Saturday, January 10, 2015

Chanakya (TV) (1991-1992)

One of the most powerfully told TV series ever made in the history of television across world, Chanakya is a wonderful account of political intrigue: rich in political science, the series brims with the original Machiavelli, Vishnugupta Chanakya "Kautilya", a man who was not just one of the shrewdest political pundits of all times but also a man who was as true and as untouched by the dirtiness of politics as Gandhi himself. Set in the bedrock of Indian philosophy, all of which is as valid today as it was 350 years before Christ, the series provides insights into the intricate interlinking of philosophy, politics and ethics. A must watch for any student of politics, the series' power is such that it can even illuminate the art and the need of politics for those who remain indifferent to it, thinking that they or their lives are not affected by politics. With astonishing acting performances by most important actors, most notably for the roles of the young and adult Chanakya, King Dhananda, Shaktar, and Ambhi, a fine group of supporting performances, and a wonderful set of Sanskrit verses to finish each episode, and interspersed with brilliant discussions on the meaning of freedom, democracy, duties and nation, the slightly dated look that the series has is soon forgotten in the face of such splendid and well-performed content.

For Indophiles as well, the series is a greatly made detail of Indian history: and the teachings circumscribed are as valid and relevant today for any part of the world, especially for India, as then. The world may have come from arrows to missile heads: but politics remains the same, as do man's tact and strategy, as do man's greed and lust, and as do man's mental strength or the lack of it. The series does have its faults, some of them born out of obligations to an audience which was unused to television when it was first made and shown on TV and some from a limited budget: for example, except for certain scenes in one episode, where Greek is spoken, all other scenes with Macedonians are in English or Hindi; war scenes are shot on a very poor scale and with clumsiness; also, the cries of "har har Mahadev!" ("Glory to Shiva!") seem to be much more contemporary, and unnecessarily bring a religious overtone to a political and philosophical saga. "Maa Bharati" (Mother India) is also a concept that I doubt was valid in those times: while Chanakya's idea of a united land may very much be a fact, that he would say "Rise, Mother India" is much doubtful for me. However, these little details do not manage to tarnish much an honestly and skillfully made programme. While Chandragupta as the second most important character might lack some acting skill, it is not much felt because of a superior acting ability of Chandragupta's associates: in particular roles of Akshay and Sharangrav. It is no wonder that many of the actors who were at the beginning of their careers with Chanakya will later on become prominent actors in films and TV series of India. And for those who understand Hindi, the high-register language of Chanakya will be a delight to hear.

To understand India, and its repeated successes of uniting the land under one culture, Chanakya is a landmark series. While King Bharata might be part history, part mythology, the story of Chanakya and Chandragupta is fact, even if the details might vary from version to version: the current TV series is based on the ancient play Mudrarakshasa. The story of a man resolving to unite India under the aegis of one culture through politics will repeat itself many times in the course of history: one more Chandragupta will find the Gupta empire; then Harshvardhana will again unify the land bound by the Deccan while the Chalukyas and the Cholas will do the same south of it, and the Mughals under Akbar in particular will again come to perform that role: until British control will give the shape of a nation to India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. However, while these stories are prompted by selfish desires of power, Chanakya's story, the story of the founding of Maurya Empire, is a different story: that of a teacher par excellence, a political scientist who could act what he preached, who had to unify the country to save its ethics, its values, its culture, without a selfish motive, without any desire for power or riches: the story of Chanakya, a man who could be ruthless in his methods, but tender to an orphaned family's cries; a man who could live on begging for food, and yet could change the most powerful rulers of the world. It is the story of the Indian tradition: philosophers living what they preach, and not philosophizing for the sake of philosophizing, in stark contrast to the history of philosophy in the West.

The complete series, subtitled in English, is available on YouTube (as of the time of writing, there are a couple of episodes for which subtitles are missing). For those who did not know anything about Chanakya the man or Chanakya the TV series of the 1990s (first shown on Doordarshan, and later shown again on BBC), Episode 8 will give them a good foretaste of things to expect. For those who have trust in my words, Episode 1 is here.