Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

By Prof Sunil Khilnani

On Going since May 2015 • Updated weekly

Over the course of 50 episodes, Sunil Khilnani, director of the King's India Institute in London, takes listeners on a whirlwind journey from ancient India to the 21st century through the prism of the life stories of 50 remarkable individuals. He will also explore their surprising afterlives, which illuminate both the astonishments and urgent conflicts of India today.

He begins with the Buddha, exploring the story of his life and how he has been reinvented in modern India by those who oppose the caste system. "Buddha's solution to suffering lay in the individual mind. But he was also sketching a new form of society," says Professor Khilnani. "He was a moral meritocrat, and to an extent a social one too."

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  Direct Link   Download 0 Minutes 26 May 2015

Today's subject is the low-caste weaver and poet who dared to upturn the social orthodoxies of 15th century India - and who still challenges us today. Sunil explores the life and poetic legacy of Kabir - a dissenter, a provoker and an abrasive debunker of humbug. There are plenty of legends around the poet - for example that, after his death, his body transfigured into flowers so that he could be neither cremated by his Hindu followers s nor buried by Muslim devotees - but we actually know very little about Kabir's life. One of the few certain facts is that he lived in India's most sacred city, Varanasi. Sunil Khilnani finds himself in the poor neighbourhood of Bajardhia where low-caste Muslims still work today as weavers. Sitting in cramped rooms among men with little work, Sunil reflects on the man who described himself as 'a patient weaver's son' but who is actually one of the most impatient, acerbic, fed-up voices in the Indian cultural canon. Kabir has become venerated across northern India as a saint, almost a god. Yet Sunil finds Kabir's name being invoked in secular circles too, for example the annual Jaipur Literary Festival, a 21st century haven for independent thinking. Here he meets the eminent poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, translator of Kabir's poems into modern idiom and an advocate for the poetic dissenter who wasn't afraid to offend the powerful. Producer: Jeremy Grange Original music composed by Talvin Singh.. . .