Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

“The paradoxes of India are legion—economically poor, but entrepreneurially dynamic; awash with illiteracy, yet innovative in science; culturally conservative, yet creatively edgy.”

-Dr. Sunil Khilnani introducing BBC’s Podcast Series “Incarnations: India in 50 Lives”

One of my hosts in India recently described my favorite country as a place that is “an assault on your senses that you just have to accept.”  For visitors to India and native Indians alike, the country is a land of innumerable contrasts. For every impressive skyscraper, then is often an equally expansive slum nearby; for every breathtaking historical site, there are nearby ruined roads and dilapidated buildings; and for every Tata, Ambani and Godrej, there are legions of impoverished Indian citizens—yet, despite all of the above, what is it exactly that still makes India so magical?

The answer to this question is being slowly unraveled by Professor Sunil Khilnani’s BBC podcast series “Incarnations: India in 50 Lives.” Director of the King’s India Institute and professor of politics at King’s College London, Khilnani takes a look at the history of India through the lives of 50 of its most significant figures in this groundbreaking BBC series. Beginning with the Buddha and covering key historical figures from the next 2,500 years, Khilnani guides listeners through the lives of the people who have contributed to India’s undeniably rich cultural and intellectual history.

In developing this program, Khilnani traveled across India where he found paradoxes on every path he took.  It is these paradoxes that Khilnani believes can actually be productive as opposed to damaging to society.  Khilnani said that key political and intellectual figures over the past 150 years such as Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, and Jawaharlal Nehru were born out of this “productive use of paradoxical reality,” because these leaders “felt that a diverse society might have more resilience to deal with unexpected and multiple challenges.”  And there is no doubt that this diverse society still forms the foundation of India today.

So, why did Khilnani hone in on a personal study of extraordinary Indian lives for this unique BBC series in contrast to his other research pursuits that have chronicled India’s economic and political history?  Khilnani said he hoped to “press people to think a bit harder about…the legacies of the past we live with today.”  He said he feels that present day historical debates often boil down to “ideological ping-pong” as opposed to nuanced discussions about the human lives that have shaped today’s India.


The mammoth task of whittling through the list of influential figures in India’s history over the span of 2,500 years was “insanely difficult,” Khilnani said, but he aimed to choose stories that still have “after-lives” in that they have some connection to “pressing contemporary issues.” In fact, building on his work for this BBC series, Khilnani said he also prepared a book of essays that will release next year, titled “Incarnations: 50 Indian Lives and Afterlives.”

This idea of afterlives and the extension of key historical figures into present day India is particularly interesting, especially when you consider the relevance of the 50 lives featured in the podcast to modern day issues in India. Khilnani said he aimed to relate his featured stories to contemporary issues, for example—“Charaka and our current, ropey health care system; Shivaji and our prevailing narratives of rising up the social order; Birsa Munda and the question of who really owns India’s water and land.” Khilnani’s reflections on these key figures are periodically accompanied by other impressive contemporary Indian bigwigs, from economist Amartya Sen to writer Arundhati Roy. And while they may not always agree with Khilnani on how India’s history has shaped modern day India, they all agree that the history is just as relevant to the present and future as it is to the past.

As for Khilnani’s personal favorite figure from this series?  He did not wholly admit to one singular favorite, but he said he would love to “be able to sit in a room with [Indian painter] Nainsukh and watch him paint or draw.”

To listen to “Incarnations: India in 50 Lives,” click here.