The Forum



A world of ideas


  • Rabindranath Tagore: The Bard of Bengal

    Rabindranath Tagore: The Bard of Bengal

    08/04/2021 Duración: 39min

    So prodigious was the polymath Rabindranath Tagore, there’s a saying in Bengal that one lifetime is not enough to consume all of his work. Poet, playwright, thinker, activist, educator, social reformer, composer, artist… the list of his talents is long. Today his name is known all over India and Bangladesh; children recite his poetry at school and his legacy lives on in many different ways. When he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore was feted for a time by American and European literary figures who saw in him someone who embodied Western preconceptions of a mystic Oriental sage. As a result of his newfound fame outside India, Tagore travelled widely and exchanged ideas with many celebrated world leaders and thinkers from Einstein to Gandhi. Today Tagore’s thoughts on education and his stance vis-à-vis the natural world and our relationship to the environment are seen as remarkably forward-looking. Rajan Datar is joined by Kathleen O’Connell, retired lecturer

  • Pauline Viardot: 19th-Century diva

    Pauline Viardot: 19th-Century diva

    01/04/2021 Duración: 38min

    While the name of Pauline Viardot may be unfamiliar to many, in her lifetime she was one of the most celebrated performers in Europe. Her interpretation of Orpheus in a revival of Gluck’s opera made the writer Charles Dickens weep, and the novelist George Sand said that whenever she heard Pauline Viardot sing, nothing else mattered. In addition to her vocal talents, Pauline Viardot dazzled in high society. She knew almost everybody who came to define 19th Century European culture, thanks to the regular salon she held with her husband in their Parisian townhouse. Acclaimed poets, musicians, composers, artists and even royalty would come to take tea, listen to music, network, perform and share ideas. Alas there are no recordings of her magnificent voice, even though her later years coincided with the beginning of the recording industry. But today Pauline Viardot’s legacy is being rediscovered as a composer, with works that were performed at her salons reaching new audiences. Bridget Kendall is joined by Hilar

  • The One Thousand and One Nights

    The One Thousand and One Nights

    25/03/2021 Duración: 40min

    The One Thousand and One Nights are a collection of fantastical stories of flying carpets, magic and genies whose ancient origins go back to the 7th century or earlier. The tales are told by Scheherazade who uses the power of storytelling night after night to stop her Sultan husband from beheading her. These highly influential stories were brought to the West in the 18th century, when more tales like Aladdin and Ali Baba were said to have been added by the French translator, and it has continued to evolve over the centuries. Rajan Datar and guests explore why these stories became so popular around the world and what they mean to us today. Joining Rajan is Wen Chin Ouyang, Professor of Arabic at SOAS in London; Dr Sandra Naddaff, senior lecturer in Comparative Literature at Harvard University; and the Iranian TV producer Shabnam Rezaei. [Photo: Sand Sculpture depicting 1001 Nights of Sheherazade. Credit: Getty Images]

  • Adventures with dentures: The story of dentistry

    Adventures with dentures: The story of dentistry

    18/03/2021 Duración: 39min

    Until the eighteenth century there were no professional dentists. The only way to deal with a serious case of toothache was to call on the services of blacksmiths, travelling showmen or so-called barber-surgeons, all of whom had a sideline in tooth extraction. But in 1728, French physician Pierre Fauchard published the first complete scientific description of dentistry and he is credited as being “the father of modern dentistry”. His book, Le Chirurgien Dentiste or The Surgeon Dentist, was translated into several languages. Joining Rajan Datar to discuss the painful and sometimes gruesome history of humans and their teeth are Dr. Scott Swank of the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, US; Rachel Bairsto, Head of Museum Services at the British Dental Association and Professor Dominik Gross of RWTH Aachen University in Germany. [Image: Detail from Tearer of Teeth or The Tooth Puller by David Ryjckaert III (1612-1661). Credit: David Dyjckaert III / Buyenlarge / Getty Images]

  • BR Ambedkar: The Dalit hero of India

    BR Ambedkar: The Dalit hero of India

    11/03/2021 Duración: 39min

    Educate, Agitate, Organise. This was the motto of the Indian scholar BR Ambedkar who led an extraordinary life of activism and achievement. It put him in conflict with many other political forces in his native country, such as the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi. In India itself, Ambedkar's legacy is widely respected but in other countries he is not so well known. And yet, Ambedkar was not only a leading intellectual of his day, brilliant orator, lawyer, successful politician and an unmatched champion of those suffering the harshest discrimination: he was also someone who rose from a Dalit background to being put in charge of writing the first constitution of independent India. The Dalits are the lowest of the low in the Indian social hierarchy, often considered as being below the lowest caste. To tell Ambedkar's story Rajan Datar is joined by three distinguished Ambedkar scholars: Sunil Khilnani, professor of politics and history at Ashoka University and author of Incarnations: India in Fifty Li

