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Indian History Comes To PBS Tonight

January 5, 2009

There have been many positive reviews from around the country concerning the 6-hour series on Indian history that begins tonight on PBS.  It is this type of programming that makes TV worthwhile.  And once again it is PBS that brings it into our living room. 

The nation of India is a rich and fascinating place, and so I use this post to promote a show that I think will be worth your time tonight, and in the following weeks.

This is not a documentary about the modern India of call centers and terrorist attacks and nuclear tensions. The first two hours, which were available for review, don’t even take the story into the A.D. years. They finish with Ashoka, the bloodthirsty emperor who renounced violence before the end of his reign in 232 B.C. According to the press notes, the narrative will essentially end in 1947 with the partition of India and Pakistan, with a brief glance at India’s history since then.

But Mr. Wood’s method is to teach history on location, with a maximum of travel and conversation — in the first two hours he and his cameras span thousands of miles, from Kerala in southern India to Calcutta, Delhi, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Iraq — and a minimum of explanatory graphics or talking heads other than his own. (He also doesn’t use recreations, though he has found an ingenious substitute: excerpts from Indian films like “Asoka” and “Lagaan.”)

Contemporary India is constantly on screen, in images that are sometimes clichéd but often enough astonishing: the shots of a once-every-12-years festival in which a 60-foot statue of a Jain saint is anointed with showers of milk, saffron, turmeric, coins and flowers are otherworldly.

The colorful scenes in city and country, at temples and schools and archaeological sites, go flooding past, and it’s not always that clear what we’re looking at. But Mr. Wood has an awful lot of ground to cover: the first two hours alone start with the human migration from Africa into southern India 50,000 years ago and continue through the ancient civilizations of the Indus and Ganges valleys, the Mahabharata, the Buddha, Alexander the Great and the Mauryan empire. He can be excused for some compression, and lauded for exposing Americans to a cultural and religious history of which they know almost nothing.

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