Radio

The history of India in 50 personalities

An epic new Radio 4 series that shows how to do history on radio without Neil MacGregor

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

The idea of using objects — salt, cod, nutmeg, silk — to turn history lessons into something popular and accessible has been around for at least a generation. It’s a great way to avoid complicated chronologies and the need to remember dates. A well-chosen object, or trading tool, can tell a narrative story that at the same time reflects the multicultural present, often showing unusual and previously unconsidered connections between places and peoples. Neil MacGregor brought the technique to Radio 4 with his brilliantly conceived and executed account of world history as told through 100 objects in the British Museum. That series (and his most recent application of the technique to the story of Germany, as seen through the Beetle car and the sausage) also proved that the 15-minute programme is radio’s greatest asset. It’s just long enough to impart something concrete, useful or entertaining without going beyond the recommended spell of undiluted infospeak before a pause, a change of tempo or tack is required. It’s also astonishing how much can be packed into little more than 2,000 words, and how much of it you can remember afterwards. On television it would take at least double that amount of time to put across the same information and ensure it sticks.

But how do you follow MacGregor? In a way he has squeezed so much understanding and insight out of the tangible things he has focused on, using them as a way into, and explanation of, the intangible, there’s nothing much else to say. At the same time there now seems to be no other way of telling history. Yet who else can do it with quite so much skill and intuitive understanding? Professor Sunil Khilnani has solved the problem by focusing Incarnations, his new series on India for Radio 4 (produced by Mark Savage), not on curry, chai or statues of Shiva but on 50 great personalities who, he believes, have been crucial to the Indian story.


‘Biography,’ he says, ‘has been under-used in the telling of Indian history’, which is often so bewildering with its succession of dynasties and religious cults. Writers on India too often talk about ‘the teeming crowd’ but forget to draw attention to the individuals they meet along the way. Khilnani believes the 50 characters he has chosen are a more useful way of getting listeners involved. His selection is anything but predictable. There’s an episode about Jinnah, for instance, but not about Nehru. ‘I chose individuals who interested me but also who could tell us something about their moment in time’ and how they are ‘incarnated today’.

Khilnani (who teaches at King’s College London India Institute) began his epic journey through Indian time in a slum in Mumbai. Or, more precisely, in a temple built by untouchables who eke out a living by collecting rubbish in the scrapheaps just beyond the temple doors. Why begin in a slum? Why in a temple dedicated to the Buddha? Khilnani explains it’s because we think of the Buddha as a moral thinker, a philosopher, but today he’s also a political figure. Those scrap dealers became Buddhists through the work of Bhimrao Ambedkar, who in the 1950s began preaching a political doctrine based on Buddha’s teachings about equality and his attacks on the caste system. We in the West look to the Buddha as an example of someone who extinguished his own personality in his search for enlightenment, but in that temple in Mumbai, says Khilnani, the statute of the Buddha (placed alongside one to Ambedkar) gives to the untouchables, the Dalits, a sense of their precious identity, a self-belief, in spite of their poverty and hardship.

His journey takes him north, south, east and west across the subcontinent. One of my favourite stories takes us to the Chandni Chowk Bird Hospital in Delhi just across the road from the Red Fort. A small boy in shorts emerges from a tall building carrying under his arm a black rooster swathed in bandages. His cockerel had been savaged by a dog and the boy had brought it to the hospital to be saved by the doctors. Inside the hospital, run on donations only, there are 400 cages in rooms cooled by ceiling fans, living out the Jainist gospel, which preaches that it’s our duty to protect this universe of living souls.

This week Khilnani was also in Delhi visiting a call-centre in an industrial suburb that was set up not by a multinational bank or telephone company but in memory of a man called Charaka, who lived at the time of the Buddha. He wrote a medical manual which, says Khilnani, is one of the great classics of not just medicine ‘but human history’, on a par with Archimedes and Euclid. Charaka’s mini-encyclopaedia sets out the principles of ayurvedic medicine, or the knowledge of how to live a long life. What’s fascinating now is that his tenets are being applied, little changed, in the call-centre as Indians with infertility problems, headaches, stomach pains phone in for a telephone consultation, using new technologies to search for an ancient solution to the ailments of 21st-century life.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • van Lomborg

    There are virtually no fat people in India. Roughly 3/4 of the entire population are vegetarian. What could trans fat take away Britain possibly learn from that?

