‘The Indian masseur’: How Teepoo Hall Kneaded Early ‘White’ Melbourne

Nadia Rhook
La Trobe University

I recently came across a photograph I can’t stop thinking about. Captured in 1905, it shows a Bangalore-trained masseur, Teepoo Hall, in the middle of a Melbourne Hospital room. One woman and twenty some men have clustered around Hall to watch him massage the bare shoulders of a reclining woman. Many of the students display bemusement in half-smiles. One of the men is positioned very close to Hall’s left shoulder and looks forthrightly at the camera, as if ready to learn from Hall; ready, even, to take Hall’s place.

The Weekly Times, 30 September 1905, State Library of Victoria
The Weekly Times, 30 September 1905, State Library of Victoria.

The photo shows the transfer of Indian knowledge in process in the medical heart of Melbourne. It does so four years after the institution of the racially exclusive federal 1901 Immigration Restriction Act (IRA), which was effectively reducing the numbers of Indians in Australia. And yet, as the picture shows, in the early 20th century Hall continued to promote the ‘art of massage’.[1] Indeed, Hall had recently become a founding member of the Australian Massage Association, and on this basis he features in histories of physiotherapy in Australia.[2]

The image thus tells an intriguing story, but not a typical one. Probing further, we can understand that the picture also reflects a tension of nation-building and empire. In Hall’s centrality and power, an inversion is at play. Most white-made representations of the day consigned Indians to the ‘slum’ margins of ‘Little Lon’, and showed them as an ‘undesirable nuisance’. But in this Melbourne Hospital room, Hall literally had the upper hand.

‘Indian Hawkers’, Illustrated Australian News, Melbourne: David Syme and Co. 1891.
‘Indian Hawkers’, Illustrated Australian News, Melbourne: David Syme and Co. 1891.

Hall’s Melbourne career was part of a wider imperial and global phenomenon. From the mid 19th century, India and Victoria had been ‘colonial cousins’ of the maternal British Empire, connected via the flow of goods, colonial officials, and horses, bred in Australia for use in the Indian Army.[3] From around 1885, substantial numbers of migrants from India and other South Asian locales began to arrive in Victoria.

Victorian legislators were dismayed. They had just succeeded in limiting Chinese immigration through a series of Acts, and now they would have to find other legal means via which cordon the influx of ‘undesirable’ Indian migrants’[4]

The early 20th century also saw Indian men transfer their massage and medical knowledge to Britishers in locales across the British imperial world. Signaling an emerging fusion of medical practice with Indian nationalist pride, the 1883 founded Bombay Medical Union was attempting to enhance ‘the status and dignity of the Indian medical profession’.[5] In Australia, Indian doctors were practicing in ways complexly shaped both by imperial ties and the sharp blades of white settler nationalism.

The recently enacted 1883 Indian Emigration Act meant that the Victorian Government was powerless to stem Indian immigration, and by the late 1890s, Indian doctors were a daily if controversial presence in towns and cities across Victoria. Advertisements for their herb and massaged-based, non-surgical, non-invasive forms of treatment proliferated. Indian doctors’ practices, however, provoked intermittent complaints of ‘quackery’ and medical incompetence. Herbalists of any racial designation had for decades been susceptible to denunciation, but now the common practice of ‘Quack hunting’ was dovetailing with the politics of Indian immigration.

It was within these highly politically fraught terrains of medicine and migration that Teepoo Hall succeeded in forging a space in the hearts and rooms of white medical society.

Hall was savvy in acquiring political capital. The press most often mapped Teepoo Hall’s business and politics to the Victoria Buildings on Collins Street, and in doing so, mapped Hall to a street that carried prestige in the urban imaginary of white and coloured Melbourne-dwellers alike. A wide promenade, laid, in 1837, on the dispossessed land of the Wurundjeri people, headed by the Treasury building and lined with men’s and women’s clubs, surgeries, and boutique shops, Collins Street dripped with connotations of respectability and of whiteness. Hall made the most of these associations, advertising the locale of his rooms in bold print.[6]

After the IRA was passed in 1901, Hall faced a changed legal and political situation. The Act didn’t stop Hall from his task of practicing and teaching massage, but rather motivated him to intensify his networking activities with white elites.

