In his new book Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Sunil Khilnani, historian and head of the India Institute at King’s College London, chronicles 2500 years of Indian history through the lives of 50 people. He interprets the lives of figures as varied as Buddha, Akbar, Jinnah, Raj Kapoor, Aryabhatta and MF Husain, among others, to see how their ideas and actions, words and experiences, shaped India as we know it today.

Originally commissioned as a podcast series by BBC Radio 4, Incarnations is now out as a book, complete with arresting images and intricate illustrations. Excerpts from an interview in which Khilnani talks about how he chose his 50 subjects, using podcasts to make history accessible and why Indian history has been unfair to its women:

You write in your introduction that the writing of Indian history has been “curiously unpeopled”. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think what you’ve seen in the development of history as a discipline in India, has been a very close connection with the social sciences. So you’ve seen the dominance of social history very much and, to some extent, political history. So biography as such has tended to be downplayed, except as hagiography – glorification of great individuals. There’s also been a coyness of individual lives and not wanting to explore them in an interesting way. So biography has been a rather inert form in the writing of Indian history. It’s not been an entry point into the past. Actually, I think it’s a very good entry point because, after all, it’s stories. and it’s stories about people in them. So it seems to me an obvious way to get people interested in history.

All the 50 people that you’ve written about had very complex and textured lives themselves. How did you balance the stories of their lives with the ideas they expounded for modern India through their actions?
That’s an interesting question because people don’t live their lives as an idea or a theory or a doctrine. I hope that I haven’t reduced their lives to a simple idea or a doctrine. I think I’ve tried, in each case, to show some of the complexity of their motivations – the fact that you can’t contain, often, quite a messy life within a simple meaning. In that sense, it’s quite different from talking about objects, where you can be much more, if you like, simplifying about their meaning. A life doesn’t have a meaning in the same way.

So the way I tried to do it was to bring out what I thought were the overriding or primary motivations that they had. What was it that they were reacting against? What was it that they were trying to do? So in a sense, looking at their ideas as a form of action almost, as a way of living their lives.

But having said that, and this is one of the meanings of the title, I did see many of the lives as being an incarnation of an idea or an argument, I hope, without doing too much distortion to the life. I did pick many of these lives because they captured or allowed me to explore one of the major fault lines in Indian history – whether it’s a conflicts of caste or gender or expressions of individuality. So in that sense I tried to balance the messiness of their lives and the clarity of what that might mean.

I read an interview where you said that the original list of people was 150. Who were some of the figures who didn’t make it to the final 50? In retrospect, is there anyone you think who should’ve been part of the book?
You’re right, I had well over 100 names and then I whittled it down. Now when I look at the list, I think I would’ve pretty much stuck with those. Even if I had to do this a second time, I’d pretty much come down to this list [of 50 names].

I mean, you could’ve had sportspersons in there. There could be more figures from popular culture. But getting the balance between covering the sweep of 2500 years… I mean, as it is many of them are bunched in the more current period of the last 200 years, and the bias that we have is to take figures of the recent past – also because there’s more material on them. If it [the project] had been bigger, perhaps lesser known figures might have made it in.

For example, from the 19th century I might have chosen Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. I might have chosen [Henry] Derozio, who’s another fascinating figure from Bengal. I might have chosen some other painters from the early period…

Two figures who I think should’ve been there was Dhyan Chand the hockey player and Jyoti Basu, the longest serving chief minister of West Bengal…
It’s interesting because in my original list I had EMS Namboodiripad [the first chief minister of Kerala]. I also had people like Angami Zapu Phizo [the Naga leader]. One absence I feel in the book is the north-east because, for the early period, the sources are very difficult to find or navigate. But yeah, one could’ve certainly had some badminton players. As you know, the characters had to be dead people but yeah, I could’ve chosen some people from the sports world.

The other notable absence is of women in the book – there are only six of them. Is this a reflection of how India has treated its women? Or mere coincidence?
I think every reader should be as outraged as I am at how few women there are in the book. I think there are real reasons for this and you’ve just touched on one of them, which is that what it shows is the enormous historical bias against records, documents and sources for women in earlier Indian history. Particularly, women who are not queens or empresses or princesses.

Once you look outside that realm, there’s very little documentation. You’ll find temple inscriptions in the south of women donors who gave gifts to temple. You’ll find some bits and pieces of poetry but actually, if you want to reconstruct a life, there’s very little. And for me in this book, the existence of sources was critical because, in the end, this is a book of history.

