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Man over mind

Rarely is a person able to give to society something that is an asset for all times to come. Dr Raja Martanda Varma has done great service by spearheading work into the hitherto grey area of mental health. K. BALAKRISHNAN profiles the Padmashri awardee who will be in Kochi on Saturday for the seminar organised by the Parkinsons Society of India.


THE NATIONAL Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, is definitely Asia's best and one among the leading mental health and neurological sciences teaching hospitals the world over. Path breaking and radically innovative, the Institute has pioneered the now globally accepted holistic approach for mental and neurological disorders. Yet, very few people are aware of the fact that it's pre-eminent position is a direct result of the far reaching vision, unstinted effort and wholehearted dedication of one man, Padmashri Dr. Raja Martanda Varma.

Multi-faceted would prove to be an inadequate definition to describe Dr. Varma. A gifted surgeon, relentless researcher, teacher par excellence, exceptional organiser, able and proven administrator, a practical visionary, an adventurer courageous, willing to venture into hitherto untrodden realms, philosopher, artist, a giant among men and above all a self-effacing, genuinely caring human being, Dr. Varma is all this and more. He best symbolises the concept of the ideal man who always aspires to better the lot of others without consideration to self.

A Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Neurosurgery from Edinburgh, United Kingdom, Dr. Varma was one among the first five neurosurgeons of India. Returning to India after his FRCS he took up position as the Head of the Department of Neurosurgery at the All India Institute of Mental Health (AIIMH), Bangalore, in 1958.

Dr.Varma had very clear ideas about curative approaches and once he took up his duties he initiated processes for implementing them. He was of the view that specialisations in various aspects of medicine conferred a divisive character. It was especially true with regard to the Mind (mental health) and the Brain (neurosciences). Dr. Varma observed "when the discipline of mind developed as a primary discipline, the discipline of the brain became a secondary adjunct and vice versa. In this dual mode of development all over the world, one became the side effect of the other perpetuating the divisive character."

Considering these divisive factors as detrimental to a wholesome healing process Dr. Varma set in motion a holistic approach, an integrative approach to health. As a result the Department of Neurology at the AIIMH commenced interacting freely and jointly with all disciplines of neurosciences and mental health. This holistic approach gained acceptance and momentum and had its ultimate culmination in the formation of NIMHANS, with Dr.Varma as its Founder-Director. Dr.Varma's holistic vision is immortalised for posterity in the NIMHANS motto of Brain-Mind-Behaviour.

A brilliant surgeon, Dr.Varma was actively involved in research too. As an outcome of his extensive research into the neurological processes he was able to develop a technique for the control of Parkinson's Disease. The technique was named `Varma's Technique.' Non-invasive, inexpensive and without even requiring an operation theatre this technique has proved to be a boon to those hit by this disease, who would otherwise have been severely restricted by rigidity of limbs, tremors, slowness of motion and instability.

For his patients and students Dr.Varma is akin to God. It is his extreme caring nature and commitment to the job at hand that inspires such reverence. Dr. S. Ramesh a Clinical Psychologist, now practising in Australia, and a Dr. Varma's former student has this to say: "How can one not have reverence for a person with such a genuine concern and commitment towards his students?"

An apocryphal story used to illustrate Dr.Varma's total involvement in teaching cites an instance when Dr.Varma was lecturing on the human foetus. While describing the knee tucked up position of the foetus the teacher in him became so engrossed in his explanation and forgetting the fact that he was standing up Dr.Varma drew up his knees to demonstrate the foetal posture. The result, Dr.Varma lay sprawled on the floor.

The result of his efforts and never the honour that may eventually accrue has been Dr.Varma's objective. But a grateful Nation and people have bestowed many honours on him. They include the Padmashri in 1970, the Karnataka State Award on Rajyotsava Day in 1969, Citizen Extraordinary of Bangalore Award in 1967, Distinguished Achievement Award at the World Congress of IASSMD at Toronto in 1982 and the Sir Viswesaraya Award in 1998. And the Neurological Society of Bangalore conducts the R.M.Varma Oration bi-annually in his honour.

Though never a seeker of high office, the high profile jobs have come in search of Dr. Varma. The posts he has held include the Head of the Department of Neurosurgery AIIMH, Founder-Director NIMHANS, Honorary Surgeon to President of India, R. Venkitaraman, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Government of India and the Dean of the Faculty of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore University. He also holds the post of Professor Emeritus at NIMHANS.

Prolific as a speaker and writer Dr. Varma has presented over 40 papers at both national and international forums. He has over 20 published works to his credit. A staunch patron of the fine arts and a knowledgeable connoisseur of music Dr.Varma may appear to be superhuman going by the wide range of activities he is involved in and the causes he holds dear. Yet, a strong sense of commitment, a deep desire to alleviate the sufferings of fellow humans and above all the strong resolve and determination to achieve set goals seems to drive Dr. Martanda Varma.

Nothing perhaps best sums up this man as John. F. Kennedy's famous statement that, "A man does what he must in spite of obstacles, dangers and pressure and that is the basis of all morality."

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