Revisiting 1988’s Bharat Ek Khoj that showcases India’s rich history in brief

53 episodes long, Shyam Benegal's Bharat Ek Khoj successfully brought Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India to TV screens during the golden age of Doordarshan.

“It was difficult to get a grip on India’s soul though I could feel it intuitively.” The voice is thespian Roshan Seth’s and the show is Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj. But it might be more accurate to say that the voice behind Seth’s voice is that of Jawaharlal Nehru’s, the putative author of The Discovery of India on which Benegal based his kaleidoscopic TV tome. First broadcast in 1988, this Doordarshan classic was Indian satellite TV viewers’ first introduction to Nehru’s scholarly gifts. The Nehruvians and the well-read elites may have devoured this doorstopper in the original but translating Nehru’s idea of India and its episodic investigation into our golden but wounded (to use a Naipaulian phrase) past meant the whole country could tune in to understand free India’s first prime minister’s way of thinking. Also, his hopes and aspirations vis-à-vis India’s leap into the 20th century.

Ponderous history books have told us about Indian civilisation and its highs and lows. Bharat Ek Khoj treats that sacred history with due diligence and respect. For this TV experience, Benegal racked up not just the finest actors — Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Shabana Azmi and the whole caboodle from the parallel cinema pantheon of which he was the patron saint — but also the best researchers and historians for consultation.

Through 53 episodes, each lasting over 40 minutes, the show spans 5,000 years of Indian history. The idea, one can gather, was to explore the ‘Indian thought’ and explain to the audience how our civilisation started, how it flourished, what was trade and commerce like in the ancient past, the conquests and bloodshed as well as our centuries-old heritage, social reforms, religion and lores of the land. From Ramayana, Mahabharata, Indus valley civilization and the Buddha to Kalidas, Maurya, Ashoka, Shivaji, Akbar and Mahatma Phule, Bharat Ek Khoj’s searching eye conspires to piece together the spiritual puzzle that is India. With thousands of years of cultural war set on such an expansive canvas, you can imagine that this is simply too vast for even history buffs to make sense of, let alone binge-watch it in a single sitting. The Discovery of India was written by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in just five months’ time in the year 1944 while he was incarcerated in Ahmednagar fort prison camp between 1942-1945 for his involvement in the Quit India movement. The show takes up the book’s first-person narration framework, with Roshan Seth (playing Nehru) talking to his audience from jail. It is from here, filling out his diary pages, that Seth guides you through the various phases and eras of Indian history. While admittedly a prolific writer, Nehru wasn’t a historian. But despite no libraries or literature to consult, Nehru brings in an historian’s rigor. Much of this book was written from memory and partly with help from his jail companions like Maulana Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant, Narendra Deva and M Asaf Ali. Benegal renders Om Puri’s voice as a counterpoint to balance Nehru’s views. And what a privilege it is to listen to Seth and Puri’s voiceovers, as they bring Nehru’s magnum opus alive.

A mini-India

There’s no one protagonist here because there’s no one story. It’s a tapestry of a plot with a full cast of characters. In telling the tale, whether it is the episode featuring Shivaji or Ramayana, Benegal uses folk singers and snippets from Ram-Leela to make the drama seem interesting and relatable. While the title song is in Sanskrit, the script is equally peppered with Urdu, perhaps underlining the form of diversity that Nehru believed in. At times, Bharat Ek Khoj’s set (a replica of mini-India, one imagines) may have seemed like an extension of Benegal’s spartan parallel cinema, which produced classics of the genre such as Ankur, Mandi, Manthan, Nishant and Bhumika. What further heightens this sense is the participation of New Wave regulars like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and others. Put together, the entire cast of Bharat Ek Khoj can form a village. One of the show’s ingenious portrayals include Naseeruddin Shah as Shivaji Maharaj. It’s unusual to see Shah, otherwise offbeat cinema’s Mr Everyman, in a period spectacle but there’s a formal precision in his performance that justifies his casting as much as it astonishes. As you start watching the show and getting more entrenched in its historical sway, you meet more actors like Shah whose presence gives you a pleasant surprise. There’s Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Mahatma Phule, who along with his wife Savitribai faces stiff social opposition from locals as he goes about his social reforms, particularly towards education and untouchability. Some might wonder what a fresh-faced Lucky Ali is doing in this show, until you realise he started out as an actor.

