Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

United Kingdom

The history of India told through the lives of 50 phenomenal people.


Dhirubhai Ambani: Fins  

Professor Sunil Khilnani from the King's India Institute in London, on the life and legacy of the Indian business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Industries. The son of a penurious schoolteacher, Ambani credited himself with an almost animal instinct for trading, coupled with a steel trap memory and an appetite for audacious risk. Today fifteen per cent of all India's exports go out in his company's name. It's the ultimate rag to riches story, mixed with street cunning and dazzling deals. In one case, which began with a tip from an underworld don, Ambani executives were accused of violating the Official Secrets Act by possessing sensitive Cabinet documents, including a draft national budget. A joke quickly did the Delhi rounds: the budget wasn't leaked to Reliance; Reliance had leaked the budget to the ministry. Producer: Mark Savage Editor: Hugh Levinson.

MF Husain: Hindustan Is Free  

Professor Sunil Khilnani, from the King's India Institute in London, looks at controversy over the Indian artist MF Husain, who spent the last days of his life in exile. Husain is considered by some to be the face of modern art in India but not necessarily by people in India itself. Husain died in his nineties having completed around ten thousand works. His paintings often attracted high prices but he became a target for mob anger over his portraits of Hindu goddesses and Indian feminine icons. Female deities had often shown nude in traditional art, but what enraged right-wing Hindus was that these images were created by a Muslim artist. "Had Husain been less popular beforehand, he probably would have been less hated." says Professor Khilnani. Producer: Mark Savage.

Charan Singh: A Common Cause  

Professor Sunil Khilnani, from the King's India Institute in London, explores the life and legacy of Charan Singh, the lawyer turned politician who championed the cause of India's farmers. Singh is remembered today as the politician who took on Indira Gandhi in the Congress Party's heartland state. Uttar Pradesh. He redistributed power and altered the social structure of Northwest India, non violently. And he helped the world see the potential of the Indian farmer a bit more clearly. He succeeded in becoming India's first peasant prime minister but went from the highest office in a flash, replaced by his nemesis Indira Gandhi. Although today he is most often remembered for being a leader of his own caste, Professor Khilnani argues that Charan Singh has a unique status in Indian history. Producer: Mark Savage.

Satyajit Ray: India without Elephants  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life and work of filmmaker Satyajit Ray. In the history of Indian cinema, there is a Before Ray, and an After. As Sunil Khilnani says, "he's the first truly modern filmmaker we have." But Satyajit Ray's career in India might not have continued past its first few films had he not been celebrated in the West. In his native Bengal, several of his films were popular. More were loathed. In today's thriving Bengali film culture, he's often held at arm's length: the guy who served it up for the West, and served it up a little sweet. But Ray's films made ideas hanging in the air feel fresh, for he brought to them an unusually large range of small gifts: psychological and sensory acuity, humour, humanism, a deep appreciation of family relationships, an ability to withhold judgement, an ear equally adept at dialogue and sound, and the visual imagination of a third-generation illustrator and photographer. These were sufficient to allow him, time and again, to achieve a realism few in Indian cinema wanted to meet. "It's the truth in a situation that attracts me," he told his actors. "And if I've been able to show it, that's enough for me." The result was a body of work of which the director Akira Kurosawa would remark, "Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon." Producer: Martin Williams.

Indira Gandhi: The Centre of Everything  

Professor Sunil Khilnani, from the King's India Institute in London, looks at the life of Indira Gandhi, India's first woman prime minister, whose darkest moment was a two year period known as "the emergency". Jails filled up with her critics while journalists and editors were detained alongside the political opposition. Those arrested could be held without trial and and she attempted to reduce the birth rate by offering men incentives to be sterilized. "Indira Gandhi in many ways issued the greatest threat to democracy in independent India's history," says Professor Khilnani, "weakening constitutional regularities established by her father. Yet the enduring effect of her rule was to open the state to a deeper and more accessible democracy". Producer: Mark Savage Music: Talvin Singh.

Subbulakshmi: Opening Rosebuds  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life of south Indian singer MS Subbulakshmi. Subbulakshmi's singing voice, striking from the start, would ultimately range three octaves. A perfectionist, she had the capacity to range across genres but narrowed over the years to what another connoisseur of her music has called a 'provokingly small' repertoire. In time, the ambitions of those who loved and profited from her combined with her gift to take her from the concert stage to film to the All-India Radio to near-official status as an icon of independent India. But, as Professor Khilnani says, "what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary feminism." Producer: Martin Williams.

