“Scoop a spade through the soil beneath your feet and you could reveal eye-popping, fantastical proofs of creatures that existed a hundred, thousand, million or even a billion years before you.”
So begins the introduction to the first episode of Desi Stones and Bones , a podcast by journalist Anupama Chandrasekaran that is excavating stories of archaeological and palaeontological finds and of the intrepid people behind the discoveries.
In one episode, Desi Stones and Bones introduces listeners to archaeologists who are experimenting with stone age tools to understand the dates of human migration to India. In another, it focuses on moonlighting palaeontologists who have found dinosaur egg fossils in Madhya Pradesh.
Chandrasekaran describes the podcast as “a road to an education about geology, archaeology and palaeontology” through her travels and conversations with antiquity and fossil hunters. “The listener gets to eavesdrop on my discussions and experiences,” she said.
Chandrasekaran always had an interest in audio stories. Growing up in Thane, Maharashtra, she and her elder sister would often spend their summer vacations filling empty tapes on a Panasonic recorder, which their father had given them. “We would interview each other, [and] I even have a tape of...my 80-year-old grandmother, [in which] she is singing, her voice breaking at certain points.”
This fascination deepened after 2014, the year she quit Reuters to take a break. During this time, she was listening to a lot of podcasts, including NPR’s Planet Money, which explains financial and economic matters “without being pedantic”.
In another happy coincidence, after leaving her full-time job, she met Pranay Lal, the author of a notable book on the natural history of the Indian subcontinent. “His enthusiasm for the stories in the field of palaeontology and geology was infectious.” Their meeting rekindled in her a long-held curiosity for geology and she began closely engaging with the subject. “As a print journalist, I had not previously come across these stories: they just blew me away and stayed in my mind,” she said. “It was then [that] it occurred to me that these were ultimately the stories I wanted to hear and felt that they needed to be told.”
By this time, Chandrasekaran had already begun tinkering with podcasting through a venture called The Recordist. “I didn’t have any particular focus on the kind of stories I wanted to do [with The Recordist],” she said. “I just produced audio stories that interested me in a variety of areas.” Lal’s story was the first published as part of The Recordist in early 2018. But once she had a better idea of the direction of her podcasts, the interview with Lal made up the first episode of Desi Stones and Bones, which was uploaded on SoundCloud in February.
The presentation of Desi Stones and Bones is important to Chandrasekaran. “I want to weave the environment into the story, incorporating the sighs and the giggles, the dog barking or the footsteps.” Her website, which hosts the podcasts, features Chandrasekaran’s illustrations, photographs and writings. “When you’re an independent journalist, you’re really just experimenting with how to tell a story,” she said. “I was also intent on telling things as aesthetically as possible.”
Chandrasekaran has uploaded three episodes so far – each about 20 minutes long – and there are three more in the pipeline. Each podcast takes her about a month to produce, she says. This includes travelling, interviewing, recording and documenting, before eventually mixing it up with music and commentary.
She describes the archaeologists who invest their time and often their money to make these invaluable discoveries as the “true adventurers”. “I don’t know if it is a case of plenty or apathy,” she said of the archaeology scene in India. “There is a wealth of finds, but there is inadequate supervision regarding excavations and attention paid to the finds afterwards.”
In 2018, as part of a National Geographic workshop conducted by journalist Paul Salopek, she visited the Chembarambakkam lake bed, 30 km outside Chennai. A secondary burial site, containing terracotta pots filled with ashes as well as stone tools, had been discovered and studied in the area in the 19th century by British archaeologist Robert Foote. “I was accompanying a geologist who was returning after more than a year,” said Chandrasekaran. “We arrived to see that access to the site was cut off, and houses were built all around it. There was a place, where you could see the incredible delineation of soil types, [yet] it was being mined for sand [and was] garbage-ridden.”
Many prehistoric sites are close to cities and hold enormous potential to generate revenue from tourism, if properly and carefully monitored, says Chandrasekaran. During her visit to Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, she came across rock art that had been recently discovered by a local archaeologist. It was located upon a mesa, and the experience of travelling uphill to eventually reach the flatland, which was scattered with pebbles and ravines, stayed with her. “Lots of these rocks had diamonds, and gypsies live around here as their forefathers helped mine them,” she said. “You can build walking paths and arrange for historical tours as a way to engage with these places.”
Chandrasekaran is hopeful that as more of her podcasts go online, they will serve as a crash course in the subcontinent’s prehistory and natural history. “I am aware that there are different learners – some prefer to read a lot of text, while others like to listen and learn,” she said. “I have so many uncut interviews with archaeological legends, which could be a mine of treasures for a student wanting to learn about them years later.”
All photos courtesy Anupama Chandrasekaran.