Along the way, you also see a raw Irrfan Khan appearing as various characters. Freshly out of NSD, Khan wasn’t a big name yet and being a part of a Shyam Benegal show with his screen heroes like Om Puri and Naseer must have meant a great deal to a young actor like him. He’s dutifully pushed into smaller roles in the Chanakya, Akbar and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan chapters but the one in which he really comes into his own is episode no. 51. Titled Separatism, the episode follows the emergence of Muslim separatism foreshadowing the events of 1947, when India and Pakistan finally came into existence as two seperate nations divided on the basis of religious identities. Khan plays Salim, a young Iqbal-quoting, Aligarh-educated Muslim idealist in the golden age of Muslim League. His spiel on Islam and nationalism is in some ways a dress rehearsal to many of his great future performances. Carrying the bulk of the responsibility, Roshan Seth and Om Puri couldn’t have asked for a better role. Seth quickly became typecast as screen Nehru after playing him in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Bharat Ek Khoj deploys him mainly as a narrator, more like an architect who doesn’t necessarily have to throw himself into action. After Seth, if the show has any cornerstone, it is Om Puri, an old Shyam Benegal hand. He’s superb as Ashoka and Duryodhana. Puri, who died in 2017, blends himself into the well-written content so fully. He was indeed a rare beast: he had a commanding screen presence and yet, a highly natural and adaptable style of acting.

Benegal is no stranger to the period genre. He gave us Junoon, based on the 1857 uprising, Kalyug, which was a modern-day iteration on Mahabharata, and Trikal, a retelling of Goan history as remembered by its prodigal son (played by Naseeruddin Shah), returning to his ancestral home. Later on in his career, the filmmaker reevaluated Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s revolutionary life in a 2004 film of the same name. As showrunner, Bharat Ek Khoj remains one of his most ambitious projects till date. The show’s authenticity is as much attributable to its writers and historians, including the likes of Shama Zaidi, Sunil Shanbag, Vasant Dev, Irfan Habib, RS Sharma etc, who served as advisers.

Prisoners of Our Age

In a 1980 foreword to The Discovery of India, Indira Gandhi noted that her father’s first three books which also includes Glimpses of World History and An Autobiography “have been my companions through life.” The father-daughter had a lifelong exchange of letters in which Nehru’s intelligence, curiosity and empathy shines through. Glimpses of World History is a literary gift to “Indira Priyadarshani” on whom the father doted. He was naturally concerned about her future but also wanted to welcome her into the adult world with Glimpses of World History. The correspondence between the two started as early as 1930, when Indira was barely in her early teens. The letters are deeply personal in nature, as Nehru often pours his heart out. Later, Indira is said to have corrected the proofs for The Discovery of India. “Books fascinated Jawaharlal Nehru,” Indira wrote. “He sought out ideas. He was extraordinarily sensitive to literary beauty. In his writings, he aimed at describing his motives and appraisals as meticulously as possible.” Nehru decided to write The Discovery of India after travelling the length and breadth of India during the freedom movement. At rallies, he met villagers who chanted “Bharat Mata ki jai” without knowing its proper implications. What is Bharat Mata, Nehru wondered. “Mother India was essentially these millions of people, and victory to her meant victory to these people,” he concluded, an anecdote Benegal used in the first episode itself. Nehru was in awe of India, but there was something of an inner critic in him, too, which strove towards addressing the country’s faultlines and frailties. As he conceded, “India with all her infinite charm and variety began to grow upon me more and more.” Yet, he failed to understand what this vast country embodied. So he embarked on a literary voyage to find out.

Even though the man who led the independent nation into the modern world wrote that we are “prisoners of our age,” he equally saw India as an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie has been inscribed.” At one point, he makes another crucial observation: “A civilization decays much more from inner failure than from an external attack. It may fail because in a sense it has worked itself out and has nothing more to offer in a changing world, or because the people who represent it deteriorate in quality and can no longer support the burden worthily.” Besides such cautious assertions, Nehru’s book simultaneously celebrates and questions religion (generally, as well as his own atheist tendencies), metaphysics, philosophy, politics, society, colonialism, Marxism, the Upanishads, Greek versus Indian civilisation, China, the freedom struggle, our epics and our way of life. Today, Nehru’s legacy is a political football boasting more critics than admirers. Many in the Right consider Nehru’s reign as India’s lost years, and are now trying their best to undo that past. As India’s first prime minister, they feel Nehru was supplied with the once-in-a-lifetime chance for change in the great nation’s life. In hindsight, they suggest that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel whose Statue of Unity has become one of the tallest symbols of national politics in recent years was the best prime minister India never had. Maybe, Patel would have been a lesser evil. Or maybe not. Let’s leave that to academics and politicians. While over the decades Nehru’s leadership has come to be seen as more missed opportunities and a tragic failure of lofty ambitions, his writings show us a man who was sensitive, subtle and iconoclastic. He had spent much of his youth in and out of British prisons. As he himself joked later on in life, he wasn’t in jail often enough to write even more books!

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