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Crowds of people walk across a village with cries of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ reverberating as Jawaharlal Nehru takes the stage. Stationing himself in front of the mic, he asks, “What do you mean by that cry, who was this ‘Bharat Mata’, whose victory do you want?”

This was just one of the heavy-duty, vital topics addressed every Sunday at 11 am on Doordarshan in Shyam Benegal’s monumental series, Bharat Ek Khoj.

Aired between 1988-89, the 53-episode long series, with each episode spanning anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes depending on the topic being covered, brought to life the 5,000 year-old history of India and the subcontinent in perhaps the most consolidated manner possible. The ambitious project wasn’t simply a deconstruction of history, but a confluence of its many cultures.

Based on Nehru’s book, The Discovery of India, which he wrote while in prison at the Ahmednagar fort for participating in the Quit India movement, the show was an attempt to bring to life what Nehru wrote while also bridging the gaps in between.

“I developed two viewpoints — one is that of Nehru (narrated by Roshan Seth) and the other is a counter viewpoint (narrated by Om Puri), which is a contemporary voice that fills blanks or brings in different perspectives,” Benegal said in an interview with Prasar Bharti.


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From Indus Valley to Independence

Beginning from the Harappan Civilisation, the show is an epic sweep that covers aspects of Indian history such as the formation of caste, the reign of Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya and then Ashoka, the rise of the Mughal empire and its descent at the hands of Maratha ruler, Shivaji, the arrival of the British East India Company and the freedom struggle.

It has several episodes dedicated to southern India such as the history of the Chola empire, and it also shines a spotlight on some of India’s major literary mythological epics, such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Cilappatikaram and Shakuntala.

It took more than 500 actors (including Naseerudin Shah, Shabana Azmi, the late Om Puri and Irrfan, Roshan Seth, Ila Arun and many more), 25 writers headed by Shama Zaidi, 144 sets whose designs spanned several centuries, three-and-a-half years of meticulous research by 22 historians with the help of many government institutions, including the Archeological Society of India, and roughly 20 months of shooting.


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History made interesting

For many children of the ’80s, the show was a great source of history and perhaps a more interesting way to learn and understand a subject that is typically considered boring. So it was no surprise that when the government decided to rerun old Doordarshan shows like Ramayan and Byomkesh Bakshi during the coronavirus-induced nationwide lockdown, Bharat Ek Khoj was also in high demand.

Deepa Srivastav, who runs her own boutique, tells ThePrint, “My childhood was enriched with these episodes. I learnt a lot about history and fell in love with it. The show was very well written, documented and wonderfully depicted.”

Many from that generation even complain about how quality of Indian television has nosedived into melodramatic daily soaps with no substance. Daljit Singh, an entrepreneur, reminisces, “Those were the days when such top-class serials were made and shown on Doordarshan. Now only regressive serials are being made by incompetent people whose only aim is to earn money.”


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The many characters that made Bharat

Benegal was bold in his portrayal of many characters such as that of Duryodhan and even Allaudin Khilji. Both are figures that have generally been portrayed as greedy, jealous and beyond redemption, but Puri’s portrayal of both (many actors played different roles in different episodes) was in a more humane and sympathetic light.

It’s hard to imagine that now, given that any historical character’s portrayal on screen is now fodder for political points, but Benegal didn’t face any problems. “I didn’t face any political pressure of any sort. There was no constraint of any kind, there was no particular line I was supposed to take,” Benegal said as he believed he was exploring India’s history in the most dispassionate and fair manner possible. Even Naseerudin Shah as Shivaji was perhaps the most balanced representation of the Maratha ruler.

While an enormous amount of effort was put in by Benegal and co. in ensuring accuracy and authenticity, there were gaping holes in the trajectory the show followed. Benegal’s choice to not even address the contribution of BR Ambedkar in the formation of India, for example, reflected that while there was a counter-narrative in Om Puri’s voice, the show remained Nehruvian in its telling.

