The many lives of India

In his new BBC Radio 4 series, 
Sunil Khilnani will tell the story 
of India through 50 of its most interesting historical characters. He talks to Rob Attar about a number of the figures who made it onto the list and tackles some of the big questions of India’s past

Lion Capital of the Pillars of Ashoka from Sarnath. (iStock / Getty Images Plus)

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

You’ve said in the past that very few Indians from history are well known in the west. Why do you think that is?

I think it is partly because India has often been seen in terms of big collective groupings. We think of it as having religions, castes, languages and regional groups but we rarely think of the individuals that have made up India’s history. Then it is also partly because of the way Indian history has been told: it was initially the stories of dynasties such as the Mauryans or Mughals and, subsequently it has been social history and history from below which is also all about groups. I would say, as well, that in India there has been a very weak tradition of biography. It is very popular when it comes to British or American history, yet in India you often have celebratory hagiographies, but biography has never really developed.

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