    • Bonkim

      Have you seen real Indians – huge numbers of fat men and women in India. the richer you are fatter you get. Many are vegetarians.

      • van Lomborg

        I have, I dined with them in Delhi last week.

        • Bonkim

          People are build differently. The Slavs are different to the Nordic races.

    • lobotomisedjournalist

      There is a massive problem with obesity in all the cities. There are many millions of fat people in india. Just open your eyes.

  • omgamuslim

    It just seems strange that the untouchables did not emancipate themselves a long time ago in greater numbers than they did by embracing Islam! There was no need to wait for Ambedkar. The fact that they did not points to two things.
    1. That the Brahmins and/or Hinduism had a very tight stranglehold on people. Or
    2. that Islam was unable to meet the spiritual needs of these people. Even if that were the case, it seems a little odd that people allowed themselves to be oppressed. Promise of nirvana?

    • Bonkim

      or that people are fatalistic and resigned to their station. Greater wonder that Indians allowed themselves to be colonised by small numbers of alien invaders and with each wave absorbed alien cultures and values as their own. Subservience is in their blood – the main reason people submit to repression and exploitation – apart from occasional outbursts of communal violence.

      • omgamuslim

        Most of North India, if not other parts too, is in general populated by successive waves of alien invaders (perhaps Adivasis excepted) who arrived through Afghanistan. So when somebody speaks of Muslims as the (only alien invaders) it makes me laugh. I do not know where the Adivasis came from and when.

        • Bonkim

          Most of the Muslims in India are converts. The numbers of Central Asian (Mongol), Persian and Arabs that came were very few. Invasions in history usually meant the invaders acquiring followers as they marched across the continent pillaging and plundering all the way.

          The Mongols used Islam as a front as that won them followers – Chenghis Khan was not Muslim.
          The Adivasis also migrated across Asia. Mankind spread across the globe from Africa.

          But Muslims are alien invaders anywhere – alien species – dangerous.

          • omgamuslim

            So you recognise that Muslims are native to India?

          • Bonkim

            Meaningless question – depend on how many generations you need to be at a location – more importantly being native depends on the person concerned. India does not have an ethnic, linguistic or religious mono-culture – India consists of many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that evolved over centuries of invasion and internal and external migration. The diversity of India is huge and some suffer discrimination in other parts of the country. Most people in India live in voluntary apartheid, marrying and socialising within particular groups separated by class, caste, ethnicity and religion.

            I suppose Muslims are as native to India as the many other groups – not sure why you are hung up on Muslims. There are also historic divisions within Muslims in India based on ethnicity, language, Shia/Sunni/Ahmadia, etc, so not a homogeneous people.

          • omgamuslim

            You seemed to be the one who is hung up on Muslims. I thought you were referring to them as aliens.

          • Bonkim

            Many good people misguided by their alien and bigoted religion. Converted into unquestioning Zombies – hence alien to all that is enlightened and intelligent on earth.

            The religion of submission is ruining the earth – creating conflict and living in dark-ages ignorance – now I am sure there are well intentioned Muslims but anyone clinging to blind faith is an alien anywhere on earth. Even the Muslims don’t want other Muslims.

            Amazing that Islam once was enlightened and flourished, created beautiful literature and architecture, efficient social organisation – but all that went down the drain when their faith re-asserted in its most virulent form.

            Name me one location on earth where Muslims have done any thing good for other people on earth in recent history.

        • lobotomisedjournalist

          Perhaps because the Muslims invaded from the 13th century right through to their colonisation of the north in the 16th/17th centuries. Perhaps also their slaughters of Hindu Rajastanis and other Hindu princedoms with their convert or die policies.

