Out of the seven kinds of children a person may have, the only one that lasts is a poem." This was how Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya (1509-29), whose capital, Hampi in modern-day Karnataka, is a World Heritage Site, once summoned new work from his favourite poet Allasani Peddana. It is also perhaps a clue to how Sunil Khilnani sees his glorious accomplishment, Incarnations, 50 short biographies, or “Fifty Ideas of India" if you like, each in the manner of a poem, to tell India’s history over the past 2,500 years (50 times 50, as Srinivasa Ramanujan, 1887-1920, might have pointed out.)

Or you could see each of these 50 biographies, starting with Buddha (fifth century BC) and ending with Dhirubhai Ambani (1932-2002), as a Mughal miniature: a finely worked portrait of each personality that in a frozen moment reveals everything, internal and external, her/his impact on India and India’s impact on s/he. It’s not surprising, then, that these 50 most influential Indians are not just religious thinkers, political rulers, business pioneers or intellectual deities but also include writers, painters, poets and film-makers. It is a measure of Khilnani’s scholarship that he covers so much so authoritatively, yet with clarity and simplicity. Like a poem, or a painting.

Khilnani’s first book, The Idea Of India, came nearly 20 years ago, and it was so dazzling an exploration of the nation’s post-independence encounter with modernity that you thirsted for more. Over the years, there was little other than an occasional rumour that Khilnani was working on a book on our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—who, incidentally, does not figure in this collection. Perhaps Khilnani is still working on that book. But he does not disappoint with Incarnations, which is meant to accompany a BBC Radio series. At around 600 pages, it is not a slight book but it does present a gorgeous and generous collection of visuals—of paintings both medieval and modern, of film-set stills and film posters, of political personalities, of rock edicts, of ancient parchments, and even of jewellery.

The important thread running through these 50 biographies is that of dissent—he describes the verses of Kabir (1440-1518) as “woven into the long, rich, often-endangered tradition of dissent in Indian life"; he alternatively refers to it as the “imaginative struggles" against a “profoundly rigid society" and “conformity". Basically, Khilnani is saying that this aspect of India’s civilizational identity is under attack nowadays. Thus, the collection includes outliers you wouldn’t normally expect on this list.

There’s Malik Ambar (1548-1626), the Abyssinian slave who rose to be a kingmaker in a Deccan sultanate in Daulatabad; he so vexed the Mughals that emperor Jahangir had a miniature painted of himself shooting arrows at the severed head (impaled on a long spear) of Malik Ambar. Jahangir never defeated Malik, however. A society that racially jeers the West Indian cricket team or whose Mahatma had no time for the Zulus, prefers to forget this slave-ruler.

There’s Shah Jahan’s eldest son Dara Shikoh (1615-59), who presents a counterfactual to historians: What might have happened if he—the learned, liberal son whose translations introduced Arthur Schopenhauer to Sanskrit philosophy—had succeeded his father instead of his conservative warrior brother Aurangzeb, who nearly perished on the battlefield in May 1658? Khilnani, in his trademark quirky finale to each biography, posits that Dara Shikoh might have helped the Mughal empire collapse earlier; but even if he had been successful, “our minds would be narrower places today".

And while the inclusion of Jamsetji Tata (1839-1904) is not surprising, that of V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936) is, though pleasantly so. “Pillai was only one of the failures littering the long path towards a free India," Khilnani writes, adding that the story is important for many reasons, including the “ultimate disappointment of the Swadeshi movement". Simply put: Pillai wanted to wrest control of the seas from the colonial masters (perhaps inspired by ancient Tamil dominance of maritime commerce) and so challenged the British India Steam Navigation Company by setting up a steamer of his own in Tuticorin. The British thought him “seditious". They threw him in jail for four years, after which his end of the Swadeshi movement never recovered.

Of the rebels on whom there is a large corpus of writing, Khilnani paints refreshing miniatures. E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker aka Periyar (1879-1973), for instance, whose decisive moment was a visit to “Hindusim’s Brahminopolis—Benares", wanted his biography to include a photo of him visiting a nudist camp in Berlin, au naturel. About Gandhi (1869-1948), Khilnani says: “Unlike a Stalin or a Mao, who tried to change the imagination of their people by wielding state power, Gandhi used imagination to try to change the nature of power and the state." The fact of Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) aligning first with Nazi Germany, then with Imperial Japan and then on his way to doing so with the Soviet Union when his plane crashed, contributed in no small way to Nehru staying non-aligned after independence.

Some of the most sparkling parts, however, belong to artists who by definition are dissenters. The highlights include: M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), whose singing had a range of three octaves and who never went to her husband, instead going on to live with another man while besotted by a third; uber-woman and painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41), who “endowed successive generations of Indians with something scarce in the culture: an example of an autonomous, creative female"; and the Kannada Bhakti poets Basava (12th century), who inspired modern poets like Ted Hughes and A.K. Ramanujan.

Khilnani also does a thought experiment, linking the court battle over Section 377, which criminalizes homosexual sex, to Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), for whom the deepest human experience was love. He valued true human freedom above all, not some “all-pervading mental slavery" masked as national freedom. “Tagore’s sympathy extended to the imperfect," Khilnani writes. “He valued the living pluralities of Indian civilization more than the speculative idea of a tidied-up Indian nation." Khilnani quotes one of the lawyers arguing against Section 377: “...there is nothing intrinsically more powerful in the quest for freedom than being able to love who you want to." He asserts that Tagore would no doubt agree.

Incidentally, most of the academic specialists sourced by Khilnani in his research are Western. Obviously, their expertise does not fall into any agenda of current Indian politics (even if some ultra-nationalists were to disagree). Indeed, his doing so is an example of “positive Orientalism" and Khilnani makes it clear that he appreciates the contribution of Western scholarship to the awakening of modern India, and that he has no time for the negative “Orientalism" as defined by Edward Said and company.

This is a terrific book. Each biography runs into 10-13 pages, and though the prose is deceptively easy, you probably want to take your time as you savour the book, perhaps reading a piece daily. Or even reading and rereading it in this fashion for a long time to come. I know I will be placing a copy with each of my children so that they may know, in these anxiety-inducing times, what it truly means to be Indian.

Aditya Sinha is the co-author of former RAW chief A.S. Dulat’s memoir, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years.

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