum in the Bombay Presidency (1793-1921). The book argues that the colonial lunatic asylum failed to assimilate into Indian society and therefore remained a failed colonial-medical enterprise. It begins by assessing the implications of lunatic asylums on indigenous knowledge and healing traditions. It then examines the lunatic asylum as a ‘middle-ground’, and the European superintendents’ ‘common-sense’ treatment of Indian insanity.  Furthermore, it analyses the soundscapes of Bombay’s asylums, and the extent to which public perceptions influenced their use. Lunatic asylums left a legacy of historical trauma for the indigenous community because of their coercive and custodial character. This book aims to disrupt that legacy of trauma and to enable new narratives in mental health treatment in India.

Barbara Brookes, Professor of History, University of Otago, New Zealand

In this pioneering study of asylums, Sarah Pinto argues that the colonial imposition of asylums quickly became subverted. Superintendents gradually distanced themselves from western psychiatry and developed hybridised methods of treatment that responded to the needs of their local communities. In this way asylums became a ‘middle ground’ in which the aspirations of colonial officials were tempered by the traditions and languages of the local communities.


Pinto’s innovative study explores the material conditions of asylum life, examining clothing, food and occupational therapy. She demonstrates how clothing requirements, for example, were part of the ‘civilising mission’ and served to ignore local cultural preferences. Finding suitable occupations for patients proved difficult but the desire to do so was propelled by financial imperatives.


Attention to the material circumstances of the asylums is supplemented by Pinto’s close analysis of the soundscapes within them and the cacophony of voices that might be heard. English superintendents came up against an array of local languages which challenged any sense of colonial hegemony. If hegemony could not be achieved, wounds were inflicted on the local society. The authority of medical superintendents, for example, relied on medical somatic understandings of mental illness which regarded Indian beliefs in the inseparability of the somatic and the spiritual as stagnant and superstitious. This western view undermined the credibility of local practitioners of Indian medicine. In addition, the removal of mentally ill individuals from their families caused trauma both to families and to patients.


Pinto convincingly concludes that the Bombay asylums represented a failed colonial-medical enterprise, arguing that the everyday incidents weakened the trust of local people in the curative potential of the institutions. Attentive to the everyday workings of the asylums and the views of them by the communities in which they operated, this study suggests how understanding the history of the treatment of the mentally ill is vital to reconceptualising their treatment today.

Charlotte Macdonald, Professor of History, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

“Original, courageous and evocative, Sarah Pinto’s history of colonial asylums is a powerful work. Attending to the experiences of patients and their families, the soundscapes and spaces of the asylum, Pinto goes beyond existing understandings to show us the persistence, the failures and the consequences of a painful past. The book is a rich addition to the histories of colonial India and to health, and introduces a historian with a skillful sensitivity to people and difficult predicaments in the past and present.” 



Pinto, Sarah A, ‘Carrying on with ‘Common-Sense’: Asylum Staff as keepers of the flame in Bombay’s Lunatic Asylums, 1894-1930’, in (ed) Wynter R, Wallis J, Ellis R, Working title: anniversaries, memory and reform, Palgrave Macmillan, Forthcoming 2021.


Pinto, Sarah A, ‘Mental Health Crisis In India: Stop Blaming Stigma, Address The Historical Trauma’, Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry, Forthcoming 2020.


Pinto, Sarah A, ‘Why we must decolonise Mental Health’, Newsroom, 3 September 2020.

Also republished by: | SEPTEMBER 7, 2020 | SEPTEMBER 7, 2020


Pinto S.A, ‘Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds: Lunatic Asylums in the Bombay Presidency, 1793-1921’, Ph.D. Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2017.Available at:


Pinto, Sarah A., ‘Essay Writing Made easy as’, Victoria University of Wellington, 2019. ‘Indian Insanity and the Local - Colonial Contest for its Treatment, ‘Staff Seminar, School of History, Victoria University of Wellington, April 2019.


‘The 12 Rules for public Speaking: Workshop on Public Speaking’, Victoria University of Wellington History Programme, May 2019.


‘Indian Soldiers in World War 1’, World War One and its Legacies (Level 100), Victoria University of Wellington History Programme, April 2019 ‘WW1 and the Nationalist movement in India, World War One and its Legacies (Level 100), Victoria University of Wellington History Programme, May 2019.


‘Unsound Soundscapes: The Colaba Lunatic Asylum’, 'Exploring the Unexplored: New Perspectives on the History of Mumbai International Conference, Mumbai, January 2019.


‘Staff as “Keepers of the Flame”: Bombay Lunatic Asylums 1894-1921’, Presentation, Faith in Reform Workshop, Queen Mary University of London, July 2018.


‘Unsound Soundscapes: Shrieks, Shouts and Songs’, New Historians Conference, Victoria University of Wellington, August 2017.


‘Public Perceptions of the Pagal Khana (Lunatic Asylum), 1850-1921’, Staff Seminar, School of History, Victoria University of Wellington, June 2017.


‘The Asylum as “Middle Ground”: Colonial Contestation and Indigenous Negotiations’, Staff Seminar, School of History, Victoria University of Wellington, August 2016.


‘Obsessed, Possessed, Depressed!: Ideas of Insanity its Evolution and Influence on the Asylum System in Bombay’, New Historian Conference, School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington, August 2015.


Appointed Speaker at Research Symposium, ‘Mental Asylums and Colonial Psychiatry in the Bombay Presidency and research experiences in India’, Department of History, University of Mumbai, November 2014. ‘St. Xavier’s College –A History’, Paper Presentation, Mumbai University Department of History, 2008.