Krishna Menon: Sombre Porcupine  

Professor Sunil Khinani, from the King's India Institute in London, looks at the life of Krishna Menon, the abrasive Indian diplomat and statesman who invented the concept of non-alignment. He was one of the most reviled figures of the Cold War era. The Americans regarded Menon as a "mischief maker"; the British thought he was in bed with the Soviets while the Soviets thought he was a lackey of the British; and the Chinese resented his attempts to school them in international affairs. The diplomat, who was the voice of India's foreign policy for almost two decades, pursued an agenda which deeply unsettled the superpowers. But, says Professor Khilnani, "Menon's approach helped give India an influential voice at the global diplomatic table, dominated by the big four powers." Producer: Mark Savage Music: Talvin Singh.

Sheikh Abdullah: Chains of Gold  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir. Born in Srinagar as a burden, Abdullah's father died before he was born. Dispossessed of their share of family property, Abdullah and his two elder brothers were expected to make the cheap cotton shawls on which their extended, devout family depended. But the young boy discovered he had a gift, for reciting the Koran, which allowed him to get out of darning. Eventually, it would help him see more of the world than his shabby corner of Srinagar. But his legacy today is an ambivalent one. For many he stands as the primary, powerful advocate of Kashmiri self-rule, who sacrificed his own freedom time after time in his attempts to secure representation and rights for his people. For others, especially younger Kashmiris today, he's the man who sold Kashmir out to India, first in the late-1940s and then again in the 1970s, in exchange for personal power. Producer: Martin Williams.

Raj Kapoor: The Politics of Love  

Professor Sunil Khilnani, from the King's India Institute, looks at the life of the celebrated actor and movie director Raj Kapoor who attracted a huge following well before the term 'Bollywood' became known. Kapoor started making films, just as India became independent in 1947. Back then, the medium was more than mere entertainment. In a country where the literacy rate was 12 per cent, film was also a crucial medium of education and exposure. "Kapoor brought romance, sexuality, song and soul to Indian socialism," says Professor Khilnani. Producer: Mark Savage.

Bhimrao Ambedkar: Building Palaces on Dung Heaps  

Professor Sunil Khilnani, from the King's India Institute, looks at the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar, champion of the community previously known as 'untouchables' whom he renamed as Dalits. Ambedkar, who was a Dalit himself and fought against caste discrimination. His face can be found on posters, paintings and coloured tiles in tens of millions of Dalit homes. To Indian schoolchildren, he is the man who wrote the country's constitution; and to India's politicians he is a public emblem of how far India has come in addressing the blight of caste. "Both readings simultaneously exaggerate and ghettoize Ambedkar's contribution," says Professor Khilnani. "He was a sophisticated, long-sighted Constitutional collaborator whose interests extended past caste to the very structure and psychology of Indian democracy." Producer: Mark Savage.

Manto: The Unsentimentalist  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life and work of India's master of the short story, Manto.

Manto: The Unsentimentalist  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life and work of India's master of the short story, Saadat Hasan Manto. Manto didn't fuss much over his sentences. He wrote in a rush, at hack speed, for money - and often legless drunk. His raw, visceral, personal response to his experiences - including the massacre at Amritsar, cosmopolitan Bombay and the horror of Partition - matched a historical moment that needed a raw, human response. In a divided country that Manto thought possessed 'too few leaders, and two many stuntmen', his sentences asserted, plainly, the human facts - not the moral or political motives that produced them. As Professor Khilnani says, 'for all the velocity that his economy of language creates, the pressure of a story builds slowly. You're never quite prepared for the moment that blasts off the emotional roof. His sentences etch a groove in the mind not because he saturates his truths about atrocity in lurid color, but because he delivers them off-hand, even elliptically.' Readings by Sagar Arya. Producer: Martin Williams.

Jinnah: The Chess Player  

Professor Sunil Khilnani, from the King's India Institute in London, looks at the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Descriptions of his early life do not sound like someone who would go on to lead India's Muslims: he spoke English, dressed impeccably in Western clothes from Savile Row, smoked cigarettes and, according to some accounts, consumed alcohol and ate pork. Yet it was Jinnah who, along with others, publicly assented to the partition of India which, carried out in haste, would give roughly half of India's Muslims political autonomy, cause around a million deaths, displace some 14 million people and transform the geopolitics of the world. Producer: Mark Savage Music: Talvin Singh.

Gandhi: In the Palm of Our Hands  

Professor Sunil Khilnani explores the life and legacy of the Mahatma Gandhi: lawyer, politician and leader of the nationalist movement against British rule in India. He is generally admired outside India, but is the subject of heated debate and contention in his homeland. Some view him as an appeaser of Muslims, and blame him for India's partition. Others regret Gandhi's induction of Hindu rhetoric and symbols into Indian nationalism, revile him for his refusal to disavow caste, believe he betrayed the labouring classes, and are appalled at his views on women. "It's unsurprising that Gandhi provokes such a barrage of attacks," says Professor Khilnani. "His entire life was an argument - or rather, a series of arguments - with the world." Producer: Mark Savage.

Subhas Chandra Bose:  A Touch of the Abnormal  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose.

