“India’s history is a curiously unpeopled place. As usually told it has dynasties, epochs, religions, and castes—but not that many individuals,” Sunil Khilnani writes in his book Incarnations: India in Fifty Lives. In Incarnations, also released as a BBC radio series and podcast, Khilnani explores how the lives of fifty Indians across 2,500 years have shaped India’s history as we know it. We hear from Khilnani about a few of these figures, including the Buddha, poet Mirabai, and filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Khilnani is author of The Idea of India and professor of politics and director of the India Institute at King’s College, London.
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Incarnations: India in 50 Lives podcast
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SUNIL KHILNANI: I said, “Maybe we should do something really ambitious and think about telling a history of India.” And I thought one way we could do it was through individual stories.
In this episode, I speak with author Sunil Khilnani about his book, radio series, and podcast titled Incarnations: India in Fifty Lives.
India’s past is rife with great stories and myths, though it remains a curiously unpeopled history. In an article for The Guardian newspaper, William Dalrymple writes, “Both biography and narrative history are still oddly absent from the contemporary Indian literary landscape—so much so that it’s difficult to think of an up-to-date and really first-class biography of a single Indian pre-colonial ruler.” Sunil Khilnani, professor of politics and director of the India Institute at King’s College, London, and author of the critically acclaimed The Idea of India, among many other books, is working to change this reality. In Incarnations: India in Fifty Lives, Sunil brings to light the biographies of fifty Indians across 2,500 years who have shaped the history of India, and in many cases, the world. He recently presented Incarnations as a BBC Radio 4 program, subsequently released as a Radio 4 podcast. His book of the same title is published in Britain by Allen Lane and in the US by Farrar, Straus Giroux.
Sunil recently visited the Getty to advise on an exhibition project we are supporting in Mumbai, and while here, gave a reading from Incarnations. I met with him one Sunday afternoon to talk about this project.
You begin your book with the provocative first sentence, “India is a curiously unpeopled place.” But of course, to anyone who’s traveled in India, it’s anything but unpeopled. It’s population is more than 1-and-a-quarter billion. And if you go to the livepopulation.com website, you can watch it grow in real time, by a birth every one or two seconds. But I know that’s not what you meant by “unpeopled” is it?
KHILNANI: No. In fact, it’s exactly to challenge that statistical or collaborative conception we have of India as this kind of great teeming mass of people, and to try to individuate that, and to individuate that through history, that I really set out to write this book and get engaged in this project. Because what I meant by that rather provocative sentence of India being an unpeopled place was that if we think about figures from Indian history, at best, you might be able to name three or four—Mahatma Gandhi, maybe Ashoka, maybe the Emperor Akbar. But then the sort of recall tails off. And what I wanted to do was really say, look, across Indian history, there are these extraordinary individuals. And those are the people that I’m talking about in that—in that phrase, to try and bring alive, through individual stories, the rather collective monolithic view we have of India sometimes.
CUNO: Hm. Tell us how the book got started, because it’s a radio series, a book, and now it’s a podcast. Was it conceived as a radio series first and then it became a book? Was it conceived as a book and then became a radio series? Were they conceived together?
KHILNANI: Yeah. Well, I had been thinking for quite a bit of time about how to tell a history of India, a complicated story about the Indian past, which could also reach a wider audience. I’d been thinking about this for some years. You know, how to bring some of the really exceptional scholarship about India that’s been developed in the last three or four decades across the fields, from art history to science to philosophy to social and political history. And as these things happened, you know, I was at dinner with someone from the BBC, and they said they were wanting to do something about India. And I said, “Maybe we should do something really ambitious and think about telling a history of India.” And I thought one way we could do it was through individual stories, because I felt those were ways of attracting people into particular intimate life stories.
And the BBC was very responsive. So in a sense, it was conceived both as a writing project, a book, but then when the opportunity came to do it as a radio series and then the podcasts, I jumped at that because I thought, you know, particularly for a younger audience, that was a medium that could be attractive to them. But I always thought that the radio and podcast series, I always hoped that they would be a kind of gateway drug to the book.
CUNO: So how did you choose your fifty lives? Let’s get to the heart of the matter.
KHILNANI: [over Cuno] Yeah. Yeah. Well. I mean, I started—I started, I guess, with over a hundred, [chuckles] and had to bring those down. I guess there were about, let’s say, four criteria that helped me make the choices. One was that I wanted lives that would allow me to talk about what I saw as some of the central conflicts or contradictions in Indian history. So for instance, the tensions between religions; the conflicts between castes and the whole question of cast; the question of regions and regionalism in India, how that all fitted together, and the rivalries and cooperation that could be found there; the issue of gender as a line of contest and conflict; and then the—what I see as attempts to express individuality in what could often be quite a stifling social context. So lives that allowed me to speak to those issues were one criteria of selection.
The other—and this is really the sense of the title, Incarnations, was that they were lives that had afterlives. And what I mean by that is lives that are being used today for political struggles and political battles. So for instance, the Buddha, whom I begin with, today is actually a very important leader for the India’s Dalits, or the former Untouchables, as they were called. So these were lives that have been picked up and recycled today.
The third was that they all had to be, as we say in India, expired. They were—they were dead. They were no longer alive, so they’re historical. And fourthly, they had to be lives where we had some documentation, some primary evidence of them having actually lived. So not mythic figures, not figures that were just surrounded in legend.
