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Where EAST meets the Northwest

GOLDEN HARVEST. "The Story of India," a new six-hour miniseries, chronicles the history of India from 50,000 B.C.E. to the present. It airs Mondays, January 5 through January 19, from 9:00 to 11:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting. (Photo courtesy of Maya Vision International)

From The Asian Reporter, V18, #51 (December 23, 2008), page 15.

Miniseries attempts comprehensive history of India

By Allison Rupp

Only India has preserved the unbroken thread of the human story," states British historian Michael Wood at the beginning of the ambitious new miniseries "The Story of India."

This lofty statement sets the stage for the series’ six-hour attempt to chronicle the entire history of the Indian people from 50,000 B.C.E. to the present — an effort that seems scattered as it races between ideas and regions, but overall is carried by the sheer enthusiasm of its narrator and overwhelmingly colorful footage.

"Beginnings"

The first episode of the three provided for advanced screening, entitled "Beginnings," opens with a clan of Brahmin priests deep in the woods of Southern India eerily incanting sounds passed down over thousands of years. Though the sounds have no meaning and cannot be written, they have pattern and rhythm and are actually based on birdsong, Wood states as behind him the clansmen’s eyes roll back into their heads as part of the ritual.

From this dramatic introduction to the episode, which spans 50,000 B.C.E. to 1,000 B.C.E., Wood shoots up India’s coast into Pakistan. Here, in the town of Harappa in 3,500 B.C.E., lived a massive kingdom of 200,000 Indus people, whose eventual migration to the southeastern area today known as India was probably caused by climate change.

As the surroundings shift rapidly from the Indian tropics to the rich khakis and browns of Pakistan to the monochromatic desert of Turkmenistan, the viewer can sense Wood’s excitement for the varied environments and stories he encounters.

When the first episode ends back in colorful India, with our narrator dancing in a festival for Krishna and being sprayed with red, blue, and green dye, his contagious enthusiasm leaves us wanting more.

"The Power of Ideas"

The second episode, "The Power of Ideas," spans a comparatively shorter period of ancient history from 500 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E. It begins with Wood leaving Delhi after a terrorist bombing on a train station — a reminder (as was November’s attack on Mumbai) of the conflict and pain that can result from the clashing of powerful ideas and beliefs.

Wood starts by exploring Varanasi, a sacred city and great center of Hinduism which the series will return to in subsequent episodes, to learn the business of lighting funeral pyres for the dead.

From here, he examines the life and teachings of Buddha, from his beginnings as a pleasure-seeking prince to his lowly death in Kushinagar, which the Buddha described as "a small place."

After a brief, extraneous jaunt to Northern Iraq to discuss Alexander the Great’s Persian campaign with the head of British forces in Iraq, the narrator returns to the ideas that shaped ancient Indian history, including emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s search for moksha, the Buddhist concept of liberation through knowledge.

The mood at the end of this period of time, at least, is hopeful as leaders such as Ashoka the Cruel convert to ruling by reason and morality rather than by religion.

"Spice Routes & Silk Roads"

In episode three, "Spice Routes & Silk Roads," Wood takes the viewer on a tour of the exotic exports for which India became renowned between 200 B.C.E. and 300 C.E. — and still is today.

As the narrator samples prawns, fish, and vegetables from steaming vats in the night markets of Kerala, he rues the absence of ancient delicacies such as whole flamingo and pepper-stuffed dormouse, and examines the intricate silks produced in Tamil Nadu. One can nearly taste and touch everything the camera passes over.

Later he travels back to Pakistan, this time to track down and drink soma, an herbal beverage renowned for centuries for its power to induce visions among kings and ordinary men alike.

And finally, Wood examines the ways the Kushan empire fostered art and medicine throughout India during a peaceful period lasting more than two centuries.

The Kushans memorized and passed down the descriptions and uses of various medicines in the form of poetry, layering history with beauty — a tactic one can’t help but notice in "The Story of India."

"Ages of Gold," "The Meeting of Two Oceans," and "Freedom" round out the series.

"Ages of Gold" seeks out the amazing achievements of India’s golden age between 300 to 1000 C.E., "The Meeting of Two Oceans" tells the story of the coming of Islam to the Indian subcontinent, culminating in the Moghul Empire, and "Freedom" covers the time of the British occupation of India — the Raj — and India’s struggle for freedom.

"The Story of India" airs Mondays, January 5 through January 19, from 9:00 to 11:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting. To verify showtimes, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www. opb.org>. To learn more, visit <www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia>.