The TV serial of the late 1980s is now available as a video series. Although its message of self-reliance is a bit dated, it still is a useful mix of science, history and social development.
HOWEVER imperfect a TV series on the history of science and technology in the subcontinent, it should have a life beyond its one-time telecast. When Bharat ki Chaap (Identity of India) finally made its debut on Doordarshan in 1989, after about four years of preparatory work, the demand for video copies was instant from students, teachers (science popularisers) and librarians. Or so its makers say, in the preface of a newly published companion book on the series, which has been issued now in an attractively packaged, cassette form. The companion volume, also titled Bharat ki Chaap, attempts to incorporate ideas and fragments of research that could not be fitted into the serial. The whole package costs Rs 3,000.
What is notable about the series is the attempt made to integrate science, history and society in the narrative. Thus, the second episode on the Stone Age moves from rhetorical questions regarding prehistoric people to present-day reality in Bastar, where a woman may use a plastic bag to gather roots for the family meal -- which still includes ants -- and also use tools made from stone for a variety of household chores. It moves on then to how stone age people evolved and addresses itself to the question: What is science? Is it not the art of living and eating? Isn't it an understanding and harnessing of nature? It deals also with the evolution of human beings from the hunting and gathering stage, to farming and the discovery of fire and then the evolution of pottery. It takes in the preparing of a wazwaan feast in a Kashmiri village and present-day rituals that hark back to the discovery of agriculture 7,000 years ago.
The Stone Age is a relatively simple concept to transfer to television. Other episodes tackle far more difficult subjects, such as the contents of the Charaka and Susruta texts in ayurveda; the rise of urbanism; the discoveries of the astronomer Aryabhat and the periods of growth and stagnation when new scientific ideas emerged.
The format adopted to convey many abstract concepts is explained in the introductory cassette. It consists of two anchor persons and five reporters -- young men and women who visit locations relevant to the subject, pose questions, trace links and, sometimes, break into a song. The reporters function along the lines of a Greek chorus, narrating the legend and posing questions.
The freedom movement is examined to see how it inspired scientists of that era -- P C Ray, Meghnath Saha and C V Raman. At the same time, the narrator pauses to explain the Raman effect. Then, when it moves towards the present, post-Independence development dilemmas are examined. Are big dams the best answer to providing electricity and irrigation? Did the Green Revolution actually promote self-reliance? What patterns of development can have more equitable benefits? How have women fared in independent India?
Inevitably each episode of Bharat ki Chaap carries a heavy burden of information: discoveries, trends, developments. The episodes bear discussing and repeated watching, and despite its dense, excessively verbal style, it has considerable merit as an educational tool. However, as each episode is not self-contained, this is a disadvantage at times for someone who has missed the first, introductory cassette.
This TV series and book was made possible with the support from the National Council for Science and Technology Communication. Both are pegged at a level that high school students can comprehend.
Bharat ki Chaap's closing message concerns the importance of self-reliance. It sounds a bit anachronistic, however, in the current climate, when foreign investment, foreign technology and foreign markets are being wooed.
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