CUNO: Yeah. And so you start with the Buddha. I was surprised, in a sense, that—not that the Buddha was included, but that on the terms that you describe, that the Buddha would be included, because I didn’t know that we had adequate documented evidence of his life and thought. I mean, we have his followers and the followers of his followers who write down stories about his life and about his enlightenment and about his thoughts that they cling to. And his—the images that we have of him, of course, or not, I assume, based on what he might’ve looked like. But what kind of evidence do we have of the Buddha’s life?
KHILNANI: Yeah, no, that’s a great question. And it is—I mean, the first two or three lives in my book are the most tricky, in that respect. I kept having to cut out phrases like, you know, not very much is known about this episode or this life. [chuckles] And you’re absolute right that the first evidence we have of the Buddha postdates him by maybe 150, 200 years or so. Initially, we have, actually, images of the Buddha and then later, texts. We have images, symbols of his teachings—the Great Wheel and so forth. But I think there is enough archeological evidence. We don’t know exactly where he was born, but we know roughly the area, in the north part of what might today be in Nepal or the border between Nepal and India. So there—we know that he was a historical figure. And there is traces of that. But you’re right that the material on which we base our understanding of him came quite a while after. Now, that is a constraint I had to, you know, just work with. But I think even historians of the period are—there’re still archeological digs trying to find out more evidence of where he might’ve been born, the palace that he lived in and so forth. So there are traces. And I think for me, that was a good starting point for the first historical individual that we can identify in Indian history. Doesn’t mean we know as much about him as we’d like to know, but he did exist.
CUNO: Yeah. And he certainly lives in the lives of those who are impressed by his teachings and who follow him. And you begin in the book by telling us about this Buddhist temple that recently is built in the Mumbai slum, and what it means to a young boy named Siddhartha, who has the name of the Buddha. And tell us about the Buddha and why this young Dalit boy, or an Untouchable, would share his name, and how important that is.
KHILNANI: Absolutely. I mean, that’s what I find so striking, that you know, we tend to think of the Buddha as this rather abstract sort of spiritual teacher, someone who’s about transcending the world and its troubles. But really, if you look at Indian in the twentieth century, I mean, the Buddha comes back in about the middle of the twentieth century. He’s rediscovered by a man called Ambedkar, Dr. Ambedkar, who was one of the writers of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar was born an Untouchable and all his life, struggled to break down the caste system. At the very end of his life, after he’d re— written the Indian Constitution and so forth, he still felt so frustrated by the grip of the caste system that he converted to Buddhism. And through that, he’s made the Buddha and the Buddhist teachings of equality really central to India’s Dalits, the former Untouchables.
So I open the book not in a kind of ancient Buddhist temple, but in a very contemporary small, one-room temple that’s been constructed in a slum in Mumbai, by Dalits coming together to put their money to build this room. And for them, for the Dalits, Buddha is a message of emancipation, a figure of emancipation, for breaking down the caste system. And I find that a very powerful, moving, if you like, appropriation of this spiritual life into a political context.
And actually, then, once you start to look at the life of the Buddha, you realize that even he had a political message. I think in his time, he was a critic of the caste system. He did unorthodox things like bringing women into the fold, letting lower caste people learn to read. So it was—it was an attempt to show that the Buddha has as a political and social dimension, and that’s what makes him important to Indians today.
CUNO: Yeah. And when Ambedkar becomes a Buddhist, it’s not a private act. Or at least there’s another act after that private act, perhaps, which is a mass conversion of his followers. So it had a public manifestation. Is that correct?
KHILNANI: That’s absolutely right. I mean, it was this extraordinary moment in the mid-1950s, where Ambedkar and about 400,000 of his followers converted to Buddhism. And these mass conversions continue to happen. Just ten days ago, about 200 Dalits in the western state of Gujarat converted to Buddhism and created great kind of social tension, because the upper castes saw this as a challenge to their kind of Hindu identity. So this continues to be a kind of political gesture of these mass conversions, because it’s a way of people saying, look, we’re going to escape the kind of Hindu strictures and move into another kind of belief system, but we’re doing it for political reasons.
CUNO: Yeah. And it’s call neo-Buddhism? Or is that something else?
KHILNANI: Well, it’s—there’re a variety of different names. Yes, I mean, that is one of the names that’s used by movements that are linked with the Dalit politics. But it varies from region to region, really.
CUNO: So if I said neo-Buddhism, it would mean something. And if that’s true that it does mean something, and that something that it means might have a political dimension to it that’s quite explicit, does that put it at odds with the conventional or tradition Buddhists who come to India from Sri Lanka or come from Japan or come from Southeast Asia?
KHILNANI: I think it does, in the sense that this—that the neo-Buddhism that you mention in India is very much about social change and the education and improvement in the life conditions of the very poorest. So of course, there is the spiritual dimension, there are the teachings of the Buddha, but it’s also really a project of social reform, which I think is not so much there, perhaps, in some of the other forms of Buddhism.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, it’s a terrific way to begin the book, because it puts into sharp contrast the kind of chosen life of renunciation that the Buddha took and the life of poverty and of lack of resources, access to food and healthcare and various things, that have been put upon a population.
KHILNANI: That—no, that’s exactly right. And it’s also—this movement of renunciation is very powerful in many Indian lives, right from the Buddha to Gandhi, if you like, you know, who’s seen as renouncing and taking this—but what’s interesting to me is that many of those most powerful stories of renunciation are stories of individuals who’ve changed their world, who actually change the real world around them. So it’s not an escapism; it’s a renunciation to make a point, sometimes, about the cruelties or the inequalities or the violence of the real world, and to actually change that.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, it’s a perfect way to begin the book, I have to say, because of course, we all think we know something about the Buddha. But to give it this contemporary context for the living and the life of the Buddha today. Not the next life, I don’t think, but a life soon thereafter, is the life of the fourth century BC figure Panini, completely unknown to me. Tell us about him.
