How do you compress the story of thousands of years of Indian history into an easily accessible radio programme?
The academic, Sunil Khilnani, best known for his book, The Idea of India, has followed the example of the British Museum director Neil MacGregor, who presented A History of the World in 100 Objects in a series on BBC Radio 4.
Khilnani has chosen to tell the entire history of India, also on Radio 4, “through the lives of 50 phenomenal people”. His series is called Incarnations: India in 50 Lives.
The first lot of 25 names has already gone out, at the rate of a 15-minute biography per day, with the remaining 25 personalities due to be covered early next year.
“All are from history, none are living today,” said Khilnani, currently Avantha professor and director of the King’s India Institute, King’s College London.
“The first figure is the Buddha, the last is Dhirubhai Ambani,” he told Eastern Eye. “But each one is still used and invoked in our contemporary history, hence the title Incarnations – the emphasis is on afterlives.
“I am currently working on the book, which Penguin will publish later in the year,” said Khilnani, who is married to Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Katherine Boo. Her Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity was turned into a stage play at the National Theatre in London earlier this year.
The British-Indian percussionist Talvin Singh has composed music for Khilnani’s series, and “the programmes includes interviews with some of the foremost thinkers and writers on India, from Arundhati Roy to Amartya Sen”, the BBC said.
Among the figures to feature in the series are: “Panini, a 4th-century BC grammarian whose work some see as prefiguring the logic of modern computing; Malik Ambar, an Abyssinian slave who became a kingmaker; Jyotirao Phule, a boy from a family of gardeners who became a social reformer; and Mirabai, a princess who took to the road to challenge ideas about women’s roles and caste”.
Mahatma Gandhi is obviously in, along with BR Ambedkar, Krishna Menon, Raj Kapoor, Indira Gandhi and MF Husain. Mohammed Ali Jinnah has made the cut, but Jawaharlal Nehru is a surprising omission. Khilnani has also picked Mahavira Jain, Kautilya, Ashoka, Akbar, Shivaji, Dara Shikoh, Nainsukh and William Jones.
His choices are at times highly subjective – Caraka, Aryabhata, Sankara, Rajaraja Chola, Basavana, Amir Khusro, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Krishnadevaraya, Rani of Jhansi, Birsa Munda, Jamsetji Tata, R Deen Dayal, Chidambaram Pillai, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Annie Besant, Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Amrita Sher-Gil, Saadat Hassan Manto, Periyar, Sheikh Abdullah, Charan Singh and MS Subalakshmi.
Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Raja Rammohan Roy, Subhash Chandra Bose and Satyajit Ray reflect the glory that has been Bengal.
Khilnani will take listeners “on a whirlwind journey”, the BBC promised. “Individuals featured in the series have all shaped the arc of Indian history, sometimes unwittingly, and yet their names are often unfamiliar. This series aims to change that.”
He said: “Ask most people in the west – and many in India – to name a thinker, ruler or spiritual leader who preceded the 20th-century trinity of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, and you’re in for some long, awkward silences. What I’m trying to do with Incarnations is fill that silent space.”
In an interview with BBC History Magazine, Khilnani argued that “in India there has been a very weak tradition of biography.
“It is very popular when it comes to British or American history, yet in India, you often have celebratory hagiographies, but biography has never really developed.”
Selecting his 50 names had been “incredibly difficult”, he admitted.
“All of them were people who interested me, and in the end, this is my take on how to think about Indian history,” he commented. “I chose these 50 knowing that there would be some controversy over them, but I didn’t select them perversely. I’m sure everyone will have their own list of 50 and that’s great because I want there to be an argument about this. This is my attempt to stimulate a debate.”
The first series received a glowing review from Gillian Reynolds, the Daily Telegraph’s radio critic, who said: “This series ...makes the mind fly across time, place and history. ... Three of the six public purposes set out for the BBC in its Charter are: to promote education and learning; stimulate creativity and cultural excellence; bring the UK to the world, the world to the UK. Incarnations manages all that, with zest.”