In search of a Sufi saint on Radio 4’s Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

As we advance through the series, its cities and centuries sounding like some powerful exclamation, what is happening more subtly is a sense of the country cohering as a nation.

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Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
BBC Radio 4

A 50-part series exploring Indian history through 15-minute programmes ­(weekdays, 1.45pm) devoted to “phenomenal people from ancient to modern” started a couple of weeks ago and is limbering up into something essential. Presented by Professor Sunil Khilnani – accused by some readers of his books of praising Nehru excessively and of having a “leftist-colonialist” view of Indian history – Incarnations has an ambition that is (thus far) politically measured but (more pleasurably) whoppingly aurally intense.

We started with an episode on the Buddha (11 May). Khilnani walked along motorways past thorny bougainvillea to a temple tucked behind a scrapyard, talking smartly and making you wonder how the series was physically recorded – did a producer walk beside him with the microphone? If not, then who was holding the script? It is very obviously captured on the move and on location, in streets and markets, mixing music and rickshaws and cocks crowing and children racing around like spinning tops, but much of what Khilnani is saying is surely written down – it’s just slightly too contoured to be off-the-cuff, and yet it rarely sounds overshaped.

Thus far we have heard, among others, about the 15th-century rebel poet Kabir, about Guru Nanak and about Krishnadevaraya (the “self-doubting king”), but the episode on the 13th-century Sufi saint Amir Khusro (25 May) was particularly good. Beginning when “night is falling over a green and tranquil stretch of south Delhi, down byways and gullies to the medieval heart of the city”, we weaved to the saint’s tomb and heard singing and felt the potent energies of adoration, a head-lolling rawness, a roar of life. It also worked brilliantly as a travel programme (very little left on Radio 4 since the death of Excess Baggage, so embrace it).

As we advance through the series, its cities and centuries sounding like some powerful exclamation, what is happening more subtly is a sense of the country cohering as a nation. I would have thought this impossible – India being so wildly paradoxical, so culturally conservative and yet creatively ancient, so economically poor and yet entrepreneurially dynamic. Yet it is ­happening. Or maybe it’s just some voluptuous trick. Either way, count me in.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable