The Story of India, as Told by the BBC
India’s storyteller: The Story of India’s book cover
“AS THE BRIEF HEYDAY OF THE WEST draws to a close, one of the greatest players in history is rising again.” Popular writer and UK TV host Michael Wood has done it again. Already well known for earlier ambitious projects, this time he set out to achieve a near-impossible feat: to fill—at least partially—a major gap in the Western understanding of the world by summarizing the vast history of India in a six-part BBC television series, The Story of India. The result, shot in India over an eighteen-month period, is both informative and entertaining. Lesson plans and other valuable resources are available online at pbs.org/thestoryofindia. The series itself can be seen, in segments, on YouTube, starting here: bitly.com/thestoryofindia. There appears to be some copyright issues with its posting on YouTube. You may need to search “Story of India” to find all the parts, some of them broken up into ten-minute segments.
Starting with the earliest migrations into India from Africa 70,000 years ago, Part 1 goes on to explore the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Wood unfortunately mentions the now widely discredited Aryan migration theory; but this may be forgiven, considering the overall quality and good taste of the show.
Parts 2, 3 and 4 take us from the 5th century bce up to Muslim times, covering the country’s renowned kingdoms and global commerce. Wood discusses India’s early achievements, such as its ancient religious traditions and rituals, its unmatched architecture, temples and bronze work, and its mathematics, which originated the concept of zero and accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth. Finally, parts 5 and 6 take us through the Muslim era and British colonialism to the Independence movement and India’s ultimate freedom in 1947, including interviews with participants.
Wood at the Taj Mahal
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What makes the series charming is the fact that Wood traveled all over India to make it. We see him exploring the magnificent cities of the Gangetic plain and the ancient Tamil culture of the South, examining ancient manuscripts and documents from the archives of the British East India Company, visiting historical sites and speaking with local people. Throughout the series he attempts to give audiences—particularly those in the West—a glimpse of India’s greatness and some insight into the diversity of its peoples, cultures and landscapes.
Thanjavur’s “Big Temple”
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As Wood explores Tamil Nadu, he explains that Tamil culture is 3,500 years old, like that of ancient Greece or Rome. An interview by The Hindu highlights his admiration for Tamil culture: “Tamil is the last living classical Indian language. The first surviving work in Tamil, a 300-bce book on linguistics, refers to an already existing culture. Tamil is older than any modern European language. I remind Western-centric audiences, who implicitly assume the superiority of Western modes of thought, that Tamil has a literature comparable to any in the West. It makes viewers sit up and question their assumptions.”
In the documentary, Wood states, “Now, in the era of globalization, India has once again become a leading player in the world. Home to more than one billion people, it is a land of amazing contrasts: it contains both the high-tech brilliance of Bangalore’s Silicon Valley and the archaic splendor of the Kumbha Mela festival, where 25 million pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred river Ganges on a single night. While moving at high speed into the 3rd millennium, India alone, of all the civilizations on the face of the earth, is still in touch with her ancient past.”