KHILNANI: Yeah. Well, he’s a great figure. And of course, if you Google his name, I mean, you’ll get Italian sandwich recipes. I mean, that’s about as well known as he is. I was giving a talk at Google and I pointed this out to them and they were a little bit [they laugh] taken aback. [Cuno: Yeah] But he’s an extraordinary figure. Again, we don’t know that much about him. What we have is this brief but very powerful text that he left called the Aṣṭādhyāyī, which means the eight chapters. And it’s an extraordinary compressed analysis of the Sanskrit language. And Panini lived in the—in the very northwest of India—today it would Afghanistan—in about the fourth century BC. And he was a student of the Sanskrit language, and he produced what today we would call a generative grammar. So it was an analysis of the language, which boiled it down to the basic rules, which he expressed in a code form, from which you could generate any possible sentence in Sanskrit. So not just all the sentences that existed in—at his time, two-and-a-half-thousand years ago, almost, but any future sentence. So it continues today to be the—one of the most powerful models of language analysis. Chomsky and his group, when they first studied Panini, realized that Panini had done what they were trying to do today.
And it’s also interesting that many modern linguists have actually been students of Sanskrit and have studied Panini as well. And you know, as I say, he did this in a coded form. So the English version of his book is about 1300 pages. The Sanskrit version is about forty pages. And you know, some have argued that that code that he developed is a kind of early form of algorithmic thinking. So there are some who say, you know, there’s some connection between this analysis and software programming and sort of, you know, the propensity that Indians have, or certainly upper-caste Indians have, for IT.
CUNO: It had another effect, which was to, as you say, to bound together a huge civilizational territory, continental in scale. So it wasn’t that everyone was speaking Sanskrit, but it was a language that became comprehensible, understandable to enough people that it created the borders of a kind of India at that time.
KHILNANI: Absolutely. And that’s actually a really interesting point. It’s something that the great Sanskrit scholar at Columbia, Sheldon Pollock, has written wonderfully about, what he calls the Sanskrit cosmopolis, this vast space from essentially Western Afghanistan right down to Indonesia, which was a domain within which the Sanskrit language was understood, and was a language not just of power and rule, but of literary expression and cultural creation.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. So that gets us to another life in the book. That would be the first great emperor who created a polity with a defined set of borders around it. And he did so in part not only by military might, but by having edicts placed along the way so we can define the reach of the court. And that would be Ashoka, someone who I always thought I understood to be the first historical figure in Indian history, because of course, there are contemporary documents, as it were, of his life and of his teachings, and his edicts. Tell us about his life and tell us about the role that those carved, inscribed edicts had to play in defining India at the time.
KHILNANI: Yes. I mean, this is again, a fascinating figure, someone who began his life as a, if you like, typical of his age, a sort of fairly blood-thirsty conqueror and ruler. And then after a particularly bloody battle, where he sort of exercises his cruelty quite dramatically, he seems to have a turn in his life and a reversal. He turns to Buddhism. Or to the beliefs of the Buddha, because at that point, it’s too early, really, to speak of Buddhism. They’re more the teaching of the Buddha. And he produces his own version of the Buddha’s teaching, which he calls the dhamma, or the law, Ashoka. And as you say, he ended—ends up conquering a vast part of the subcontinent. We find evidence of Ashoka right down into the Deccan as well as over in Afghanistan and, you know, down into Orissa. So it’s the largest empire before the Mughals and the British in India. And it’s an empire that is defined, as you suggest, by these remarkable rock edicts that he puts, that really mark the domain of the empire, but also are put within the empire. And in these edicts—there are about two dozen or more of them, around thirty or so—in these edicts, he puts across a really remarkable message about the bond, or the contract, if you like, between ruler and people. He makes clear that the ruler has obligations to the people, to look after his people, to protect and even to consider the welfare of his people. But he also asks his people to treat one another with respect. So you know, one of the remarkable edicts is where Ashoka talks about different beliefs in his—
CUNO: [over Khilnani] Is that edict twelve or—?
KHILNANI: Yes. [Cuno: Yeah] That’s right, exactly, edict twelve, where he talks about different beliefs in his empire and says that, you know, you honor your own belief by respecting those of others, really, not by trying to kind of dominate and so on. So it’s a—it’s a remarkable moment. But at the same time, there’s also an underside to it. I mean, you know, Ashoka had what he called a dhamma. Dhamma—essentially, superintendents who were out there to put his message across. So you know, you sort of think about it as kind of thought control to some extent as well. So you know, he was really trying to get the opinions of his people under control.
CUNO: And the edicts themselves were not, as it were, decoded in modern times, until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century or so. So when did we lose access to the language [Khilnani: Yeah] in which they were inscribed?
KHILNANI: That’s a—that’s a really interesting question. I mean, Ashoka comes at the end of a dynasty that ruled in India. And he, you know, after him, that dynasty and empire completely sort of dissolves and he is forgotten. The language in which the edicts and this are written, the script in which they’re written, is forgotten for essentially, as you suggest, about 2,000 years. They’re then rediscovered by the British beginning in the late eighteenth century and then the early nineteenth century. And then people like William Jones and later James Prinsep start to work on decrypting the edicts. So they come back into consciousness, historical consciousness, in the nineteenth century. And then they become very important for Indian nationalists and the chapter on Ashoka, by showing how Nehru and other found in Ashoka a kind of early sort of premonition of modern India. You know, here was an India that was tolerant, that was peaceful, and that had a state that cared about its people.
