Bright colors, splashy and vibrant. Faces painted verdant green and hot pink, clothes dyed golden yellow and iridescent blue, foods in vendors’ stalls, cooked and raw. And elephants, adorned and at work. “Sixty years ago,” declares Michael Wood, “India threw off the chains of the British empire and became a free nation.” But what sounds like a beginning for The Story of India, it is, in fact, only a moment far down the road of a long history. If India has only recently emerged as the world’s largest democracy, its past is filled with innovative philosophies, politics, and spiritualities.
Wood’s six-part television series, first aired on the BBC in 2007, traces India’s remarkable 10,000-year history. Premiering on PBS tonight, it continues January 12 and 19, featuring animated maps and many references to woods’ own travels across and up and down the subcontinent, as he seeks a kind of enlightenment concerning this most complicated land and population. It’s a history designed for mass consumption, appreciative, exuberant, and infectious, fast-paced, superficial, and yet possessed of its own pleasures. Wood’s style, familiar from other similar televisual adventures (In Search of the Trojan War, Conqusitadors), is typically breathless and impressed, following a general timeline and inviting you to feel his enthusiasm for the intricacy of his subject and the sheer scope of the places and peoples he encounters.
In the first two episodes here, he shares his discovery of the conceptual and material foundations of India’s famous “unity in diversity” (in “Beginnings”) and the world-changing pursuits of knowledge and truth undertaken by Buddha and Ashoka (“The Power of Ideas,” which covers roughly 500-200 BC). The first episode takes Wood and his crew through an imagined history, pieced together by archeologists and scientists (including DNA researchers and linguists), stopping by Kerala to hear boys recite incantations (in no known language, more like bird songs than words) passed down for thousands of years (between Brahmin fathers and sons only) and a village in Tamil Nadu where a man is purported to have genes connecting him to the very first Indian.
Noting that such linage is possible only because this particular tribe promotes marriage among cousins, Wood moves on to the next project, tracing the movement of language and religion across continents, two social structures that develop independently of the “largely consistent” gene pool in India.
“Identity is never static,” says Wood as he takes in the ancient practice of worshipping the Mother Goddess, “Always in the making and never made.” The Story of India is pervaded by this sense of constant movement — expansion and contraction, sweep and sway. Observing the advance of agriculture that allowed the rise of cities and so, Wood says, civilization, the episode “Beginnings” notes briefly the most striking facet of India’s social and religious systems, the caste structure (Wood meets an undertaker, very low caste, insisting to the man that his work is crucial, that even if others disdain his profession, they all come to him eventually). While this episode doesn’t dig into British rule (save for the early British researchers and explorers who sought out Indian prehistory), and does not consider the roles of gender and race in India’s social orders, it does note that climate and weather — especially monsoons, “givers of life” — helped to shape the ways people lived and interacted, erected buildings and worshipped gods.
Most of this early history-tracking occurs quickly, underscored by stunning wide-angled shots of desert landscapes and multi-hued skies. Wood’s visit with the well-known Russian archeologist Victor Sarianidi out on a dig in Central Asia has them discussing the people who lived in and near Türkmenistan before 1000 BC, building four-wheeled carts and living the stories that would go into the Mahabharata. Under images from grandscale Bollywood movies, Wood describes the import of the world’s longest poem, compares it to Homer’s “Tale of Troy,” and suggests it provides a “fundamental guide for how to live your life.” It is “an epic that speaks to every age,” opines Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary General at the U.N. from 2002 to 2007, stories added in and reshaped, told and retold, forming “sort of a national library of India.”
By the second episode, Wood is more emphatic about his search for the truth about the search for truth. That is, the series looks at the ways Indian thinking has often and essentially countered that of the West, which focuses on “great men” and stories of conquering and violence. As Wood begins his story of the Buddha, he points to the temple bombings that have just shaken India (as he speaks, in 2006). “We humans are still a competitive species,” he says, an aside that is simultaneously understated and devastating. The camera looks out on people waiting to take the train, along with Wood, their faces turned up, their daily business undeterred.
Wood’s journey continues, following the question that also moved Gautama Buddha, “How to live life sharing the planet with other people?” His counsel against possessiveness and desire, Wood submits, provides a “realistic voice,” a way to ponder the world and one’s place in it within a “system of pure morality, attractive to rising class of traders” who, like Buddha, rejected belief in god as “itself is a form of attachment of clinging and desire.” As this thinking challenged the caste system, worship of rulers and gods, and other conventions, Buddha was a “protestor” and the “first of India’s mutineers,” in pursuit of social justice as well as inner peace and harmony with the world. The Dalai Lama, briefly interviewed, notes that even a millionaire can be ‘a lonely person,” as the camera opens wide on crowds of people on bikes, on foot, in cars — moving incessantly, but where?
“The Power of Ideas” doesn’t come to fixed answers as to the effects of Buddhism or its many famous followers and those who build on its precepts, such as Chandragupta Maurya (founder of the Maurya Empire, possessor of power and wealth that he renounced in order to “become a naked holy man on a mountaintop,” to achieve moksha, or knowledge) or his grandson Devānāmpriya, “beloved of the gods.” Following his own violent success (he conquered Kalinga in spectacular fashion, circa 265 BC), Ashoka was moved by the corpses and ruins left behind, and announced a new official policy of nonviolence, ahisma. His edicts, carved in stones that are still being discovered, Wood says, were the “forerunner of the U.N. declaration of human rights,” as well as the first declarations of animal rights (Wood visits an animal hospital, where Ambika Shukla observes that relations with animals reveal a person’s essence: “If you’re cruel to animals, you’ll be cruel to people as well.”)
“In history,” Wood pronounces, “there have been many empires of the sword, but only India created an empire of the spirit.” And with that, he looks forward to the stories coming next in his series, focused on trade and globalism, markets and empires, the Taj Mahal and the Freedom Movement. It’s a vast undertaking for six hours, and so Wood’s breathlessness at times seems just right.