  • Making waves: the history of swimming

    Making waves: the history of swimming

    04/03/2021 Duración: 40min

    Common to many cultures across the world, swimming appears on the surface to be a benign leisure activity. But in fact it has much to tell us about such things as the development of societies, our bodies and minds, and our relationship to our ancestors and the natural world. For the Ancient Greeks and Romans, swimming was essential for instilling discipline, as a necessary skill for warriors, and to promote wellbeing. In West Africa where water had spiritual significance, communities there placed great importance on learning to swim from an early age. Their aquatic skills surprised the early colonialists, who then targeted divers to help them plunder shipwrecks when they were trafficked to the New World. Today however African American children are almost six times more likely to drown than their white counterparts as a consequence of historic racial segregation, according to research by the US Centers for Disease Control. Rajan Datar is joined Professor Kevin Dawson from the University of California Merced,

  • Abraham Maslow’s psychology of human needs

    Abraham Maslow’s psychology of human needs

    25/02/2021 Duración: 39min

    Many students of psychology, business, nursing and other disciplines are taught about "Maslow's pyramid of human needs", a diagram that shows a progression from our basic needs, such as food and shelter, to higher, social needs and, eventually, to striving for often intangible life goals and fulfilment. The pyramid is an iconic image, yet Abraham Maslow, a leading humanistic psychologist of the 20th century, didn't actually create it. Moreover, his writings are much more sophisticated and perceptive than the diagram suggests. So where did this confusion come from and why didn't Maslow disown the pyramid? How should we understand Maslow's hierarchy of human needs? Why has it proved so useful in so many different disciplines? And in what way is it relevant to how we live today? These are some of the questions that Bridget Kendall explores with Jessica Grogan from University of Texas at Austin, author of Encountering America, a history of humanistic psychology; David Baker, emeritus professor of psychology and

  • The Kalevala: the Finnish epic that inspired a nation

    The Kalevala: the Finnish epic that inspired a nation

    18/02/2021 Duración: 39min

    When the Kalevala was published in 1835, Finland had a distinct cultural and linguistic identity but it had always been part of either the Swedish or the Russian empire. Neither did Finland have much of a literary tradition, but as the 19th-century progressed the Kalevala took on a symbolic role as the representation of a Finnish identity that fed into the movement for Finnish independence. Rooted in the folk culture of the Karelia region, a travelling doctor shaped the song texts into a story in a way which is still being debated today. Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss how the Kalevala underscored the search for Finnish national identity are Dr Niina Hämäläinen, executive director of the Kalevala Society in Helsinki; Professor Tom DuBois from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the author of Finnish Folk Poetry and the Kalevala; and the award-winning British musician, playwright and storyteller, Nick Hennessey. Produced by Fiona Clampin for the BBC World Service. [Image: The Defense of the Sampo, 1

  • Sister Juana, a great mind of Mexico

    Sister Juana, a great mind of Mexico

    11/02/2021 Duración: 39min

    Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz is celebrated today as one of the finest poets in the history of Mexico. She was not just a creative and intellectual force but also a campaigner for women’s education and someone not afraid to challenge male hypocrisy. The colonial 17th-century society in which she lived was very patriarchal so, not surprisingly, her views brought her into conflict with the men in power. Rajan Datar looks at key episodes in Sister Juana’s life and examines the passion and ingenuity in her poetry and plays with the help of Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Professor at University of California Los Angeles and a writer whose novels include Sor Juana’s Second Dream; Dr. Amy Fuller, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, specialist in early modern Spain and Mexico and author of Between Two Worlds, a monograph on Sister Juana's plays; and Rosa Perelmuter, Professor of Romance Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The reader is Pepa Duarte. [Image: A painting of Sister Juana by the M

  • Mermaids: Tales from the deep

    Mermaids: Tales from the deep

    04/02/2021 Duración: 38min

    We delve into the watery depths of sea creature folklore, with a round-the-world tour of different variations on the concept of mermaids – from the Sirens of Greek mythology to the Selkies or Seal Folk of Scottish legend, and water spirits known as Mami Water, which are venerated in parts of Africa and the Americas. Not forgetting the famous fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, which has captivated the imagination ever since its publication in 1837 and was popularised by Disney in the 1980s. Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss what these ancient stories can tell us are Cristina Bacchilega of the University of Hawaii, co-editor of The Penguin Book of Mermaids; British writer, Marcelle Mateki Akita, who has written a book for children called Fatama and Mami Wata's Secret; and Lynn Barbour, founder and Arts Director of the Orkney Folklore and Storytelling Centre in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Produced by Jo Impey for the BBC World Service. [Image: Detail from Fisherman and Mermaids in the Blue Grotto on Capri b

