Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Lives and afterlives

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Column in Business Standard, March 25, 2016

All famous lives acquire complex afterlives: an encrustation of popular perception, self-serving ideology and folklore. It’s the job of the historian to sift the myth from reality, to give us the human dimension of historical figures, and a true sense of the time and place they inhabited. Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations: India in 50 Lives (Penguin; Rs 999) is a remarkably vivid and compelling example of the genre. From the Buddha to Dhirubhai Ambani, Akbar to Periyar, Mirabai to M S Subbulakshmi, a parade of kings and saints, poets and politicians, reformers and filmmakers are brought to life with all their vanities and vulnerabilities.

Many of the profiles carry echoes of current debates. Are Akbar and Dara Shikoh the secular poster boys of the Mughal empire that modern-day secularists make them? Not altogether. Akbar’s religious tolerance was driven by the need to legitimise power, and his adoption of a new religion in later years that included sun worship and fire rituals – curious practices for a devout Muslim – was an effort to invest his kingship with magical powers. Jahangir’s indulged heir apparent Dara, though a scholar and patron of Sanskrit literature, was also arrogant and bookishly self-centred; a dreamer rather than pragmatist, his succession was doomed by a poisoned sibling rivalry with Aurangzeb, a formidable general and administrator.
Mr Khilnani demystifies reformers and nationalists like Rammohan Roy and Gandhi through their personal contradictions and political stratagems. The early 19th century crusader against sati and founder of the Brahmo Samaj had a bad record with women: Rammohan Roy married thrice and had numerous affairs; he hated his mother, taking her to court over property “and she ended her years in retreat, sweeping temple floors”.

Gandhi’s planning of the Dandi salt march in 1930, as Khilnani tells it, is a master class in marketing and PR. He micro-managed the 24-day journey, vetting each of the 79 marchers, designing their uniforms and ensuring no one shared the limelight. (He alone carried a staff at the head.) He also courted the media assiduously, inviting photographers and filmmakers for the journey. “The jiggly footage they shot of Gandhi’s fast-paced walk – he quickened his stride at certain strategic points – was seen across the world.”

Mr Khilnani’s book started as a radio series. The 55-year-old author, who is director of the India Institute at King’s College, London, was commissioned by the BBC to travel to many of the places the historical figures are associated with, and record the programmes and podcasts. The model was Neil MacGregor’s bestselling A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which the director of the British Museum, chose artefacts from the museum’s vast collection to tell the story of civilisations. As in Mr MacGregor’s book-of-the-show, Mr Khilnani intercuts his accounts with comments by experts on each subject. For instance, James Laine, whose biography of Shivaji was burnt and banned in Maharashtra, explains the finer points of the Maratha ruler’s military and political strategy. Many chapters include rare and unusual images – a memorably irreverent choice is a photograph, circa 1937, of M S Subbulakshmi and T Balasaraswati posing with cigarettes in striped pyjama suits.

Mr Khilnani’s search for “a little more complexity and nuance” in 50 historical icons allows him a fresh take – and occasional take down – but also helps rescue some figures, either forgotten or out of fashion. Amrita Sher-Gil and M F Husain would seem obvious choices in the artists’ quota but he revives the reputation of Nainsukh, a little-known 18th century court painter to Balwant Singh, raja of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Guler. Other than the candour, intimacy and refinement of Nainsukh’s art what makes it unique is the “Instagram-like familiarity” of the relationship between patron and artist.

From the Nehruvian pantheon, Mr Khilnani restores two mavericks to their lost eminence. Annie Besant, the eccentric Englishwoman, delved into many causes, from occult theosophical practice to home rule for India, but another speciality was to groom South Indian boys for starring roles abroad. If J Krishnamurti was Besant’s chosen spiritual heir, V K Krishna Menon was her political successor.

In a colourful phrase Mr Khilnani describes Menon as “a full-tank drama queen”; his profile captures the man’s demonic energy as ace diplomat and international negotiator of the Cold War era as well as his failures. As defence minister he took the rap for India’s humiliating China war in 1962 that ruined his high-flying career and shattered Nehru.

“The lost treasure of Indian history is the voices of its women,” says Mr Khilnani in a recent interview. Only six feature on his list: perhaps for want of trying. Two that immediately spring to mind are the Empress Nurjahan, a powerful survivor and consummate taste-maker at court, responsible for the turning point in Mughal art and architecture. And the luminous Devika Rani, international star, studio owner and talent-spotter, rightly known as the “First Lady of Indian Cinema.”

Mr Khilnani admits his choice is designed to provoke but his idea “was the light old lives might shed on urgent issues of the present”. Incarnations is the textbook classic of how the past can illumine the present and future.

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