So instead of papering it over and pretending that I could tell the proper lives of women in the absence of sources, I would take those women about whom there were reliable sources, write in depth about them. But – and this I think is really important and my response to the reaction that there are only six women – I did not think that one could talk about issues relevant to women in the essays on women. I think that’s the mistake we make that we ghettoise the discussion about women to essays about them.

So the issues of gender, patriarchy, women’s rights and status run right through the book. Whether it’s the Buddha – his reluctance to bring women into the sangha [community of monks], which he finally did; whether it’s Mahavir and the divisions in Jainism about female monks; whether it’s Basava and his view about women; whether it’s Guru Nanak and the relationship with his sister and the egalitarianism of women. Obviously, Mirabai. Rammohun Roy and the issue of women. Tagore and women in love and the ability to choose…

So the issue of women runs right through the book. I have a very clear and robust answer to the idea that the book does not address the concerns of women. But I think it also wants to shine a spotlight on how poorly Indian history has served women. As I say in my essay on the Rani Jhansi, the great lost treasure of Indian history are the voices of its women.

The book busts a lot of myths surrounding these 50 people. I found that interesting because we live in a time when there’s a lot of mythmaking going on in India – around historical figures, a way of life and religion. As a historian, how do you view this?
There is this impulse to mythologise figures from history and, at the same time, there’s also iconoclasm towards other figures and I wanted to avoid both. I wanted to demythologise in order to rehumanise figures. But I also didn’t want to, for the sake of it, be iconoclastic.

So what I hope the essays do is to capture some real complexity and humanity of these figures and, in that way, to see their extraordinary achievement but also their limitations. In a sense, to make them recognisable to us as human beings, so we can see the way in which our motivations might have played out in that context, to understand their motivations in our context. It was to demythologise and remodernise but not to show that all of them had feet of clay.

Whereas today we’ve gone into that mode – either they’re all good or they’re all bad, they’re heroes or villains. That to me is cartoon history. That’s not real engagement with our past. It’s often motivated by political interests but it’s also fed by a lack of real knowledge about historical facts. As historians and scholars, we have a responsibility to contribute to public debate and, instead of complaining about how bad public debate is, it’s up to us to say “this is how it really was and if you’re willing to listen for a few minutes, you’ll see that it’s more complicated”.

In the chapter on Mohammad Ali Jinnah, you write about how “every dream of homogeneity stares at an infinite regress”. In the context of what’s happened in India over the last 18 months, do you think there’s an attempt being made to homogenise the country?
I think this dream of homogeneity goes back a long way in Indian history – back to the late nineteenth century. Much of the Indian twentieth century has been an argument between that and, if you like, the more plural conception of what India is. So I don’t see what is happening today as a radically new development. There’s a real historical depth to it.

I just think we’re in another phase of this long-running argument – between how we see the Indian past and, therefore, how we think about our future. One impulse is to see it as homogenous and to see it, in my view, more in the model of provincial nineteenthh century European nationalism – one culture, one religion, one ethnic group, one language and one ethnic race.

And the definition of Indian nationalism is radically different…
Exactly, very, very different. That’s what is distinctive about Indian nationalism – that it hasn’t conformed to the European nineteenth century model. I think there are some in India who have a prominent role in public life, who would like our conception of India and Indianness, to be aligned with that provincial European model. That’s the model that we need to decolonise ourselves from, in order to really accept what I think is the true Indian historical model of nationalism – the pluralist model.

Any discussion on aspects of Indian history – most recently, around the death of Subhash Chandra Bose or Sheldon Pollock heading the Murti Classic Library of India – tends to get very shrill and confrontational. Does that bother you?
Many of these lightening rod moments like these are symptomatic of other resentments and battles and struggles going on. One is this battle about who owns Indian culture. Who owns the Indian past? Who owns the historical figures of the Indian past? For me, that is not owned by any political party, an ideological narrative, it’s not owned by self-proclaimed custodians of Indian culture and civilisation. The Indian past is owned by all of us.

And by us, I don’t just mean Indian citizens. Anyone who has an interested engagement or knowledge, who’s taken the trouble to inform themselves about it, wherever you are – Tahiti, Vladivostok, or Timbuktu. Indian culture and civilisation is a universal good just as Egyptian culture is a universal good. It belongs to anyone who wants to know about it. For us in India, we have a particular responsibility and a reason to know about it. What my book is trying to say is “let’s inform ourselves and let’s have whatever arguments you want about it”.