  • Eleusinian Mysteries: Secret ceremonies promising happiness

    Eleusinian Mysteries: Secret ceremonies promising happiness

    28/01/2021 Duración: 39min

    In ancient Greece, thousands of people flocked each year to join the religious rites known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Based on the cult of the goddess of fertility Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the Mysteries were for many a profoundly moving and life-changing experience. People from all over the Greek world and beyond travelled to Eleusis for at least 800 years and the ceremonies remained a highlight of the Athenian calendar throughout that time. But what really went on in the great hall of the sanctuary at Eleusis? Why did the organisers deem it necessary to issue a strict injunction against divulging what actually took place - and what happened to some of those who broke that rule? These are some of the questions Bridget Kendall discusses with Christy Constantakopoulou, professor in ancient history and classics at Birkbeck College, London; Esther Eidinow, professor of ancient history at Bristol University; Dr. Philippe Michel Matthey who lectures about ancient religions at Geneva University; and

  • Toussaint L’Ouverture: Hero of the Haitian slave rebellion

    Toussaint L’Ouverture: Hero of the Haitian slave rebellion

    21/01/2021 Duración: 39min

    Late 18th-Century Saint Domingue in the Caribbean – now known as Haiti – was one of the richest countries in the world. Known as ‘the pearl of the Antilles’, its wealth was built almost entirely on slavery. Around half a million enslaved Africans were transported to the French colony to work on the sugar plantations. Toussaint L’Ouverture was destined to see out his days within this brutal system, but his skills as a negotiator and communicator saw him rise to the forefront of the resistance movement on the island. A wily and charismatic operator, he galvanised his fellow countrymen and women to lead history’s first and only successful slave uprising. Diverging from French colonial rule brought him to the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who sent a large fleet to re-establish slavery on Saint Domingue. The expedition ended with Toussaint’s capture and exile to France, where he died in a cold prison cell in 1803. But his generals meanwhile carried on the struggle to uphold Toussaint’s opposition to slave

  • Olympe de Gouges: France’s forgotten revolutionary heroine

    Olympe de Gouges: France’s forgotten revolutionary heroine

    14/01/2021 Duración: 40min

    She fought to give women the right to divorce and campaigned on behalf of children born out of wedlock. But in late 18th century France, her radical thinking proved too much for her contemporaries in the French revolution. She insisted women should be allowed to speak out, and she was executed at the guillotine for doing just that. For nearly two centuries her story was largely forgotten, until she was championed by modern-day French feminists, who called for her to be given pride of place in the pantheon of France’s national heroes. Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss the life of the French political activist and playwright Olympe de Gouges are: French philosopher of feminist thought, Geneviève Fraisse; Professor Catriona Seth of the University of Oxford; and British-French playwright and translator, Clarissa Palmer. Produced by Jo Impey for the BBC World Service. Image: Portrait of Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) by Anonymous Image credit: Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

  • Alexandre Yersin and the race to fight the plague

    Alexandre Yersin and the race to fight the plague

    07/01/2021 Duración: 39min

    When Alexandre Yersin discovered one of the most lethal bacteria in human history, the tiny bacillus of the plague that over the centuries had killed tens of millions of people, he earned his place in the history books. Working in a straw hut in Hong Kong, armed with just a microscope, Yersin’s methodical mind worked out within just a few days where in human body to look for the plague bacteria. A much bigger and better-equipped Japanese team, competing with Yersin, came away empty-handed. So who was Alexandre Yersin? Why did this pioneering Swiss scientist spend most of his life in Vietnam? And why did it take decades fully to credit Yersin with the discovery of the microorganism that now bears his name, Yersinia pestis? These are some of the questions Bridget Kendall discusses with film director Stephane Kleeb, who made a documentary about Yersin; Professor Maxime Schwartz, medical historian and former director of the Pasteur Institute in France; and Dr. Mary Augusta Brazelton from Cambridge University who

  • Famous hats in history

    Famous hats in history

    31/12/2020 Duración: 39min

    There have been so many, probably hundreds, different styles and types of hat in history that a question inevitably arises: why? Why did something that began as a simple protection against inclement weather take on such varied forms and social meanings? Bridget Kendall and guests explore not just how hats were made, and by whom, but also how their function has evolved over centuries and across cultures. By focusing on just five distinct hat types, they sketch out a brief social history of headwear. Bridget is joined by Dr. Drake Stutesman, an adjunct professor at New York University, and the author of the book Hat: Origins, Language, Style; Dr. Ulinka Rublack, professor of Early Modern European History at Cambridge University with a particular interest in Renaissance fashion; and Dr. Kirill Babaev, a cultural anthropologist and writer from the Russian Academy of Sciences and founder of the World of Hat museum in Riga, Latvia. [Image: Model Carre Otis wearing a wide-brimmed black straw hat with a print of