          • omgamuslim

            You are misinformed. There was no slaughter. The defeated might have been given the option to convert in order not to be made into prisoners or slaves. Wars/ Battles are nasty things. In any case the Hindu Rajasthanis carried out their slaughters of Adivasis and others before the Muslims arrived. Muslims just put a stop to that. Slaughter in Kalinga type of things, you know? See

            How the Buddhists and Jains were

            Persecuted in Ancient India.
            Murad A. Baig, http://www.chowk.com/articles/1415

          • Bonkim

            Muslims put a stop to killings – which history did you read? Rajput women usually went fighting or jumped off hill tops to escape the marauding Islamic hordes raping and killing them. Check the toll during the rampage through Northern India and the sacking, plunder, pillage and destruction of Muhammad of Ghor, Nadir Shah and Humayun. The Central Asian and Persian hordes found easy pickings in India as the people had become complacent and risk averse.

            Harking back to pre-history and Kalinga – the only thing I agree with you is that the defeated lot were given an option to convert and go into servitude or get their heads chopped. but of course head chopping is something Muslims are good at – and a tradition continuing today – and believe it or not some of early Arab metallurgy for making head chopping swords were copied by German Engineers who developed the techniques further. Yes Allah the peaceful indeed –

          • lobotomisedjournalist

            The slaughters are documented from multiple sources in Chattisgargh, Jasislemer, Delhi and numerous other places. It was regular and brutal.

            Denial just makes you sound like a reactionary apologist.

      • FedUpIndian

        “Greater wonder that Indians allowed themselves to be colonised by small
        numbers of alien invaders and with each wave absorbed alien cultures and
        values as their own. Subservience is in their blood”

        These fantasies of Islamic superiority are comical – in the Middle East, a tiny country with 5 million Jews effortlessly puts the boot up the ass of almost 400 million Muslims foaming at the mouth with jihad.
        Stick to raping and murdering defenseless Yazidi in Iraq or Christians in Pakistan – that’s more your style.

        • omgamuslim

          You fool. Bonkim is a Hindu name – commonly found in Bengal. That is probably why you are not aware of it.

          • FedUpIndian

            “Bonkim is a Hindu name – commonly found in Bengal. That is probably why you are not aware of it.”

            So is Sharmila Tagore.

          • Bonkim

            Sharmila Thakur sounds better than Sharmila Khan and many women in India keep their maiden names. Not sure if there is such a thing as ‘Hindu’ name – knew many girls in Calcutta with Western-sounding names.

          • Bonkim

            Take care – many names in India are common across religious/sectarian and linguistic divides. I know many Christians and Muslims retaining their old family names, and maintaining class/caste divisions in arranged marriages and social interactions.

        • Bonkim

          Why are you hung up on Muslims? The vast majority of today’s Indians of all religions, classes, castes, and languages have migrated to the land at some time in history. The Indian epics narrate the history of a people opening up a new land, conquering the native populations who they class as Demons and inferior. Islamic people (also not a homogeneous ethnic or linguistic group) came from different parts of Central Asia and the Middle East and Indian culture, language, manners, dress and cultural appendages have been influenced by Islamic culture in varying degrees as by the religion, language, and social organisation of the earlier pre-Islamic immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Some of the characters of the Indian epics were from today’s Afghanistan or locations further North.

          There is also considerable Chinese and old-world Greek/Roman and Christian influences dating from the first century along the Southern coast.

          So don’t see India as a monocultural or mono-ethnic land. In fact today’s India is an artificial construct following the demise of the British Empire with boundaries crossing various ethnic, linguistic, and cultural barriers as diverse and bewildering to Indians living in different parts of India as Europe is – only more diverse and foreign.

          • omgamuslim

            Your common sense/ logic shines through here. Sadly it is not evident in your replies to me.

          • Bonkim

            I don’t reply – simply comment on what is written – and everyone is a faceless entity.

  • Noa

    The unfathomable British upper class love affair with India continues. Will Khilnani devote any time to Allan Octavian Hume, I wonder? The liberal ‘idealist’ who was instrumental in lighting the fuse for the destruction of the British Empire? or will he get the thanks he deserves from Indians as well as Britons and be totally ignored?

    • Bonkim

      Hume contributed to the birth of national politics in India but few Indians are clued up to Indian or any other history – is it any different in Britain – try quizzing the people in Britain on British history before the Beatles or WW2.

  • John Andrews

    Khilnani is good. But I much prefer 30 minute programmes.

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