Art in Mental Health Practice. Kolkata

The Lumbini Park Mental Hospital Kolkata does not live up to the hopes one might have for a hospital named after the birth place of Buddha. The hospital is cramped, dark, grey and gloomy, and it smells very unpleasant. There are no outside spaces, certainly no park, and although there are activities and programs run for the patients by Anjali, a mental health organisation that works within Lumbini, there are many many hours of nothingness, desperation and boredom.

It is difficult to express about the art program at this hospital without first putting it into the context of the conditions in which these people, (and others with mental illness in India) are kept and are living.  The feelings of disquiet we have are mirrored in two articles (see below) and others on the public record, as well as my own experience of working in, and teaching about, mental health for many years.

Lumbini is stuck in practices that have no place in the 21st century : an institution, an asylum in the worst sense.  A place, I am told, predominately for people suffering from schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. People are locked in wards with maybe 30 others and none have any personal space.  Ill-fitting gowns further reduce any sense of  individuality, the shapeless blue hospital gowns are revealing, institutional, and undignified.  I am guessing that many patients are medicated well beyond the doses needed.  Most  have extremely poor dental health and teeth missing.

Patients don’t do meaningful work, or leave the hospital – although with support many are capable of both.  There is so much life happening just outside the doors of the hospital in which patients could easily participate and enjoy.  As it is, they watch it all pass them by as they stare out onto the streets from upstairs windows.

India’s mentally ill are often locked away in understaffed, state-run institutions where they are stripped of basic human rights.

We witness staff  who seem oblivious to the needs of people, they huddle in rooms away from the hubbub of the dormitories and common rooms.   They shout their conversation or comments across the huge common living areas,  unaware of the impact their loud voices have on patients or on the activities that they are intruding upon.  At the end of the lunchtime meal – served on the tin plates commonly used throughout India, the kitchen staff bangs each plate against a bucket to remove uneaten food.   The din is deafening –  so is the disregard to the effect this appalling noise has on the wellbeing of the patients.  

These constant intrusions, as well as the overwhelming lack of care and imagination, contribute to making this hospital such a bleak place to be.  The attention we get as artists – especially returning after one year is delightful at first, but we recognise that not far below the surface is a desperate need for attention.

In addition to the poor living conditions and treatment, we also learn that despite the best efforts of the Anjali workers, it is impossible for many patients to return to their family once mental health has improved.  We learn that people are ‘dumped’ in the hospital: families flee, leaving incorrect personal details, either not able or willing to care for a family member with mental illness. In this culture where caste and status are so important to individual and family life, the stigma of mental illness has a huge and negative impact.  We learn that women and children are also admitted for reasons that have little to do with their mental health.  

My father brought me here 16 years ago”, said Sanjaya, a 29-year old woman, in Bengali. Her family appear to have freaked out when, at the age of 13, she started having mental health problems. Instead of getting some support, they dumped her into the Lumbini Park institution, where she was robbed of her youth, her education, and her safety. Detained there for the past 16 years without committing any crime, she was allowed out for a day two years ago. She returned to her family who had abandoned her. “I went and cried. I wanted to stay, but my family didn’t want me”, she told me.

Although I don’t speak Bengali, I learn that the word many are speaking to us is “Home, Home”.

We offer our services to Lumbini to assist and help enable better mental health and welfare practices.  We have skills and knowledge which we share to help raise the quality of life at Lumbini.  Our art projects support the work that is already happening there with Anjali, and offers new ideas and ways of working.  In additional to the art skills we have, we bring into the hospital person-centred and strength’s based practices – important in recognising and understanding the individual, and working to their strengths.

Artworks from some Melbourne art projects done with people who have mental illness and would have, in years past, been similarly lost into a mental hospital, are awe-inspiring and show something of what people here could do. We talked about building skills, offering challenges,  running big art programs and putting art into public spaces.

A new mental hospital is being built across the road from Lumbini  … we are trying to inspire some decision makers to support the creation and  installation of artworks made by patients,  to open  outside spaces, proper learning opportunities, genuine creative practice.   We intend to continue our relationship with the hospital in future visits to Kolkata to help develop the wellbeing of patients and supporting Anjali.


Markets are lively, and colourful and  have a huge presence in Indian life.  You never have to go far before coming to a vegetable stall, a chai seller, street food, jewellery and clothes stalls, garland makers and sellers.   Eating – particularly fish and sweets (misti) is almost a state past-time … a Bengali cannot easily walk past a sweet stall!   

We set out to create our own market at Lumbini during a two day workshop.


Day One :
We showed a collection of photos from my many market excursions,  and  had a look at artist Paul Cezanne’s still-life paintings.  We showed the participants observational drawing skills, using a basket full of fruit Maura brought in, for inspiration.  We set about drawing them in oil pastel – noticing light, shade, shape, and variations in colour.  And finished the day off by putting a light watercolour wash over the drawings.



some inspiration

and where it led:




I love that a cat, mouse AND cockroach made it into this picture of the spices and pulses.








We looked at all the paintings from last week and the photos of the market before working on large sheets of black chart paper.  By the time we were finished, there were 17 market scenes created.    We laid them out on the floor, stuck them together in groups, before calling on all available hands to put them up around the walls.   Everyone was involved and the excitement in the room was palpable.

It is impossible not to notice these striking works and their contribution to enlivening this space.



laying out, then installing the market around the common room where patients eat and attend workshops.



Further reading :

Art in Mental Health Practice dot dot dot 2016.  Our project from last year.


This is an Artists in Community International, project  undertaken in collaboration with artist Maura Hurley and Anjali.  It was funded through the generous donations of our many supporters.   Please donate to help us continue this project.   Thanks!