The stories of familiar and less familiar figures who populated and helped shape India’s history became illuminating fifteen-minute ‘fixes’ for many radio listeners. With the publication of the series in book form, Ken Hunt has taken the opportunity to talk to the author, Sunil Khilnani.
Of all the countless works crisscrossing India’s history and culture, Sunil Khilnani’s ambitious Incarnations – India in 50 Lives is special for a number of reasons. His approach is to distil them into pithy essay-portraits. As a publishing project, it combines the physicality of a door-stopper (published by Allen Lane) and the radio part-work (broadcast on Radio 4 and now a BBC podcast). In the former case the biographical approach is one most notably used in the Dictionary of National Biography, now published by Oxford University Press and two centuries old. A criterion for inclusion is being dead, one of Khilnani’s too. In the wireless sense it mirrors the joint book-radio series success of the British Museum then-director, Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects in 2010.
The relationship between Incarnations the book and Incarnations the radio series is our starting place. “For me ultimately the radio series and the podcasts are like a gateway drug to the book. I hope that it will bring people to the book. But obviously they’re two very different forms. I hadn’t really done radio on this scale before. Fifty programmes is a big project to take on.
“In the radio programmes we were trying constantly not to take the easy path in trying to oversimplify or play to people’s received views – not to have the obvious temple bell and not to have the description of the cow on the street or the railway journey version of India.” India without elephants, I interject, the old Jean Renoir line but also the subtitle of his Satyajit Ray essay. He laughs. “Exactly right! Trying to do India without elephants. Or only where those bits of atmosphere added to the argument or the clarity of what I was trying to say. But not to use it as ornaments which I think is often what tends to happen with television and radio. So, I wanted to see if we could push the radio format a bit further, particularly in relation to India, than it often does. With the book, on the other hand, I had more freedom with it. I was not working in the same way with a couple of producers and so forth. It was really what I wanted to write. The book, I think, has more nuance and more than I could get into the radio script.”
Partly the writing process had a juggling element to it. “It was an interesting experiment moving between writing essays and writing radio scripts. I tried both methods. That’s to say for the first half of the book it was the scripts that were being written first and then the essays for the books, whereas for the second half I had the essays written first and then did the radio scripts. That was simply to do with the timing of the series and the book’s publication.”
I remark that one of my great indulgences is visiting places connected with what I’m writing about. Though I have been to Delhi, I have never been to the dargah (shrine) and resting-place of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau. After reading the Khusrau chapter, I know where I’m going next time. “That was one of the things I get with the radio series. It provided an opportunity to do an amazing amount of travel across the country. I did six long recording trips with three different producers. I was the only one who made all six trips. It was literally from north to south and east to west. I don’t know how many thousands of miles. That was fascinating to do.
“Also, as you say, even in the big cities to discover these pockets or spots that are not that often ventured into… Like the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya or the Buddhist temple in the slum in Mumbai. These are places that people wouldn’t normally know about or go to see but when you do go there, you see history suddenly emerging. I’m hoping that the book will be something that, as you say, people will have in their mind or in hand when travelling in India. Even street names,” he adds, perhaps, as someone brought up in Delhi, thinking of Amrita Shergil Marg (‘Lane’) in New Delhi. “A lot of the figures I write about give their names to streets and roads in India but you don’t necessarily know anything about them. Even if you’re Indian, you probably don’t know very much about them. I’m hoping it becomes a kind of travellers’ almanac to show the continuing resonance of Indian history.”
The two formats lent themselves to flexible approaches. For the Mirabai ‘chapter’ the radio programme could include Amitabh Bachchan singing ‘Rang barse’ from Silsila and Parita Mukta’s field recordings from Udaipur. For the series’ incidental music Talvin Singh came in. “I didn’t want to simply tell a story about the nationalist pantheon but rather to show the enormous range. I spent a lot more time on figures from the South than usually get talked about in the Indian story. Also figures who were in sharp tension with the national project. Like, for example, Sheikh Abdullah in the modern period. I really did want readers – and listeners – to get a sense of the variety. So, therefore even the music was very consciously chosen so it was always music from the region. When Talvin Singh composed it, we discussed how I wanted different regional echoes to come through in the music. That was important. It was important that it shouldn’t be India as a single homogeneous lump, but really to try and capture some of the finer grains of difference. I hope that comes through in the language and the poetry, the sounds and the descriptions.”
Incarnations has a catalogue of figures from the arts. Aside from Amir Khusrau, Mirabai and Satyajit Ray, these include, again following the book’s chronological sequencing, Kabir, Rabindranath Tagore, the painters Amrita Sher-Gil and M.F. Hussain. Khilnani represents the lives of Indian musicians in the modern sense with one woman – a choice to be praised unreservedly, especially because M.S. Subbulakshmi can tacitly symbolise the life of her Hindustani contemporary, Gangubai Hangal.
“I debated a long time about whether to have a musician in the mix. I thought of several others. I thought of Allauddin Khan, I thought of Ravi Shankar, a number of figures. Subbulakshmi actually did a number of things that I also wanted to do. Obviously she was a woman but she was also from the southern and Carnatic tradition which I felt was much less familiar – certainly to people outside of India. Also she came from this very interesting tradition of the devadasis which, with the prudery of nationalism, she had to distance herself from and suppress in her own history to become this national cultural icon. She allowed me to tell a number of different stories through music while also introducing people to a different musical tradition they would be less familiar with. I also thought that her own story of having to suppress her own past and her own independence, in a way, in order to become successful in a very male-dominated world was something that needed telling.”
Aside from his Indian writings, the author is the most-published essayist on British folk musicians in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s entire history.