Even before the 1960s, when young America doused itself in patchouli, lighted up the incense, meditated transcendentally, put on the Nehru jacket, saw “The Jungle Book” and sort of learned the meaning of the word “raga,” India played upon the Western imagination. As Michael Wood points out in “The Story of India,” a dazzling, six-hour BBC series that begins its U.S. run tonight on PBS, it is where Columbus was heading when he ran into a little something we like to call “America.”
Even with India now much in the disquieting news, and at the other end of the phone when a computer goes bad, it remains a faraway country. That is what Wood means to remedy, applying the sort of Big Look Back often applied to Western history -- the glory that was Rome and all that -- to a story both connected to and overwhelmingly independent of our own. As so often is the case -- Rudyard Kipling, Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi,” “The Jewel in the Crown” -- we’re looking at the nation through a British lens, but Wood, whose earlier “Great Railway Journeys” and “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great,” is an eager, even besotted guide. If at first he seems like just another Englishman abroad, and the kind of peripatetic narrator so often lampooned by Monty Python, it becomes clear that, though he’s an outsider, India means the world to him.
Although the series, which goes back to the very beginnings of human habitation on the subcontinent, is full of information -- Wood talks on camera or in voiceover pretty much the whole time, except when someone else is talking to him -- it registers mainly as a sensory experience. In the three hours available for preview, there is hardly a minute that isn’t gorgeous, in terms of camerawork or subject matter, to the point that it makes one’s own life seem quite drab.
It is a kind of epic of color and pattern, an ode to a country of a blue and an elephant-headed god, of painted temples, peacocks, flowers and habitual self-adornment: The gold the Indians got from ancient Rome for all the Indian things the ancient Romans couldn’t live without -- “We must be mad bankrupting ourself for India,” wrote Pliny -- they used not as currency but for decoration.
Still, facts get through. Without referring to my notes, I can tell you that what was to become India is where people first went when they walked out of Africa and that everyone in the world who is not purely of African descent has got a little Indian in them. And that however many outside peoples conquered India and however large a mark they made on its already diverse cultures, India was bigger than they were in the end.
And that southern seacoast Indians learned from ancient Roman shipbuilders how to make big, sturdy ships out of wood and that they are still making them today, by sight, without plans. And that Kama means “pleasure.” And that you can still sit where the Buddha sat when he had his great enlightenment, some 400 years before Jesus came along. (So this is where he’s supposed to have sat, says Wood. No, says his guide, this is where he sat.)
What is at the heart of the story for Wood is continuity and simultaneity -- that idea that classical India is alive in current India as part of an unbroken chain and that it exists alongside the modern state in something like amity. (There is nothing much about current political realities or social problems, at least in the first three episodes, which bring us only up to AD 300.)
He is intoxicated by the sights and the smells and the flavors of the place and by a sense of a life both riotous and ordered. Even discussing the caste system, he grows wide-eyed, pointing out to an untouchable whose family is in charge of cremation that, despite his lowly status, “everybody needs you.” The end of the first episode finds him in the midst of a crowd at a religious ritual, being showered in some kind of crushed pigment, turning color and looking like the happiest man on Earth.
‘The Story of India’
When: 9 and 10 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).