Incarnations has been compared to Neil Macgregor’s History of the World in a 100 objects. Was that work an influence on you while you worked on this project?
What Neil Macgregor did with that project was remarkable in that he really did find, I think, an exciting and new way of telling us complex stories about world history. I think anyone who’s interested in bringing the complexity of history to a broader audience has to acknowledge what that Macgregor project did. It did change the way we can think about how to bring history and, broadly, cultural knowledge to a wider audience.

When the BBC approached me to do a history of India for a broader audience, I think that was one model they might have liked to use, but for me, it was much more interesting to tell it through individual lives. And I think this is where the difference comes in.

First of all he had the British Museum as the defined reservoir of sources. But the big difference is that objects don’t talk back. Objects don’t have these kind of messy motivations so in a sense you can talk about an object: it’s much more contained. It’s much harder to define a life in the same way – it doesn’t have a colour or a shape or a texture or a density or angularity in the same way [as a life does]. In that sense, it was a very different project to try and get inside the minds and historical moments of the individual as opposed to telling the story of an object in its use.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this project is the intersection of technology and history. We live in a time when it’s often said that those who were born after the advent of the Internet might not necessarily know what preceded them. Could you talk a bit about using the podcast to make history more accessible to a wider audience?
It’s a question I have tried to grapple with because we live, as you are suggesting, when the book has often been written off, that we’re moving into a post-book age. I think the podcast and the book are two different formats doing two different kinds of things. But it was very important for me to find the technology that we have available to see if one could tell nuanced and complicated stories in a very accessible way. I think podcasts and radio are a wonderful way to do that and, for me, even better than video and film.

A number of people have said to me that this should’ve been a film or a documentary and I think not, because there’s a way in which the visual image can dominate and you have to build around a visual image. Whereas in this way I could use words to evoke a place or a time; I think it’s a much richer form.

But I think using this combination of the immediacy of being in locations and places, using specially composed music, having interviews from scholars from across the world, having my script and the BBC production… it was a complicated technical project. The idea was can we use this, not just to do something simple but to do something that has sophistication and can work for different audiences.

I was pleasantly surprised to find VK Krishna Menon as one of the subjects in the book because he’s a much loathed figure in independent India. How did you come to choose him?
I think that was one of the reasons why I chose him. I thought let’s take a figure whose reputation is, in a sense, at its nadir. What interested in me is the depth of feeling he evoked – even today in India, let alone during his lifetime in the West.

More significantly, he was a way for me to tell the story about India’s place in the world in the second half of the twentieth century. When you look at the Krishna Menon story, it’s an extraordinary one. This is a man with severe psychological and mental troubles – disabilities in many ways. He was clinically unwell and yet, at the same time, he was a remarkably intelligent, acute, analytical mind with amazing persuasive powers.

So I was interested in how we could see him in a different light instead of the usual picture of a plotting villain who got India into the mess of China and so on, to see how someone who, with the disabilities he had, was able to do what he did. Again, to see him as a human being rather than a political cipher. To say that even with disabilities like that, people can actually do a hell of a lot to our public life.

A review of Incarnations said that dissent is a running theme throughout the book. Was that something that played on your mind while writing the book?
I don’t think it was on my mind when I made the selection. But as I worked through these figures, I came to see increasingly the extent to which so many of them were reacting and responding and critiquing the social circumstances from which they came and engaging with the social order.

At the end of it, having written the book and looking back on it, I see not a neat procession of venerable old men and women leading us to the nation. But I see this rabble of angry young women and men who were arguing, fighting and pushing their way forward and I do think that’s true of how they were. We have this retrospective veneer of veneration that we put on these figures.

Take a figure like Guru Nanak whom we see as this pious sage. He was an angry young guy, dressing in unusual clothes, with extraordinary ideas about egalitarianism and women, with strange ideas of food. We should be able to recognise ourselves in them and themselves in us.

We always talk about India being a young nation and these were young at one time. And these were not just angry but also very creative young figures. What I found is that much of their anger comes out of personal experience but they’re able to generalise their personal experience into a social critique. It doesn’t remain at the level of indulgence or solipsism. It becomes a social critique for change.

Aayush Soni is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Follow him here on Twitter.