CUNO: And it took as its principal images, from the Ashokan columns, in which they’d had the four lions but also the Buddhist wheel. So one thinks of it somewhat as an irony that there would be as the symbols of what has to be a political realm and has to be a kind of political realm reinforced by military might, something that derives from the Buddha, derives from this great conversion that we think Ashoka had to Buddhism to a kind of peaceful understanding of coexistence in the world. Do you see irony in the adoption of those images from Buddhism to the coinage to the flag of India and so forth?
KHILNANI: There is an irony, but there’s also a kind of a logic to it, which is that, you know, the India that gets created through the independence movement of the twentieth century, led by Gandhi and then Nehru, is one that thinks of itself as a nation-state, but a very different kind of nation-state. It thinks of itself as being one that recognizes great internal diversity, that recognizes the values of tolerance and peace and so forth.
So in a sense, I think Ashoka offered this very nice conjunction of empire and peacefulness. So it was very convenient. But you’re absolutely right. I mean, once you start to probe that a bit, there is an irony in it. But of course, the founders of India didn’t want to really probe that too much. They wanted the nice version of that story.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah, at a time in which Hindu and Muslim were breaking apart, separating from each other, the sense of there being a third way, as it were, that might be informed by a historical figure of great political and military importance, as well as a great figure of religious importance.
KHILNANI: That’s right. And I think, you know, in that sense, the Buddha and the Buddhist imagery, as you suggest, offered a kind of neutral stance in relationship to Hindu and Muslim resonances.
CUNO: So I wait until now to bring into our conversation a poet. The poet Basava? Twelfth century poet and a religious guru with lines that he wrote to the god Shiva. I wonder if you would read a couple of those first from your book so we get a sense of the sound and rhythms of the translated texts of Basava, and why it was that you waited until the twelfth century to give us a poet.
KHILNANI: Right. Well, I read these verses, which have been translated by the great critic and poet himself, A.K. Ramanujan. And this is Basava in Ramanujan’s translation”
Make of my body the beam of a lute, of my head the sounding gourd, of my nerves the strings, of my fingers, the plucking rods. Clutch me close and play your thirty-two songs, oh Lord of the meeting rivers.
CUNO: It’s so beautiful and so evocative of the landscape and the setting and the sounds. You say that he became a leader of the Vachana movement?
KHILNANI: Yes, one of the interesting things that I’ve found in working on this book is that so much of the important lines of criticism of society and politics happen in the form of poetry in India, in the form of verse, not in what we would strictly define as the political realm. And Basava, I think, is a perfect example of this. So someone who was a very fine wordsmith and poet, but who was also a very sharp social critic of the caste order.
And the Vachana movement, which he establishes or is part of, It’s a form of poetic prose. It’s using very much everyday language. So Basava was getting away from high language or, you know, literary language.
CUNO: He didn’t write in Sanskrit, for example.
KHILNANI: No, he didn’t. [Cuno: Yeah] He wrote in Kannada, that’s right, which is the language of the region in the south where he came from. And it was very much a kind of artisanal type of poetry. It was the poetry that he felt anyone could make. It was open to anyone to make. If you’re a woman, if you were lower caste—categories that usually are excluded at that point in India from literary or cultural creation in this way.
And you know, Basava was really—the Vachanakaras, as he referred to, the makers of utterances. It’s this very—it’s not a kind of glorified image of the poet. It’s this everyday artisanal quality. We can all be makers of these utterances.
CUNO: Was it an oral tradition or was it written down by others? Did he write them down?
KHILNANI: It was very much an oral tradition, written down later, as with many of these things, but passed down orally. And you know, he has this—he has this wonderful phrase where he says—Basava writes, and these are his words—“If one speaks, it should be like the dagger of crystal.” So this sense that every work had to be effective and chosen and somehow piercing.
CUNO: You say that he was—had a relationship with the Bhakti movement. Tell us about that relationship and tell us about the movement itself.
KHILNANI: Bhakti is a word that initially means really just to share. And—it’s a tradition of poetry, often bringing together people from the lower castes or marginal to the society, to collectively worship, and very much getting away from worship directed by Brahmin priests, by the upper castes; saying that one can, as an individual or as a collective group, have a direct relationship with God not mediated by the priest. So it was a kind of challenge to the hierarchical ritual order in India. It’s a kind of movement that has many different strands, but all of them are about this direct personal relationship with God, where you can, by offering a flower or a verse or whatever small token you have be in touch with the divine and have the grace of the divine.
CUNO: Yeah. So we call him a poet. Was there such a thing as a poet at the time? Would he be recognized as someone distinct from a myth maker or an interpreter of earlier myths of things? How did he make a living? How did he share his poetry with others? Were they written down?
KHILNANI: Well, it’s interesting. Actually, Basava, [he chuckles] like some other great poets, did have a daytime job. So he was—effectively, he was trained as an accountant, really. He had to make a living.
CUNO: [over Khilnani] Like Wallace Stevens, maybe.
KHILNANI: Exactly. Or, you know, Phillip Larkin, the librarian, or Eliot, the bank clerk. So, you know, he did have to [he chuckles] get his meals together. But he—I mean, it’s interesting, this question of whether he was thought of distinctively as a poet. Probably not. I mean, I think he was thought of as a guru kind of figure, a leader, a religious leader who expressed his teachings in these very pithy, powerful verses. And in the end, you know, he’s involved in a tragic situation, where his radicalism really leads to his own personal undoing. Because he sanctions an inter-caste marriage between an outcast boy and a Brahmin girl. You know, really breaking a taboo. And the king is outraged by this. A riot occurs. Basava is expelled from the city, and then he dies. So actually, he suffered the consequences of his politics as well.