Bharat Ek Khoj was ahead of its time in its level of production and is perhaps one of Benegal’s best works as a director and writer. But if someone were to remake it in the 21st century, Benegal said, it is essential for them to be “mad”. At a time when India is grappling with issues of citizenship and what it means to be Indian, a look at the diversity that this show spanned might be just what the doctor ordered.

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12 Comments Share Your Views

12 COMMENTS

  1. BeK, startes with Aryan Invasion theory (AIT), which was falsely propogated by Western historians endorsed by Indian leftists historians to please their Boss’s.AIT is now logically and scientifically disapproved theory and the Harappa civilisation is effectively proven that it is sindhu saraswati civilisation. Dated much much older than what was propogated falsely by Western world blindly followed by pseudo historian and their boss.Re telecast of BeK will only mean that telling wrong history again to new generation, this will be a crime true nationalist will not do.

    Jai hind!

  2. Best ever show,the direction the content,the acting everything was surreal!! I got interested in history due to this show in school days.

  3. Some stupid fanatics have shown their ignorance & hate for Nehru in their comments here. ‘With brute force Indians were forced to see’ says one fool. What made them not to switch off their TV then ? Did any ‘brute force’ keep it On ? Others call it fake & farce ! No need to argue with such Fools whose Indriyas are selectively closed & only accept Nagpur views ! As somebody commented, yes, this Govt., – Forget Telecasting this again – would have got the copies as well as the Master Copy of this epic – at DD Archives -Destroyed for sure by now !

  4. I am watching the shyam benegal’s bhart Ek khoj but I have doubt regarding the authenticity of medieval history shown in the show. Out of 22 historians working under shyam benegal, Irfan Habib was incharge of medieval history and I have serious doubts that he would have added his own views and bias in the script.

  5. Some stupid fanatics have shown their ignorance & hate for Nehru in their comments here. ‘With brute force Indians were forced to see’ says one fool. What made them not to switch off their TV then ? Did any ‘brute force’ keep it On ? Others call it fake & farce ! No need to argue with such Fools whose Indriyas are selectively closed & only accept Nagpur views ! As somebody commented, yes, this Govt., – Forget Telecasting this again – would have got the copies as well as the Master Copy of this epic – at DD Archives -Destroyed for sure by now !

  6. I was always taught in school that at first, Columbus tried to deliver India but reached America. Thereafter, Vasco de gama tried and succeeded to discover India. But to my surprise, it appear that actually this gentleman discovered India without ever proceeding on such a Voyage like Columbus or Vasco.
    Surprising……Very surprising.

  7. I don’t know how many people watched this farce then.. I don’t know how many people will watch it now..

  8. Nehru could not understand correct history of India. What he has written was based on history by bias historians. Nehru has not done any really research on history. With brute force Indian were forced to see such bogus history. We should get now correct history since manupulated history is exposed by the real historians.

    • Some stupid fanatics have shown their ignorance & hate for Nehru in their comments here. ‘With brute force Indians were forced to see’ says one fool. What made them not to switch off their TV then ? Did any ‘brute force’ keep it On ? Others call it fake & farce ! No need to argue with such Fools whose Indriyas are selectively closed & only accept Nagpur views ! As somebody commented, yes, this Govt., – Forget Telecasting this again – would have got the copies as well as the Master Copy of this epic – at DD Archives -Destroyed for sure by now !

  9. “Discovery of India” Fake History by Nehru, tried to malign Ancient Indian culture. Totally rubbish.

  10. During lockdown Mythological drama was infused in the minds of those hooked to TV and it was fact that govt was not intrested in retelecasting Bharat Ek Khoj because it har voice of Nehru which they dont want present generation to hear.

  11. Shyam Benegal’s Discovery of India added the flavour of our multi- culturism and art forms in an aesthetic and unifying, secular way. I loved the series for that, you know, like for example narrating the Shivaji – Aurangzeb episode through a drama written in our times and so on. It was authentic and of a high professional standard. His defining work I’d say.

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