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New Radio 4 series to unearth figures of Indian history

MUMBAI: BBC’s radio station Radio 4 has announced a new show, ‘Incarnations – India In 50 Lives’. The 50-part series beginning next month will present audio portraits of some of the most significant figures of Indian history, beginning with the original global Indian, the Buddha, and covering figures from the ensuing 2,500 years.

The series will be presented by Prof Sunil Khilnani, director of King’s India Institute at King’s College London.

He said, “Histories of America, Europe, and even China are well populated with stories of individuals who have made those societies what they are. But for all of India’s myths, its seas of stories, its epic moral dramas, Indian history is a curiously unpeopled place. 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 silence. What I’m trying to do with Incarnations is fill that silent space: to share with listeners the stories of 50 fascinating, idiosyncratic individuals whose lives shaped not just Indian history, but the social, cultural and political currents of India today.”

Radio 4 commissioning editor Mohit Bakaya said, “We cannot understand modern India without looking at the men and women who shaped it over the last 2,500 years, and I’m delighted that Sunil will be providing listeners with his expert – and sometimes surprising – analysis on a scale that only Radio 4 can offer.”

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
  • Mirabai, a princess who took to the road to challenge ideas about women’s roles and caste

Over the course of 50 episodes recorded on location throughout India, Prof Khilnani will take listeners on a whirlwind journey from ancient India to the 21st century, from the economic engine of Mumbai to imperial ruins like Hampi, from the spiritual sanctuary of Sringeri to island fortresses like Janjira – all through the prism of 50 remarkable individuals. He will also explore their surprising afterlives, which illuminate both the astonishments and urgent conflicts of India today.

The series website will also feature a special selection of images by graphic novelist Dan Goldman, the co-creator of the viral Hindi comic book Priya’s Shakti. Originally featured on the BBC and now widely acclaimed, Priya – a rape survivor turned hero who fights against gender-based sexual violence in India and around the world – has become a global phenomenon.

The first 25 episodes of the series will be broadcast at 1.45 pm Monday to Friday from 11 May 2015. Among the figures to feature are: Mahavira Jain, Kautilya/Chanakya, Ashoka, Mirabai, Akbar, Malik Ambar, Shivaji, Dara Shikoh, Nainsukh and William Jones. The remaining 25 episodes will be broadcast in January 2016.

Talvin Singh has composed music for the series, and the programmes will feature contributions from some of the foremost thinkers and writers on India today, from Arundhati Roy to Amartya Sen.