Archived article

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani

From May 2015 to March 2016, BBC Radio 4 gave Indian academic Sunil Khilnani the airtime to broadcast a remarkable series of fifty episodes, each of which featured a figure from India’s past. The programmes were devised to illustrate individuals whose lives, ideas or art had changed India in some way.

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani
Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Sunil Khilnani (Allan Lane, February 2016)

For each talk, Professor Khilnani visited Indian locations connected with his subjects and interviewed experts on their lives. Allen Lane has now published the text of these talks together in a single, sumptuously-illustrated volume of over 650 pages, of which each subject is allotted six or seven. The book is illustrated with at least one portrait for each subject and with many photographs, and its necessary length should not deter potential readers. The only thing weighty about this collection of short, light-hearted, cleverly written synopses of the lives of India’s great, good and not-so-good, is the book itself.


Twenty-five centuries of Indian history are distilled here. Khilnani opens with the Buddha, who taught that property, indeed everything material, is an illusion, and closes with Dhirubhai Ambani, whose commercial Reliance empire sends abroad a staggering 15% of India’s exports and whose house in Bombay is a mansion of twenty-seven storeys.

These two bookends neatly illustrate the diversity which is one of the major themes to emerge from this collection. A very wide range of types of men and women appear here, and whether or not he has much time for what they thought or said, Khilnani very fairly lets their different voices speak for themselves, prodded only occasionally by his gentle irony. What infrequent criticisms he has, he reserves for the intolerant and for those who would seek to stamp their narrow views upon the lives of their fellows. He is appalled, for instance, by the religious bigots of the right wing Hindu Shiv Sena, who in 2006 drove into English exile his penultimate subject, Maqbool Fida (MF) Husain. India’s greatest modern painter’s offence was, as a Muslim, to have painted a nude portrait of Bharat Mata (“Mother India”), and for this Husain was forced to flee from a country that historically more than any other has captured in its art the human form and all its pleasures.

Khilnani celebrates the free spirits who have been rebelling against convention in India for over two thousand years. He features many key figures of revolt and reform, starting with the Buddha and the great Jain teacher of non-violence, Mahavira, who seem to have been almost contemporaries. He introduces us to a series of like-minded men who over millennia sought to overthrow India’s Brahmin-dominated social order and to liberate India from caste.

One  was Guru Nanak, who turned his back on both Hinduism and Islam to found the Sikh religion in the 16th century and scandalized Brahmins with his institution of langar, or communal eating. Khilnani is much interested in the more modern political struggle to emancipate India’s Dalits, those without caste. He addresses three important characters in this, the first of these the gardener Jyotirao Phule, who formed the Satyasodhak Samaj (the Truth-Seeking Society) to fight discrimination in the late 19th century.

The other two are the much better known sparring partners of Gandhi: Bhimrao Ambedkar, who wrote much of independent India’s constitution before taking many of his dalit followers into Buddhism, and EV Ramaswamy Naicker, known in Dravidian lands as Thantai Periyar (“The Great Man”), who always kept a small dog by his side to drive away Brahmins, who consider dogs unclean.

Practitioners and theorists of the use and abuse of power figure prominently among those Khilnani presents to us. He begins with Kautilya, writer of the 2000-year-old Arthashastra, a Sanskrit treatise on politics, military strategy and economics that Max Weber said made Machiavelli’s The Prince “look harmless”. Khilnani clearly has a soft spot for the warrior queen Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi, India’s Queen Boudicca, who who mounted her horse to leap (or didn’t, depending on which story you prefer) mounted on her horse from the battlements of her besieged citadel to escape the British. She was, one British officer remarked, the only man that India produced during the Mutiny (or India’s First War of Independence, whichever you would prefer).

From more modern times, Khilnani selects some of those whose names became prominent in India’s independence struggle, including both Subhas Chandra Bose and the Mahatma Gandhi, whose opposing views of violence led both to their deaths after the Second World War. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam, the “Great Leader”, the founder of Pakistan, and many other contemporary figures make an appearance in these pages. Jawaharlal Nehru, however, India’s first, and so far its greatest, Prime Minister, finds no place in this pantheon; a strange omission Khilnani does not explain.

There is much more than politics and religion in this book. Khilnani’s gaze ranges widely over men and women who were stars of literature, film, music and the plastic arts. Bollywood is represented by directors Raj Kapoor and Satyajit Ray. MS Subbulakshmi sings for us and Muhammad Iqbal recites his poetry of Islam and Pakistan. Amrita Sher-Gil paints portraits of India and of herself while Manto chronicles the ravages of partition and drinks himself to death.


Khilnani has a very attractive, warm sympathy for the humanity of all his subjects, and he manages the uncharacteristic feat for a professional historian of being both erudite and consistently amusing. Even when discussing the most abstruse (to most of us) figures, he never fails to be lively or to draw a vivid scene. Here is the opening of his account of the 13th century Sufi poet Amir Kusrau, “the Parrot of India”:


Night’s just falling over a green and tranquil stretch of south Delhi – one of those enclaves where serried ranks of Audis and BMWs stand ready behind driveway gates […] At a canopied gully that feels like a tunnel, the pace of footsteps starts to quicken, and suddenly a green archway appears. It opens into a courtyard of carved pillars and filigree screens. Hidden at the centre of this old labyrinth, this irruption of history, is a tomb.


Khilani can write evocatively and beautifully. He says of the most celebrated mathematician India has produced, the intuitive, self-taught Srinivasa Ramanujan, who, Khilnani relates, habitually erased his chalk calculations with his elbow:


I think that even for Ramanujan himself, his process and purposes remained a mystery – so many motes of blown chalk, suddenly forming constellations to those gifted enough to see them.


The BBC has placed all the broadcasts of Khilnani’s biographies online, so that one can have the pleasure of hearing his voice and those of his many interlocutors talking of his subjects in the places where they lived. An even greater pleasure is to hold his book on your lap as you listen, letting the illustrations join the sounds as they carry you to India. Khilnani made a fine series of broadcasts. In bringing them to us now in this book, he has opened the eyes of many of us to a great deal of the beauty and history of his country.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, has just been released.