Subhas Chandra Bose: A Touch of the Abnormal  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life of political leader and freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose. When Bose's father named his ninth child Subhas - "one of good speech" - he wasn't imagining the boy applying an oratorical gift to fervent radicalism. Just over forty years later - after numerous stays in British jails, a daring escape followed by appeals to ally his own forces with Nazi Germany and then Japan - George Orwell wrote that the world was well rid of him. Nonetheless, in India today he rates as a national hero, his name affixed to airports, schools, and stamps. The vitality of his hold on the national imagination is manifest in other ways too: after his death he was periodically "discovered" alive, as a prisoner in a Soviet concentration camp, as a Chinese military officer, or as an Indian sadhu, a holy man with miraculous powers. It took three official commissions, the last one in 2006, to certify that Subhas Chandra Bose actually died in 1945. His own life ended in failure, but his legacy would come to shape India's relationship with the world, in ways he could not have predicted. Producer: Martin Williams.

Amrita Sher-Gil: This Is Me  

Sunil Khilnani tells the story of the painter Amrita Sher-Gil - 20th century India's first art star - who died under shrouded circumstances in 1941 at the age of just 28. Sher-Gil left a vortex of stories behind her: about her narcissism and her love affairs. But even more compelling than the stories are the canvasses she left behind. Drawing from European artists like Cezanne, Gauguin, and Brancusi, and from Indian ones - the makers of the Buddhist wall paintings in the caves of Ajanta, and the miniature painters of the Pahari tradition - Amrita Sher-Gil managed to do something radical within Indian culture: to declare her own vision - a woman's vision - vital in the history of art. She endowed successive generations of Indians with something scarce in the culture: an example of an autonomous, creative female. Featuring interviews with artists Bharti Kher and Vivan Sundaram. Readings by Sheenu Das. Producer: Martin Williams Executive Producer: Martin Smith Original music composed by Talvin Singh.

Iqbal: Death for Falcons  

Sunil Khilnani tells the story of the poet and philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal. One of India's most patriotic, eloquent writers, Iqbal is also celebrated as Pakistan's national poet. In his spare time, he wrote one of the first Urdu textbooks on economics; earned a doctorate in philosophy, which he studied for in Lahore, Cambridge and Germany; and became a barrister in London. It was during his time in the west that Iqbal formulated his Islamic critique of Western society that would eventually become famous in Europe, India and the larger Muslim world. To Iqbal, the West's problem was one of love and desire. Like the devil, the West seemed consumed with an insatiable appetite. But the devil's failing, like the failing of Milton's Satan, was that he 'declined to give absolute obedience to the Almighty Ruler of the Universe.' In the same way, the West, by turning away from God and the human brotherhood preached by Christ, had become a terrible inversion of the ideal society. Its desires, severed from the highest things, had become purely material. Iqbal's vision inevitably brought him to loggerheads with those, including the British government and the Congress movement, whose aspirations for India did not extend to an ideal Islamic polity. Partly as a result, although he died almost a decade before its creation, Iqbal's work has often been read as a forceful argument for Pakistan. Featuring Professor Javed Majeed. Readings by Sagar Arya. Producer: Martin Williams Executive Producer: Martin Smith.

Periyar: Sniper of Sacred Cows  

Sunil Khilnani tells the story of EV Ramaswamy Naicker, known to his followers as Thanthai Periyar: the Great Man - a self-conscious dig at his nemesis Gandhi, the Great Soul. Periyar is best known in India as an anti-Brahmin activist, a rationalist and a take-no-prisoners orator. He campaigned actively and energetically for decades against religion, against the caste system and for the equality of women. Where Gandhi and his followers wore white, Periyar instructed his supporters to dress in black. Where Gandhi massaged the religious beliefs of his audiences, Periyar called his listeners fools, insulted their beliefs and caste practices, and threatened to thwack their gods and idols with his slippers. And where Gandhi wanted to build a national Indian movement, Periyar revelled in the Dravidian south. 'I've got no personal problem with God," Periyar once said. "I've never even met him, not once". Occupying conventional political office never interested Periyar, but he left a massive imprint on modern south Indian politics. Producer: Martin Williams Executive Producer: Martin Smith.

Visvesvaraya: Extracting Moonbeams from Cucumbers  

Sunil Khilnani explores the life and work of engineer, planner and politician Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya. Visvesvaraya was a frail bureaucrat who walked hunched, as if the burden of state-building literally pressed down on his shoulders. But in the popular imagination he turned an engineering degree into a superhuman world-fashioning prowess. He changed the Indian nation with practical and enduring improvements for millions of people, including innovations in sanitation, statistics, flood control, drainage and irrigation. Austere to the point of dourness, but audaciously hopeful, Visvesvaraya sought to frog-march India into modernity. Featuring Bangalore-based social scientist Chandan Gowda. Producer: Martin Williams Executive Producer: Martin Smith.

Video player is in betaClose