Review of Bharat Ek Khoj Doordarshan television show


There was a time, not all that long ago, when Doordarshan was at the apex of Indian television, featuring the best shows of its time. Released in 1988, Bharat Ek Khoj is still one of the best Indian historical TV shows. In this article, a review of the show is provided. An attempt has been made to look at those aspects of the show which make it unique when seen in comparison with other shows of the same genre.

Bharat Ek Khoj was one of the most influential Indian TV shows of its time. At one level, it was a vehicle to further the government's agenda of promoting national integration in the midst of the troubled times in which it was produced. At another level, it was a tribute to one of the founding fathers of modern India. And at still another level, it was a tribute to India's past, often glorious, but at other times, not quite so.

The show was produced by the state-owned broadcaster, Doordarshan and Sahyadri films and directed by the very talented Shyam Benegal. The TV show ran for 53 episodes. These episodes ran for varying lengths of time, sometimes for an hour, but on most occasions exceeding that limit.

Ignoring the superficialities

The show attracted me personally, particularly because of my interest in history. I wanted to see how India's past was portrayed on a state-run TV channel in the late 80s. Besides this, I had read Nehru's 'The Discovery of India'. The book had fascinated me. Although it was not a 'conventional' history book, still it was quite amazing to understand what a person like Pandit Nehru thought about India.

When I watched the initial few episodes of Bharat Ek Khoj, I was somewhat disappointed. This was partly because of the fact that the initial few episodes failed to be as engaging as I had thought. Moreover, the show was not completely faithful to the original book, in several important aspects.

However, I soon realized that while Bharat Ek Khoj had several faults, these faults were superficial. Once we start to ignore the superficial elements and try to grasp the soul of the story, a new world of magic starts to open up before us.

The Story of India

The central theme of the show contains Nehru's attempts to understand what India actually is. What is that thread of continuity which has bound us together throughout the ages despite such a diverse population? Has that thread remained as strong as it was in the past or has it weakened during the passage of five millennia? 'India' as a political unit may have never existed prior to the modern age. However, beneath the diversity, there was that 'essential impress of oneness'.

The show starts its journey during the elections of 1936-37 (these elections were held under the Government of India act, 1935) when Nehru traveled all throughout India. He met various people and visited various regions. Although he viewed the physical exterior of the country in all its beauty and glory, he was still at a loss about the 'atma' or the soul of India. To understand this soul, he turns to a study of history.

This history begins nearly 5000 years ago, during the so-called Bronze Age in the Indus river valley. From there on we traverse through the ages, passing through the Vedic age, when the Indo-Aryans, new entrants into India, expressed their inquisitiveness, love for life and devotion to their gods in a beautiful, ornate language. We pass through the age of epics when stories powerful enough to capture the hearts of Indians for millennia were composed. The history of rise and fall of empires is also looked at. From Ashoka to Akbar, we look at some of the most remembered monarchs who ruled over India. Along the way, we also begin to experience how various people tried to understand the nature of the ultimate reality and also how various reformers tried to bring about social change in an otherwise insular society.

Genre

Nehru's original book was a strange mixture of history, philosophy, and personal beliefs and experiences. However, in the case of the television show, it would be more appropriate to call it a 'historical drama'.

A Vital Balance

What is most fascinating about the show is that it provides the most balanced view of history that is humanly possible. This was perhaps made easier by the fact that the show had several esteemed historians as consultants. Often when we look at historical TV shows, a sort of jingoism or even religious chauvinism seems to color the way the story is presented. In the case of Bharat Ek Khoj, however, there is nothing of that sort. This becomes particularly visible in the way Lord Rama's story is presented. While taking care to present Rama as an ideal monarch, the show also notes that Shudras like Shambhuk were not given their due dignity even in the Ram-Rajya [Ep. 04] and neither were forest communities and non-Aryan communities who were given the derogatory name of Rakshasa [Ep. 07, Ep. 08].

The story of Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya was also portrayed brilliantly [Ep. 11 and Ep. 12]. Certain TV shows seem to portray the ancient period as a rosy period. However, Bharat Ek Khoj also notes the struggles that went into making the initial empires and how morality was often sacrificed for earthly power.

An interesting aspect of the show is the use of Rigvedic hymns like the Nasadiya Sukta (the hymn of creation) to show the inquisitiveness of the Ancient Indians. Use of Amir Khusro's Qawwali 'Zihaal-e-Miskeen' in the original Persian-Hindavi and translated versions of the hymns of the Bhakti saints also lend a unique flavor to the show.

One of the most eye-catching features of the show was that folk songs and dances were used whenever possible to accompany the main show. This showed a determination to show the whole of India and not just some dominant traditions. The same determination is seen when stories about the South are given just as much importance as the stories about the North.

As expected, however, the North-east remains ignored, both in the original book as well as in the TV show. However, a brief mention of Kamrupa (modern-day Assam) is given in the 20th episode, where ancient Kamrupa's most remembered king, Kumar Bhaskarvarman is shown as a petty feudatory of Harshavardhana.

The Good and the Bad


In one aspect, however, the show stands above anything produced on Indian television so far. And that is the quality of the acting. Om Puri, of course, is the star of the show, with the role of the narrator as well as roles like that of Alauddin Khilji, Aurangzeb and Ashoka. The sheer variety of roles he has acted in over the course of the 53 episodes is simply mind-boggling. He has played the role of the Chola monarch, Rajaraja Chola [Ep. 22, Ep. 23], a Bengali Zamindar who led the peasants in the 'Indigo Revolt' [Ep. 44] and a 'Patel' Range Gowda who was one of the leaders of the Civil Disobedience Movement in 'Kanthapura' village. In each and every one of these roles, he shines through brilliantly. Ila Arun also appeared in numerous episodes in a wide variety of roles.

The show also saw Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, and Shabana Azmi, acting in a couple of episodes. What was striking is that even some of the lesser known actors like Roshan Seth, Ravi Jhankal and Pankaj Berry shine in their respective roles. Good direction alongside great acting has made this show memorable, even after all these years.

Another interesting aspect of the show is the somewhat unconventional portrayal of great events. This is particularly marked in the way the Civil Disobedience Movement was depicted [Ep. 49, Ep. 50]. Any other show would have been content with a documentary-like depiction of the event. In Bharat Ek Khoj, however, the focus shifts to the common people in an interior village. We learn about the way in which the Mahatma was seen by poor and illiterate villagers and the impact which the notion of Satyagraha had on the common folk. Excerpts from the novel, 'Kanthapura' by Rama Rao are used to depict the story of struggle.

Some amounts of shortcomings are bound to occur in any show. Certain episodes depict historical events in a textbook-like manner. On the other hand, there is also a certain amount of sloppiness in the way the Portuguese are shown as speaking in Hindi with a European accent. Verses from the Rigveda could also have been played in the original Sanskrit (with Hindi or English subtitles) to retain the original flavor. Nevertheless, these faults are only superficial. Deep down, it is still a great show.


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