CUNO: Well, could you read one last poem, the one that you end his life with?
KHILNANI: Right. So this is—this, again, is in the translation of A.K. Ramanujan, and it goes like this:
“The rich will make temples for Shiva. What shall I, a poor man, do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupula of gold. Listen, oh Lord of the meeting rivers. Things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.”
CUNO: That’s beautiful. Thank you. So if we waited this long to get a poet among your lives, we come upon the first woman, Mirabai, who’s also described by you as a mystic poet, and she’s also called Meera. She lives in the first half of the sixteenth century. Why did it take so long to get a woman into the mix?
KHILNANI: Okay. So this is—this is one of the big issues that I faced in producing my list of fifty. And it’s very hard to find records, primary records, archival documents, about the lives of individual women if you go back beyond, say, 200, 250 years in Indian history. You know, Mirabai was the first figure whom I felt I could produce some kind of a historical account of. But having said that, you know, I was very clear that I was not only going to talk about women and issues relevant to women in the essays or episodes on women. The subject runs right through, from—through the Buddha; Mahavira, the founder of Jainism; Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. You know, the question of the position of women runs through many essays in the book. So that’s, you know, one way in which I tried to address the paucity of individual women in the book. But you’re right. I mean, it—you know, one has to wait till, you know, the end of the fifteenth century. And it is a long, [he chuckles] long wait. But Mirabai is this figure who, again, is a real rebel in the social order of her time. She’s born into the very rigid Rajput world of Western India, Rajasthan. She leaves her husband, she challenges the sort of very strong patriarchal structure, and she takes to the road and becomes a sort of songstress and poet of the lower castes and the marginal. And her songs are, to this day, sung.
I was in Calcutta where there’re many temples to the goddess Kali. And a group of women and men had come from Rajasthan to pray as pilgrims to those temples. And they were singing the songs of Meera, you know, late in the evening, on the banks of the river. It was astonishingly moving to hear Meera’s words being sung by this group of old—older Rajasthani women in Calcutta who’d travelled, you know, all these miles.
CUNO: You call them songs. Was there music composed for them, or was it just the rhythms of the language itself that gave them the songs?
KHILNANI: Well, as far as we know, with Mirabai, they were act—she was actually a composer of songs. And there was music. We—the way in which she’s described is that she sang. She used what we would think of as castanets as kind of rhythm instruments. And yes, so I think we can consider them to be actual songs. And of course, today, also, they are sung in Bollywood films.
CUNO: Oh, [chuckles] is that right?
CUNO: So she would’ve been at a time when the Mughals were establishing themselves, right? And the first Mughal emperor—not the first great Mughal, but the one that has such a commanding place for the history of the Mughals for most of us is Akbar, the great Mughal emperor of the second half of the sixteenth century. Tell us about his extraordinary life, the culture of his court at Fatehpur Sikri, just outside of Agra, and why he is so admired among all the Mughal emperors today, why he is so admired.
KHILNANI: Yeah. I mean, Akbar is really the, the great figure of the Mughal Dynasty. He is the one who establishes the wealth and material foundations which then allow his descendants, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, to produce these extraordinary works of artistic patronage—whether it’s the Taj Mahal or the miniature Mughal albums and the jewelry and so forth. But Akbar was really a brilliant military strategist. He was the one who established the extent of the Mughal Empire, through conquest in the west and the south and east. He had a grasp of human psychology and the nature of belief, I think, which was very important to the way the Mughals established themselves. Which is to say, he realized that his empire extended over a broad range of belief systems. You know, Hinduism, but varieties of Hinduism. And he was not in a position to convert his subjects to Islam, so he would have to govern in a way that acknowledged these different belief systems. He also realized that if the empire was to sustain itself, it would have to have the collaboration of those whom he ruled over. So he inducted Hindu and other military leaders into his armies. He also integrated them by marriage.
CUNO: He himself, too.
KHILNANI: He himself, absolutely. [Cuno: Yeah] He himself married a Rajput princess. So these established the kind of—the sinews of the empire that then continued. He is, as you say, he’s seen also as this great figure of religious tolerance. Now, I wanted slightly to question that in my—in the essay, in the following way. That while I do think he didn’t try to impose his belief and he was very interested in other belief forms and in this great city that he builds near Agra, called Fatehpur Sikri. He abandoned it at a certain point. It’s not exactly clear why. But I venture a guess and—you know, it’s usually said he abandoned it because of lack of water and so on. But I think he also—he abandoned it because there were changes in his own religious belief and it no longer—he’d originally built it to mark the site of the place where his spiritual master taught and then died. But later in life, he broke away from that teaching. And so I think it ceased to have so much value to him.
But Fatehpur Sikri is this extraordinary place. I describe it as—I write, you know, “Walking through this now desolate cityscape in the dry heat, you might feel at certain turns as if you were in one of M.C. Escher’s drawings, reworked with the stark surrealism of Giorgio di Chirico.”
But it is like touring his mind, because it’s this very syncretic, light, but very impressive complex. And in one of the buildings in Fatehpur Sikri is this room where he gathered scholars from different religious traditions to debate with one another. And he would, in a sense, adjudicate which arguments were more powerful or better.
And the context for this, though, I think was a very specific one. Akbar lived at a time of the first Islamic millennium. And this was a time of great speculation about what would happen after the millennium. The ideas about the Mahdi, about different kinds of versions of belief in Islam emerging. And I think Akbar, to some extent, thought he might be the founder of a new kind of religion. And I think part of his driving interest in these diverse religions was because he thought he could be this great synthetizing figure in creating this new type of religion, the Dīn-i Ilāhī, as it was called. So what I wanted to suggest is, you know, we shouldn’t over romanticize him and certainly shouldn’t think of him as a protoliberal.
