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A journey called India


British historian and broadcaster Michael Wood’s “The Story of India” made its debut on American TV recently. India’s long pluralistic history has relevance today in a world coming to terms with a host of human and cultural issues, says Wood. Excerpts from a conversation…

Global culture is taking root everywhere now, I came away feeling that India’s the only place that has incorporated the modern without rejecting the old.

Heady blend: For Michael Wood, India is an intoxicating mix of the old and the new.

Michael Wood’s six-part TV series “The Story of India” shows the 10,000-year history of the Indian subcontinent in six episodes. First aired by the BBC in August 2007, it was part of a BBC series marking 60 years of Indian independence. The series was broadcast in the United States by PBS early this year. An ambitious project like this, a life-changing experience, needs at least 100 hours of air time, says Michael Wood.

What attracted you to India?

On British and American TV, you see ancient Rome, Greece, even Egypt, but never India — even though India has a fifth of the world’s population and plays a great part in world history. We thought PBS might do this but they said, “India does not figure on the radar here.” Then, five years ago, they simply emailed, “India?” The moment had come; our first Indian shoot coincided with President Bush’s visit. The response to the series in the States — a million and a half hits on the website in the first two weeks — confirms that interest.

So PBS funded the series?

PBS commissioned it and put in the initial money, then BBC paid a portion of the costs and got a long-lasting programme for a big audience without a huge outlay. The impetus came from America, PBS were great supporters of this project.

How long did it take you to make the series?

Originally, it took 20 months filming and editing, a short time for a series like this — we were pressured by BBC’s deadlines. It aired in England in 2007. Then, in 2008, we reedited it for America, adding satellite maps, changing some passages, cutting others. Ayodhya, for instance, had been so rushed, I recut it to layer its past and present.

What was the reaction in Britain?

Fantastic! Very good ratings, big audiences and great critical reaction: they liked the sweep of the series, loved the camera work and the combination of big ideas with intimate down-to-earth events like having fun at Holi. The response of British-Indians — important to me because I was making a film about someone else’s culture — was reassuringly positive.

Was it hard to select six hours from 10,000 years of material?

It was a nightmare. To do justice to Indian history, you need 100 hours — 10 would’ve been the minimum required. I wanted to film Baluchistan’s pre-Harappan settlements, I’d planned to do Shivaji and more on the Partition. The freedom movement is an electrifying story, Nehru and Gandhi among the greatest figures in modern history. The last 100 years of Indian history helps us understand today’s clashes with Islam. The BBC did not want the modern story which they have covered but Americans would have benefited from it.

How did you research India’s vast history?

I’ve been interested in India for many years. I have a library of books collected over a lifetime, I read the Rig Veda controversies for pleasure, I’d been a dozen times to Benares. All that goes into the research which exists on many levels. You can get expertise from scholars but I wanted real voices of ordinary Indians. I’d phone people and ask for help. Everyone helped because they take pride in their culture. In Mathura, the Krishna Leela play was rained off when we were to shoot, so we returned later. It was 47 degrees — so ferociously hot that our bare feet burned on the temple floor — but they did the play again for us.

Britain’s colonial perspective long dominated Indian history books; now, the BJP is rewriting history. How did you steer clear of such false extremes?

It was difficult for a white middle-class Brit of my generation who comes with baggage. The pressure of filmmaking is intense, so when you stand back, you think, I should have done this or that…but history does not always go in a straight line. I wish I’d covered the Marathas and Shivaji to balance the emphasis on the Mughals which came out of colonial writing. But the cultural battles of Akbar and Dara Shikoh have relevance today. What Barack Obama says about relations between Islam and the West will be interesting, but what Akbar said about Islam could only have come out of India’s pluralism. The Mughals’ heroic attempts to reconcile great human issues has a lesson for today.

How is reporting history on TV different from writing a book?

It’s a different process, television simplifies, it’s a medium for showing, not for argument. The difficulty is to tell stories in a simplified way, to select stories that have resonance for the whole historical process. In a book, you can qualify your remarks, spend pages talking about the Aryans, discuss the pros and cons. Television audiences want to be taken on a journey, not down academic pathways. The challenge is to balance credibility and accuracy with entertainment. That’s why I film contemporary culture and try to relate it to the past. The audience’s imagination connects today’s people to their past. The people of Kerala or Tamil Nadu, for example, are too educated to wallow in the past, their past coexists with daily life. Tamil Nadu is the world’s last surviving classical civilisation.

What do you mean by “classical civilisation”?

One that’s 2,000 years old like ancient Greece or Rome. Tamil is the last living classical Indian language. The first surviving work in Tamil, a 300 B.C book on linguistics, refers to an already existing culture. Tamil is older than any modern European language. I wanted to remind Western-centric audiences, who implicitly assume the superiority of Western modes of thought, that Tamil is one of 23 official Indian languages, with a literature comparable to any in the West. It makes viewers sit up and question their assumptions.

What was your most amazing or memorable Indian discovery?

I had many incredible experiences over the years…in 1987, we took our kids to the Kumbh Mela and stayed with Tamil friends in a tent with 24 million people around. Then, Ram Leela at Ramnagar, Holi in Mathura, sailing on the Arabian Sea... I was knocked out by Patna, a fascinating imperial capital for centuries, I love Benares, I adore Peshawar…such an old city. The biggest surprise was Ayodhya, a historical place with its old, mixed Hindu-Muslim culture which still survives despite what happened there, it was haunting.

What did you come away with finally?

This wasn’t just a job, it was a great life experience. The best was the people of India — helping wherever we went. Obviously, there are drawbacks to traditional culture — injustices of the caste system, untouchability, what happens to women so often. But I felt things changing. It’s been only 60 years since the British left India — in a terrible state.

It’s not for us to criticise India for being unable to modify its age-old legacy. The beauty, complexity, richness and pluralism of traditional India in all its myriad forms are unique. Global culture is taking root everywhere now, I came away feeling that India’s the only place that has incorporated the modern without rejecting the old. That makes it a rich experience to be there. Change is coming fast, and inevitably. There’s poignancy in that. But I have no doubt that India will continue to incorporate its past into the present.

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