‘Mythology sets our moral positions, history just records events’

Among the many Television series that were aired on Doordarshan in the 1980s, Bharat Ek Khoj holds a special place. The series not only introduced Indians to their historic past but also its sheer cultural spread, across race, language, and ethnicities. Based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book Discovery of India; Bharat Ek Khoj was an iconic series that enthralled Indians for over a period of one year,  during  which it captured the shift of time from the Indus Valley Civilisation to Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom struggle.

The credit for Bharat Ek Khoj achieving such success largely lies with the extraordinary team of actors and technicians that was led by the celebrated director Shyam Benegal. Benegal at the time was a much celebrated name, especially in the art-film circuit (a term that he abhors). Renowned for his taut scripts and realistic story-telling, Benegal’s films were often like a mirror held up to the society, be it Nishant, ManthaSbenegal1n, Mandi or Kalyug. Little wonder, when Benegal decided to bring Nehru’s book to life, there was much expectation and hope that was associated with the series.

And he did not disappoint either. Debuting in 1988, Bharat Ek Khoj went on to become one of the most popular series on Doordarshan, in spite of facing stiff competition from the likes of Ramayana and Mahabharata aired around the same time. Over the 28 odd years later, the series is still referenced in many schools and colleges for its historical content, translated in different languages and so on.  In fact, Bharat Ek Khoj has even gone digital, as the episodes are a big draw on YouTube.  

What is the reason for the longevity of the serial? What makes Bharat Ek Khoj so special? What was the ethos behind its creation? These are part of the many queries posed by Shashwat DC when he met up with the director Shyam Benegal, discussing history, mythology and how the two come together or clash with each other

So, without much ado, here is Shyam Benegal journeying down the corridors of time, helping us discover the what’s and whys of Bharat Ek Khoj. Read on in the exclusive interaction:

What is mythology to you? And how did you integrate it in Bharat Ek Khoj, which was essentially a historical series?

In Bharat EK Khoj, we were looking at Indian history from essentially two point-of-view, one in terms of historical tonality of events and people, namely, what happened with politics of the time. We were very interested in the connection between history and our mythology, especially how we mythologize, and the motivation for it. Let me illustrate the connection with an example of Prithviraj Chauhan. Much of the aura around Prithviraj emanates from the Raso. But the epic poem Prithviraj Raso is actually a mythological rendition, it isn’t history. It is a great work of literature; it is also a great work of imagination. Historically speaking the real life Prithviraj Chauhan was a relatively minor king; his kingdom was around what is present day Delhi. The tragedy was that he lost the battle (second battle of Tarrain with Muhammad Ghori). Yet, to accept that the great hero actually lost is very difficult for people to accept. So you have a whole new persona of Prithviraj Chauhan emerges in the Raso; of a heroic and brave warrior. This is something that quite normal in our tradition. We tend to glorify our heroes and events often contrary to what happened in history.  (This is what mythology is all about.)

But then such deification is important in every society as one has to create heroes, even if there aren’t any in real life. We all need heroes to believe, and to be reassured, to take pride in…. There is a constant intermingling of history and mythology in every society and I am personally very interested in this connection between mythology and history.

But then Prithviraj Chauhan is a historical figure, what do you say about a religious one like Ram?

Mythology is important there too. If you look at Ram in real terms, his rejection of his wife is really terrible and sad. But then we mythologize, in order to draw and define a concept of morality. You delve deeper and you will find in the book, a story of archetypal sacrifice, story of a person willing to give up his personal happiness for the happiness of his people and so on.   . This is what mythology Bharat_ek_khoj_DVD_coverdoes for us. Mythology actually sets out our moral positions and standards. History is very different; it is the record of events. Thus, there is an essential difference between the ways you deal with history as against mythology. The connection between the two is very interesting.  This is why I made Bharat Ek Khoj in the first place.

How do you feel about the interplay of mythology and history, from complete ambivalence in the past to complete obsession with it now?

While it is our undeniable fact that mythology is something that we need as a society, all societies need them, but it should never be mistaken for history. Neither should mythology be manipulated to seem like history. Because if you look at the present-day scenario, we have certain vested interests that want us to believe that our mythology is actually our history. It is an approach designed to cater to certain sections of our society. This might be a way to create and strengthen our self-esteem. But then if you   are seeking a realistic view of history, you have to separate it from mythology.

But then mythology is also an emotional subject for us Indians, how can we deal with it?

It is certainly not easy to differentiate. You see, your faith and your belief are the motors that drive you. How can you not be emotional about it? But what is necessary is to place it in perspective. You or I may have a certain kind of faith or belief. I have to place that in perspective to the society I live in, because I have to live with other people, and I should not use my faith or beliefs to manipulate or dominate other people and their views.  That’s a lesson you learn from both history and mythology.