His interests in religion were not liberal interests. They were interests because he was interested in religion.
CUNO: Mm-hm, mm-hm. Now, so we introduce this sense of a tolerant figure, questioned as he that might be by yourself and others. But we introduce after that, another figure known for very different reasons, and adopted by others as a symbol of intolerance, I suppose you could even say, and that’s Shivaji. So the arc of Indian history changed with the arrival of Shivaji in the seventeen century, this kind of warrior king. Tell us about his life and why it’s so important to the modern city of Mumbai, which you bring into your chapter on Shivaji.
KHILNANI: Yes. Well, yes. Shivaji is the great patron saint of the city of Mumbai, and indeed, of that whole region. You know, you fly into the airport named after him, the railway station; the great museum of the city is named after him. And he has emerged in modern-day India as this great symbol of resistance to Muslim rule. He came from the Maratha castes—although that’s also an interesting question, his caste strategies. But he was someone who fought the Mughals, fought Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor, and was, you know, really seen as a thorn in the side of the Mughals.
He was a great warrior king. But what interests me about him was the extent to which he made himself. He was a sort of self-made man. And the way in which that story— many young people in the city of Mumbai are now attracted by. I went to and talked to some of the young followers of a party named after him. And many of them are attracted to Shivaji because they see him as a kind of small-town boy, in a sense, made good. And you know, they themselves, these young men, are coming from rural Maharashtra and they’re working as security guards or gardeners or whatever and they want to rise up the social order. And Shivaji’s story is very much one of a—someone who came from the lower castes, became this great military leader, and then in order to translate that into political power, he effectively had to raise himself in the caste order. So I describe in the essay this extraordinary ceremony that he performs in one of his forts. And the forts are in these very dramatic hilly landscapes of the Deccan. But he performs this ceremony in 1674 where he invites 11,000 people to his fort to see him essentially being turned into a Brahmin king. So he pays these Brahmins to come from Benares and elsewhere. He pays them extraordinary amounts in gold and silver and so on to raise him up the caste order in order that he can, you know, have the status, as well as the power that he’d accomplished.
CUNO: And he’s got a resonance in the contemporary world of India and, as you mentioned already, in Mumbai, in particular, you mentioned about the airports and so forth. But you also write that there’s going to be a statue of Shivaji, twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, that will be built at the entrance of the city’s harbor. What makes him and his teaching, besides this fact of the sense of a—of a young guy making good in the world, what makes it so resonant in Mumbai, as opposed to, let’s say—and I’m guessing—as opposed to, say, Calcutta?
KHILNANI: Yes. Well, Mumbai has had for some decades now, a very powerful nativist movement of sort of sons of the soil. And it’s emerged, of course, partly caused by the fact that Mumbai is such a great city of migrants. It is one of the most mixed and diverse cities in India. People come from all over the country—south, north, et cetera. And that, in turn, provoked this nativist sons of the soil movement, which began in the 1960s. Originally its target was South Indians, who were seen as coming in and taking the jobs of the native sons of the city, the Marathas.
It’s since moved its opponents and targets to Muslims. And today, the party that represents this nativist movement—it’s called the Shiv Sena—sees kind of Muslims as outsiders. And for this party, for this movement, Shivaji is seen as the, you know, epitome of the native son, the son of the soil, who fought, defended his territory, kept the outsiders away and upheld the traditions of the Marathas. So I think that’s what makes him such a beloved figure there.
CUNO: Yeah. Beloved and dangerous, too, I suppose.
KHILNANI: Sure. Well, I think, you know, these nativist movement are always very problematic. And you know, we’ve seen them emerge all over the world. And yes, it is dangerous.
CUNO: Yeah. So we’ve started out with the introduction of Ashoka. We talked about the kind of formation of a land-based polity, of a kind of extent of authority. And then we have talked with Akbar reinforcing it now many, many years later. Then we’re seeing a sense of ethnic fragmentation of that polity in the seventeenth century with Shivaji, but recently, also, as you say, continuing. That dynamic within India of a kind of formation and of a state and a sense of nationhood, and the constant threats to the integrity of that state. And the kind of regionalism that you’ve talked about, too, with regard to various poets and things having local authorities or local reputations. How much is that part of the Indian story itself, that sense of contest between the local and the national?
KHILNANI: Well, I think you touch on something really central to the movement of Indian history, that, if you like, sort of dialectic or tense relationship between central power and regional identities and regional rivals to that power. And it’s really, in a sense, also the central dynamic of twentieth century Indian history, which leads to the Partition of India, which precisely, in many ways, was a contest between the central power and regional claimants to power and who should decide about the decisions to do with different religious groups and so forth?
So I think the dynamic you talk about between center and region is one of the central structuring ones of Indian history. And it’s never resolved. And even today you see a pendulum swinging between New Delhi and the regional governments. India’s a federal system. Twenty—twenty-eight states, twenty-nine states now. And it’s a very complex union. And it’s constantly in contest. So—and it can’t be resolved. I mean, I think it’s in the nature of it.
CUNO: Yeah. And then you introduce a figure, at this point, into the book, and that’s Tagore, who has a reputation that becomes an international reputation. He becomes a great figure, not only as a kind of cultural leader of an increasingly discussed independent nation of India, but also beyond the nation to a larger cosmopolitan view of the world, of a kind of a transnational view of the world. And the contest between then between now not just the regional and the national, but between the national and the international.
