Doordarshan today may not have the gloss and sheen of its private competitors, but some of the finest productions on Indian small screen which remain firmly and indelibly etched in people’s hearts and minds are from the stables of Doordarshan. The ones which are closest to my heart are Baldev Raj Chopra’s magnum opus Mahabharat and Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Chanakya, because they come straight from the hearts of the makers.
Of these, I must have watched the first one for at least 7 times now, and considering that it is a 96-episode series, with each episode running into approximately three-fourths of an hour, I could hope to set a world record if I continue watching it with the same passion that I have for the last 7 times.
As for Chanakya, I am watching it for the third time now. With every passing episode, I cannot help but marvel at the sheer passion, conviction, depth and sense of history with which the makers have depicted the life and times of one of the greatest patriots and political geniuses to have ever lived in world history. I am not at all surprised at the way I have responded to this serial because this seems to have been the very intention of the makers.
Chandraprakash Dwivedi, the director and the lead actor who plays the titular role, spent a good nine years researching on Chanakya before he submitted his script for Doordarshan’s consideration. As I watch the serial, it appears that not only did Dwivedi internalize the very essence of Chanakya, but went a step ahead to use Chanakya and the serial as a medium to express his own views on cultural pride, nationalism and national integration. Mind you, this serial was aired at a time when the Ramjanmabhoomi movement was slowly reaching a feverish pitch.
Those were the times when questions such as “Who is a conqueror?”, “Who is an Indian? What is his cultural identity?” were extremely relevant to the political discourse in India. Interestingly, the views expressed through the characters of Chanakya are refreshingly unequivocal, which if aired today would have been considered politically incorrect and deeply offensive to the “sentiments” of certain sections of the society (read media).
Sample this scene from the serial- when Alexander is on his way to India crushing every kingdom on the way, refugees from these conquered foreign lands seek entry into Takshashila, which was then deemed as Bharat’s border state and the first line of defense (this was around 326 B.C.).
The question of whether or not these foreigners must be sheltered in Takshashila, is debated in a public meeting. As usual, there are a few well-meaning bleeding hearts who cite Bharat’s tradition of offering shelter, solace and succour to the homeless to make a case for the entry and rehabilitation of refugees in Takshashila.
At this juncture, a lone citizen of Takshashila minces no words in expressing his dissent. What the character says to support his view, honestly, surprised me beyond measure in its relevance to issues besetting several of our States in the North-east. The character admits that Bharat’s tradition of welcoming the homeless with open arms is indeed a noble one; however, he says there is nothing remotely ennobling about endangering the integrity of the nation by letting those from foreign cultures settle in India, without thinking through the consequences of such a decision.
He argues that people from foreign cultures may be initially grateful for Bharat’s hospitality, but will ultimately remain true to their roots. This means, if they continue to retain their distinctive identity and ideology, which could be antithetical to the beliefs and values of Indians, it could pose an existential threat to Bharat’s way of life. Not just that, he says, although having knocked the doors of India for refuge, foreigners may not remain refugees forever, and at some point will demand to be treated as equal citizens of India, who have a legitimate territorial interest/claim. Simply put, a lebensraum-like situation could not be ruled out.
He further says that it may be possible that the ruling elite of Bharat or even erstwhile political masters of these “refugees” could choose to use these refugees-turned-citizens to further their own vested political interests. He concludes by saying that to err on the side of caution, it is best to provide security to the refugees and hold them at bay on the borders, instead of letting them in and ultimately paying the price with the nation’s honour and territorial integrity.
If these statements made by the character have even a scintilla of historical accuracy, my reaction would be- How Diabolically Prescient! If this was a fictionalized account, then I have to tip my hat to Dwivedi for making such a politically relevant statement through this character in an attempt to convey the message that history has several lessons for the discerning student of this indispensable branch of study.
In another scene, when Chanakya seeks to instil national and cultural pride in his students and citizens after Takshashila is annexed by Alexandar, he declares that no nation is defeated, even if it has been militarily conquered, so long as it continues to hold strongly to its cultural roots, and practices its cherished values instead of rendering them inapplicable by branding them as “ideals”. In other words, only when the conquered nation submits without resistance, to mental and cultural slavery, it is truly vanquished.
In yet another scene, when Chanakya along with Chandragupta Maurya is in the process of putting together a militia to resist the armies of the Greek satraps, he exhorts his students to convince the women, the mothers in the society, to dedicate their sons to the struggle against the invaders. He says that only a mother has the power to change the society because life and knowledge, both take seed in her womb. I have always believed that for any effective and lasting change in the society we live in, the surest way is to empower women and to instil cultural pride in them which can be passed on to their progeny.
One could go on and on about several such pearls of wisdom that this series has to offer not just for political analysts and observers, but for the politically disinclined layperson as well. Sadly, its re-runs on television haven’t found any takers; probably, because this serial is meant for those who recognize the power of the audio-visual medium to play the role of a potent catalyst in social transformation (early Dravidian politics put cinema and theatre to lethal and effective use to marshal support for its ideology, if at all it can be called one in the first place). For those who treat this medium as a mere source of mindless bilge which is dished out as entertainment, this series is bound to come across as boring and preachy (and maybe even “fascist” for the ill-informed and jaundiced viewer). But for the ardent lover and student of history, this series is one hell of a history lesson learnt from one who was a past-master at creating history.