Talking of Bharat Ek Khoj, it was aired on Doordarshan in 1988-89, which was a very turbulent time for the nation, there were issues in the north, north-east, Punjab in turmoil and so on. In this context, how would you place Bharat Ek Khoj that essentially celebrated the diversity of the nation?

The journey to nationhood – succeeds when we celebrate the idea of unity irrespective of diversity — this is a long and difficult journeySbenegal5 one to make.  When you look at India, the sheer amount of diversity is mind-boggling, right from ethnicities, languages, religions and even nature which ranges from the glacial mountains and the temperate plains of the north to the lush landscapes of the tropical south. In a geographical space such as this, to be able see yourself as a nation, takes some doing. The spirit of nationhood often emerges in times of stress, like we saw during the 1965 and 1971 wars. Subsequent to these events, there were number of issues that arose across India, creating disharmony; demands based on ethnicity and language in many states.

With Bharat Ek Khoj, we were attempting to define a pan-India identity, a celebration of   Indianess, so to speak as   Fortunately, just prior to that series I had worked with Doordarshan on another series, called Yatra, in which we took the audience on two of the longest journeys you can take by train in India from Pathankot to Kanyakumari and from Jaisalmer to Dum Duma close to the border of Myanmar.  After this geographical exploration, the next step was to look at India through history – Bharat Ek Khoj was to try.  This enabled us to look at the cultural, ethnic, linguistic contours and the many cultures, we have nurtured in our country…

So, in that perspective, what made you choose Discovery of India?  It is not recognised as a great historical work?

It is not. But, among all the politicians of his time, Jawaharlal Nehru had an extraordinary awareness and understanding of history, not only Indian but also world history. In all, he wrote three books on history, the first two were not really books; they were collections of his letters written to his daughter during her growing years.  They came out of a concern for her education and upbringing as he was incarcerated and her mother was sick. He first started writing to her when she was about 8-9 years of age, later published with the title. Letters from a Father to his daughter.

Subsequently, as she was growing up, he started to write her letters on world history, which was then compiled into the book Glimpses of World History, which he edited later. On the eve of Independence, which was also his last stint in Ahmednagar Jail, he articulated his vision of India, which was the subject of his book, Sbenegal2Discovery of India. It encapsulates Nehru’s understanding of Indian history, the direction it took and the history of the movement for India’s freedom especially from the time Gandhi took the leadership of the freedom movement…  He had friends among some very eminent historians in Oxford and he had his writings vetted by them as he could not check his references in the jail he was lodged.  The great thing was that he never saw himself as a scholar, but rather a politician and a freedom fighter.

Bharat Ek Khoj was based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book Discovery of India. Now, Nehru penned the book with the objective to essentially to crystallise his own views of India, its past, present and future. He was not recording history as a historian probably would. His quest was to delve into the past with objective of finding the essential characteristics that makes us and to discover India; the country, the nation.  It is a book that celebrated the extraordinary diversity of India.  This is the reason I chose the book for my television series.

Did it follow the book closely?

No.  We took the liberty of taking a binary look at Indian History.  One was from the point of view of contemporary, historical scholars and the other from the point of view of Nehru himself.  We used the book as a springboard to discover our own country and nation. There are two voices; one voice is that of Om Puri, which is the voice of the historian. The other is that of Roshan Seth who plays Jawaharlal Nehru.  Occasionally there are often subtle differences of opinion between the two. There are times when Nehru says something on screen, and then Om Puri comes in with a view that is somewhat a different from what is spoken by Nehru.

We laid a great deal of emphasis on the historical aspect. I had altogether 15 historians as consultants for the different periods of history.  These are all extremely well known scholars in their domain. In addition, I had close to 30-35 researchers.  I was verySbenegal4 clear, that if I am going to do something like this, it should go beyond
contemporary controversies. Because the subject we were dealing with can be interpreted in many different ways.  And the closer we come to our own historical time, the worse it becomes. To give you an instance, one of the things that I was worried about was the depiction of Shivaji in Bharat Ek Khoj. You see, there are a couple of regional political parties who see Shivaji in a particular way and will not accept any other interpretation. The question was whether they would object to my representation. However, I was pleased no controversies took place on account of the historical representation… It was accepted across the spectrum and the reason for that is because we incorporated all the different views; some through the visuals, while others through the sound track.

How difficult was it for you to deal with controversial figures like Aurangzeb, whom your series showed as a jealous son who felt a great sense of deprivation?