KHILNANI: Absolutely. I think, you know, that’s one of Tagore’s very distinctive aspects, that he is a figure of Indian national rediscovery if you like. But at the same time, he’s a deep critic of nationalism. One of his most powerful pieces of speaking and writing were lectures on nationalism that he delivered in 1915–16, in China and Japan, America and in India, in which he critiqued nationalism as a sort of parochial form of violence that necessarily led to militarization and so forth. At the same time, he was a great patriot. He was a great patriot of his own language and culture, Bengal, but also of India. But always interested in the rest of the world. He established a university where he brought teachers from China and Europe and so forth. He was involved in bringing the Bauhaus to Calcutta in 1922. So he was very interested in the world. And in the—in my book, I talk particularly about his interest in expanding individual freedom, because he always thought nationalism at the end of the day trapped individuals. It forced individuals to subordinate themselves to the collective, to some figment of the nation. And Tagore was above all a believer in individuality and individual freedom. And indeed, love became the great form of expression of individuality for him. And in some of his great novels he talks about how women in India are trapped by not being able to choose who they love or follow their love in a free way.
CUNO: He becomes such an international figure that he is the first Asian Nobel Laureate. But his reputation waxes and wanes over the course of the twentieth century. Tell us about the waxing and waning, and has it risen of late? Has it been restored?
KHILNANI: Yeah. I mean, he—because he’s a complicated and cantankerous figure in many ways, in relationship to nationalism—you know, in India today he’s revered. And he’s certainly very much loved in his Bengal state, in West Bengal and in Calcutta, and his songs are sung. He’s very much part of everyday life. He’s also, of course, the author of the national anthem of India so, you know, people are very aware of him. But I would say that the message that Tagore taught, which is, you know, parochialism of nationalism, the need to allow people to love and express themselves freely, those are not messages that are fully [chuckles] accepted in India today. So like many of the people I write about, while they’re adulated in some way, their message has been turned around or compromised for present day consumption.
CUNO: Yeah. So we get to the point of independence. And so you have the great fathers of independence in the book. You’ve got Bose and Gandhi and Jinnah and Ambedkar. But you don’t have Nehru. And so tell us why not Nehru, and tell us, how many emails and letters have you received for having not included Nehru in the book?
KHILNANI: [chuckles] Yeah. I mean, yes, this is a charge and a question I’m constantly having thrown at me. And you know, I say at the, in the beginning of the book, that I think Nehru would’ve been gracious enough to give his place to some other figure who gets to get in the book because he’s not in it. Nehru runs through the book. He’s like Hitchcock in his films. He appears in a number of the essays. So right from the essay on Ashoka to Sheikh Abdullah or Krishna Menon or Indira Gandhi or—you know, in many of the essays, Nehru figures. And I’d been working on Nehru in another context, and at some point I’ll write something about him. And I just felt that I could address some of the issues that Nehru was concerned about—about diversity, about the kind nature of power, the state and so forth—through other figures. So I didn’t—I decided not to include Nehru.
CUNO: [chuckles] Yeah. So we’ve made our way through some 2,000 and more years of Indian history, I’m painfully aware of just how much we’ve left out, I’m also painfully aware of how the clock is ticking on this podcast. So I wanna skip rapidly ahead and I wanna concentrate on two other lives. And those are the lives of a artists. And the first, of course, is Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker, and then M. F. Husain, the painter. Tell us about Ray’s life first, and tell us—I think I’m right in saying that he went to Tagore’s school outside of Calcutta. So a link to Tagore.
KHILNANI: Yes, very much. I mean, I think Satyajit Ray is very much a product of that same Bengal tradition which Tagore helped to create. Which is to say, very rooted in Bengal, in the language and landscape and environment of Bengal, but also very cosmopolitan. So, you know, Ray was as much a follower of French and American cinema from his early twenties, as any—as he was kind of knowledgeable about his own Bengali culture. He went, as you say, to the university Tagore set up, Santiniketan, and then became obsessed with film, with Western film.
CUNO: How did he see the films? [Khilnani: Well the—] Western films, in particular.
KHILNANI: There was something called the—a film society sort of culture in Calcutta. And he was responsible with others for setting up the film society there, the Calcutta Film Society. And they used to, with great complication, get these reels of film—Frank Capra, John Ford films, et cetera—which they would have to kind of negotiate with the American Consul or Embassy and so on, and get these reels. So it was really a society of devotees and lovers. And then he got a chance—he was sent to London on a work assignment in the early fifties, I believe it was. And that’s when he got great exposure to more Western film. And then coming back to India, by coincidence, the French director Jean Renoir came to make a film. And—
CUNO: Came to India to make a film?
KHILNANI: Came to India [Cuno: Ah] to make a film, that’s right, called The River. And Ray befriended Renoir. And that became a sort of very, you know, impactful connection for Ray. And he started making his own films really on no budget at all. He had no money. Again, it was an entire labor of love. And he made these—his first trilogy of films, which became known as the Apu films, Apur Sansar, which became a huge success in the West.
But this was the thing, that you know, Ray, for much of his life, was much better known in the West than he was in India. And I think this frustrated him. But you know, now I think a younger generation of filmmakers are really starting to see Ray as a great figure in the Indian tradition.
CUNO: What is his legacy today in India?
KHILNANI: I think he has been—he’s really being recognized today as one of the major figures. Younger directors in India are—have learnt a lot from him. The Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh was one of the people who followed in his wake. And I think now, my sense is that he’s coming into his own, or will come into his own in years ahead, when people will really see just how revolutionary and challenging he was as a filmmaker.