  • Mugham: the sound of Azerbaijan

    Mugham: the sound of Azerbaijan

    24/12/2020 Duración: 39min

    Azerbaijan’s strategic location along the old Silk Road and its wealth of natural resources has made it a prime target for warring empires over centuries. The conquests and the invasions by Turkic and Persian peoples find echoes in the traditional art music of Azerbaijan known as mugham. The influence of the Russian and then Soviet empire also brought change for mugham, the effects of which are still debated today. Mugham is characterised by a large degree of improvisation, but musicians learn for years from mugham masters to acquire the skills which allow them to extemporise within a strict framework. It’s no surprise to learn that in the 20th century, mugham fused with that other great improvisatory music – jazz. With the help of musical examples, Rajan Datar and guests will explore how mugham works and the instruments such as the tar and the kamancha that give this music its unique sound. Joining Rajan will be ethnomusicologist and tar player Dr Polina Dessiatnitchenko who’s writing a book on mugham i

  • The Kingdom of Aksum: Africas trading empire

    The Kingdom of Aksum: Africa's trading empire

    17/12/2020 Duración: 39min

    At its height, the Aksumite Empire extended across the northern Ethiopian and Eritrean highlands, and even included parts of Sudan, Somalia and modern-day Yemen. From the first century BC to the seventh or eighth centuries AD it was one of the most important trading hubs in north-east Africa. It was also one of the earliest states in the world to adopt Christianity. In fact the Persian prophet Mani named the Aksumite Empire as one of the “four great kingdoms on Earth” together with Persia, Rome and China. But despite its power and reputation, we’re only now beginning to understand more about the lives of the people who lived there. Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss the Aksumite Empire and its legacy are Helina Solomon Woldekiros, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri; Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tennessee; and Dr. Niall Finneran, Reader in Historical Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Wincheste

  • Umm Kulthum: Egypt’s singing superstar

    Umm Kulthum: Egypt’s singing superstar

    10/12/2020 Duración: 39min

    Umm Kulthum’s powerful voice and talent for communicating poetry was spotted early, when she accompanied her family to perform at weddings and special occasions. It wasn’t long before she was performing in the elite salons of early 20th-century Cairo, although her father dressed her as a boy to protect her from any unwelcome interactions with strangers. In the Egyptian capital she quickly associated herself with the most talented musicians of the day, and from then on she never looked back. She explored the major Arabic song forms of the period, collaborating with composers and poets. She dabbled in film, negotiated record deals, and when public service broadcasting began in the 1930s, she secured herself a monthly slot on national radio. In awe of her talent and mesmerising presence, the Arab world practically came to a standstill whenever she was heard on the airwaves. Joining Bridget Kendall to explore Umm Kulthum’s life are Virginia Danielson, author of The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and

  • Alexandre Dumas: The man behind the Musketeers

    Alexandre Dumas: The man behind the Musketeers

    03/12/2020 Duración: 39min

    The word 'swashbuckling' is often used to describe the novels of Alexandre Dumas the Elder, the creator of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo and the Man in the Iron Mask. But Dumas himself led a life as colourful as many of his gallery of rogues, villains and heroes. Having grown up in poverty, he found employment in the household of a future king of France. He was prolific on the page and pretty active away from it. At first with a series of highly successful plays and then with serialised novels, his production house churned out hundreds of thousands of pages of gripping narrative. He had pet projects like building a mansion and theatre, he had countless mistresses and he frequently found himself in legal disputes and on the run from debt collectors. In the 150th anniversary year of Dumas’ death Rajan Datar explores the writer's life and work with Claudie Bernard, professor of French Literature, Thought and Culture at New York University; Daniel Desormeaux, professor of Arts a

  • Unlocking the mysteries of cuneiform tablets

    Unlocking the mysteries of cuneiform tablets

    26/11/2020 Duración: 36min

    Cuneiform is an ancient writing system distinguished by wedge-shaped marks made into clay. It developed over 5,000 years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia. At its height it was used to write languages across the ancient Middle East, from Iran to Syria to Anatolia in Turkey. But cuneiform writing fell out of use about 2,000 years ago in favour of alphabetic scripts. When scholars in the 19th century finally managed to redecipher it, they discovered fascinating insights into the culture and rituals of people living in the ancient Middle East, unlocking texts that have changed our understanding of history, including The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Code of Hammurabi and The Amarna Letters of Ancient Egypt. And cuneiform has even seen something of a revival in modern-day Iraqi visual culture. Joining Rajan Datar to discuss cuneiform script are Professor Eleanor Robson of University College London, Dr Mark Weeden of SOAS, University of London and Ahmed Naji, author of 'Under The Palm Trees: Modern Iraqi Art with Mohamed Maki

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