Not really, don’t forget that before the British colonised the whole country, Aurangzeb’s India was the largest single geographical size it had ever been. It was bigger even than Ashoka’s India almost two thousand years before him. In his time, a large part of modern day Afghanistan was also a part of India his Indian Kingdom.

How did you personally chance upon Discovery of India?

When I was around 8-9 years old, I received ‘Letters from a Father to his Daughter’ as a birthday present. I was much impressed with it. And then, around my 14th birthday, I was presented ‘Glimpses of World History’. The book help develop an great deal of interest in world history and shaped my world view.  I read Discovery of India sometime after that.  So, I was familiar with Nehru’s writings right from my childhood. But let me share with you an interesting anecdote. Back in 1988, there were three TV series that Doordarshan had commissioned and had invited three film makers
Sbenegal6to create those programmes…  I was one of them. Ramanand Sagar chose Ramayana; the second was BR Chopra who chose to do Mahabharata.  I was personally very keen to do Mahabharata, but since Mr. Chopra had already taken it.   I was left with the book Discovery of India.  I was a bit apprehensive at the time because it was not a single narrative like Ramayana or Mahabharata and therefore presented a considerable number of challenges.

Bharat Ek Khoj was aired in 1988-89, Ramayana was aired in 1987, and Mahabharata was in 1988, so how was the interplay between complete mythological (and hugely popular) serials at that time and your series? Especially since, you even had episodes covering Ramayana and Mahabharata within Bharat Ek Khoj?

We were running parallel almost. Though to be fair, Chopra’s Mahabharata was a very secularised (for a want of better word) version of Mahabharata, which Ramanand Sagar’s wasn’t. Sagar’s Ramayana had things drawn from multiple sources, an amalgamation of several works including both the Valmiki and Tulsidas versions too.

What we were trying to do in Bharat Ek Khoj was to place these epics in a historical context – taking inspiration from the work of the great historian/anthropologist/intellectual DD Kosambi. 

The title track of Bharat Ek Khoj was based on the Nasadiya Sukta. How and why did you choose it?

According to me, Rig Veda is one of the most extraordinary creations of the human mind. In Nasadiya Sukta you have an extraordinary exploration of universe and of life itself.  God created the universe and life in it – does anyone know who created God and whence he came?

It is the spirit of enquiry that makes it unique.  It seemed appropriate for the TV series.

You had also assembled a very extraordinary team for Bharat Ek Khoj, right from technicians like cinematographer VK Murthy, Music Director Vanraj Bhatia, to actors like Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and other illustrious actors.

This was very important and played a very critical part in the success of the series. As I said, we were all passionate and committed to creating something that would be both unique and perennial. We were shooting every day for all of 18 months – we didn’t miss a single day. We were like driven people. In the mornings, I would leave my house at 7 am and return at 11 pm, at night, each day.  Being able to create the series was a reward in itself. I look back at Bharat Ek Khoj with a great deal of satisfaction.

Speaking of the team, you also had on-board one of the most renowned Sanskrit and Indian mythology scholar, Dr. Sadashiv Dange who was also the founder of the mythological course at the Mumbai University. How was your experience with him?

Professor Sadashiv Dange’s scholarship was really formidable. His 12079143_875246262553330_1919820204655494890_nknowledge was vast and his Sanskrit learning was immense. My team of writers, particularly Shama Zaidi along with Atul Tiwari consulted him frequently   particularly for the episodes on Ramayana and Mahabharata and also for the period of history what
we now call the golden age of Indian history from the Mauryas to the Gupta period. He also selected those exceptional Sanskrit hymns of the period for all the episodes of those epochs.  He was a very shy and reticent human being and wore his enormous scholarship very lightly.  It was wonderful to work with him. It is not very easy to find a person like him anymore.

Can you recall some high points from the series, some scene or episode that you still recall?

The long speech that Krishna delivers and the speech of Duryodhan who questions the legality of the Pandavas to rule, were by far the most compelling sequences – Krishna being played brilliantly by Salim Ghouse and Duryodhan played with finesse by Om Puri.

Finally, serials from those days are being done and redone again, like say Ramayana and Mahabharata; do you really think Bharat Ek Khoj can be remade, especially considering that it was one of the costliest serials of its time?

But then, Bharat Ek Khoj wasn’t really the costliest serial, made at the time.  The most expensive was Mahabharata. What is of significance is what we achieved in within the budget we had. Attempting to do something that we did in those days will probably cost at least ten times more today. Both actors and production costs Sbenegal3have become far more expensive now.    At the time we were making it, there was a great deal of dedication and passion in all of us:  we did not really look at it from a commercial angle, something that will make us money. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something like that.  I remember, when I finished the series someone asked me; how long do you think that the series would last. I had said that it would certainly last through my lifetime without anyone else wanting to do it again.