CUNO: Hm. Now, we have to come to an end, but—I’m afraid, sadly enough, certainly for me. But I want to make certain that we have in this podcast, the life of M.F. Husain. He lived a long life. He’s a great painter. He lived some ninety-four years. He was thirty years old when India became independent. And in that very year he and three other artists formed the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. What were his cultural and political views in the run up to independence? And then of course, as a Muslim, how did he respond to Partition?
KHILNANI: Husain is, you know, one of the towering figures of contemporary art in India. And it’s interesting because I think he often was put in positions where he was asked to talk about politics and about his religious views and so on, but he was never very comfortable doing that. He kind of avoided or didn’t want to go into these issues too deeply. And actually, it’s interesting. I talked to one of his contemporaries, Krishan Khanna, who was a painter of the time, and you know, was asking about what was the political climate in the 1940s, at the run up to Partition and after and you know, his sense was that as artists, Husain and others were not cur—oddly enough, not that concerned about the politics. And they sort of somehow wanted to keep away from it and out of it. And Husain himself, you know, was always quite discrete about his own religious beliefs and—I mean, he was—he was devout, he was a believer, he did pray and so forth, but he never made a big thing of it.
CUNO: In the 1960s—therefore, a decade more after Partition—he has an international reputation. And then by 1971, he’s invited to exhibit in São Paulo alongside Picasso. A couple of questions. How did the world come to know of his work, such that he could be invited to São Paulo to exhibit alongside Picasso? And how was it that he, other than through illustrations in magazines, did he come to know the work of artists such as Picasso? Did he ever see—did he travel to Paris?
KHILNANI: He—you know, unlike some of the other Indian painters who—of his group who actually left for the West—Sousa, who goes to London, Raza, who goes to Paris—Husain was very much located in the city of Bombay. I mean, he travelled through India, but Bombay was very much his kind of home. He started out as a painter of cinema billboards there. And he—I think he really thrived in the bustle and street life of the city. So he wasn’t—you know, he travelled internationally later, and of course, he ended his life in exile. But he was also, I think, a great self-publicist. So that’s, in a sense, what got him so known internationally. He turned up at the right places, he knew the right people, he cultivated the right friendships and patrons. So, you know, his own son spoke of how he loved the media glare. So, you know, Husain liked that. And that, I think helped to get him an international reputation. But he was not that concerned with being part of a kind of global artistic elite. He was very much rooted in his city. He was interested in what was happening, but—in painting around the world, but he, I think he followed it, probably, through magazines and images and so forth.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, that personality that he has, the outsized personality that he had, his affection for or attraction to press coverage, got him some trouble in 1996, when a group of Hindu nationalists attacked his paintings. And they were objecting to their nudity; that is, to his being a Muslim, painting these Hindu goddesses in the nude. And he was even taken to court, I think. And his case got as high as the Delhi High Court, and there were calls for his life, and dismemberment, even, the cutting off of his hands. And there were prices that—value attached, monetary valued attached to those pieces of his body. What was that like? Was that as threatening as it sounds, to him? And did it send the art world into convulsions at the time?
KHILNANI: Yeah. Well, I think—I think, you know, the last years of Husain’s life are one of the great kind of tragic and worse testaments to some of the challenges to cultural expression in India. You know, just as he didn’t really address Partition directly— I mean, one reason why he felt that he could paint Hindu goddesses and use Hindu imagery was because Husain, in that sense, was really a secular figure. I mean, he really believed in the secular project of post-independence India. And he believed that, you know, any citizen could draw upon the culture and civilization of India to make art, to express themselves. That he didn’t belong to any one group. I think he genuinely was part of that generation. So, you know, when he painted Hindu goddesses, he thought that was just a natural thing for an artist to do. Wasn’t—I don’t think he saw it as a political challenges or provocation. But of course, he was doing this, as you say, at a time, from the mid-nineties onwards, when there was a rise of Hindu nationalism. And so he became a ready target for it. And indeed, you know, he was—his shows were attacked. Artworks were destroyed. He was himself, as you say, threatened with physical violence. And even when the Delhi High Court defended him and, you know, said that he had every right to free artistic expression, the pol— the political elite in India didn’t really stand by him, didn’t really give him the kind of protection and support that he needed. So in the end, he left India. He went into exile, to the Gulf. And indeed, died in Qatar, you know, having taken citizenship there. And I think that’s one of the great, great tragedies of—
CUNO: [over Khilnani] Is he memorialized in some way in Mumbai?
KHILNANI: The great thing about Husain was, he was a great public artist, as well. So you will see his work in many different parts of the city. You know, in public spaces, in hotel foyers, et cetera. And he’s certainly known. He’s the only Indian artist who was known by people on the street, really, in the cities. Certainly, in the city of Bombay, of Mumbai. So, you know, taxi driver or whatever would know of him. And he was a real character. So in that sense, he’s memorialized in people’s memories. Which I think is a great thing.
CUNO: It is the way that most of the lives in your book are memorialized, as people over the course of centuries have memories about how they heard of so-and-so or how they came into contact with the work of so-and-so over the course of these many thousands of years. So it’s a fantastic book. It’s a book and it’s a podcast series and it’s a radio series best, I think, taken in the bite-sized pieces in which you wrote it, because you can each day, in fourteen, fifteen minutes, you can get a world of a life, and you can have that then over the course of an entire year.
KHILNANI: Well, thanks so much, Jim. It’s been absolutely great talking with you about.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SUNIL KHILNANI: I said, “Maybe we should do something really ambitious and think about telling...