Hall petitioned the Victorian Government to loosen the IRA so that his merchant colleagues could continue to trade. After all, Hall reminded them, India was an important market for Australian flour, tea and sugar.

Such tugging at the heartstrings of Australian imperial belonging and the pursestrings of Australian merchants proved effective. In March 1903, the Sydney Sunday Times reported that ‘Mr. Khoda Buksh, a … Melbourne merchant’ has ‘become the President of the British Indian Association of Australia’ and that ‘Mr. Teepoo Hall, will undertake the … practical control of affairs.’[7] This was a new branch of the fifty-year-strong British Indian Association, which was, the Times reported, affiliated, with both ‘the Empire League of England and the National Congress of India’.[8]

Hall also successfully plied philanthropic hearts and minds. In 1906, for instance, Hall attended a fundraiser concert in the Collins-street Independent Church in the ‘capacity of honorary secretary of the Australasian Massage Association.’ Here, the president, Dr. Springthorpe, told the ‘120 ladies and gentlemen’ present that ‘Mr. Teepoo Hall ha[s] played an important part in initiating the massage movement in Australasia’.[9]

It would be easy to simply celebrate Hall’s success in a racially hostile environment. But fixing our sight on Hall’s successes obscures the marred experiences of numerous other Indian practitioners.

Even as Hall continued to gain recognition and influence in a white man’s world, Indian practitioners were intermittently charged with medical negligence; charges sensationalized in racializing newspaper headlines such as ‘Indian quackery’, which worked to denigrate the competency of Indian doctors generically.[10]

As I’m exploring in a larger research project, in the early 20th century, a tension had emerged in Australia. White settlers often denounced the healing services of Indian men as too risky to trust, yet Indians’ services had proved too attractive to relinquish. Faced with the allure and efficacy of Indian doctors’ skills, whites were caught in the binds of their vulnerability, between trust and distrust, sickness and health.

Indian doctors continue to have a strong presence in the medical worlds of Melbourne, and across Australia. So, too, do the politics of medicine and migration continue to intersect. In 2007, an India-born doctor Muhamed Haneef, practicing in Brisbane, was wrongly accused of being involved in the London bomb plot. He was subsequently detained in prison for 11 days, and then deported. [11] This story resulted in a marked decrease in the number of Indian doctors coming to work in Australia. Three years later, Haneef returned to Australia and sought compensation from the government for the financial and emotional cost of the ordeal.[12] For Haneef, as for Hall before him, the labour of practicing medicine in Australia had become bound up with the work of countering a nationalist drive for white purity.


[1] Margaret Allen, “Shadow Letters and the ‘Karnana’ Letter: Indians Negotiate the White Australia Policy, 1901-21,” Life Writing 8(2), 2011, 199-200.

[2]Philip Geoffrey Bentley, David Dunstan, The Path to Professionalism: Physiotherapy in Australia to the 1980s, Melbourne: Mercry Printeam, 2006, 19-21.

[3] See Peggy Holridge and Joyce Westrip, Colonial Cousins: A Surprising History of Connections between India and Australia, Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2010.

[4] For a discussion of the sexual politics of Indian immigration restriction see “Turban-clad” British Subjects: Tracking the Circuits of Mobility, Visibility, and Sexuality in Settler-Nation Making’, Transfers, 5(3), 2015: 104-122, 105.

[5]Mridula Ramanna, Western Medicine and Public Health in Colonial Bombay, 1845-1895, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2002, 31.

[6] ‘Massage, Mr. Teepoo Hall, Masseur’, Brighton Southern Cross, Victoria, 26 March 1898, 4

[7]Heads of the several clans have been appointed to the principal offices. ‘Indians Organised’, The Sunday Times, Sydney, 1 March 1903, 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘Massage Association’, The Age, Melbourne, 18 September 1906, 6.

[10] An Indian Herbalist: Charged with Unprofessionally Using the Knife’, Sunday Times, Perth, 11 April 1909, 8 ‘Indian Herbalist Sued: Damages for Prosecution’, Bendigo Advertiser, Victoria, 28 June 1918, 8.

[11] http://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/index.php/10-divisions/145-mohamed-haneef-case

[12] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/terror-accused-mohamed-haneef-returns-and-he-would-love-to-stay/story-fn59niix-1225958043240

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