A year ago, Sruthin Lal discovered that his alma mater in Kavumthara village in Kerala was a mere 100 yards away from a 932 AD inscription about one of the earliest Chera kings, Kota Kota Perumal. Later, when historian Manu Pillai visited Kozhikode, the 32-year-old journalist and researcher took him to show the prized legacy of his village.
Manu Pillaireading the inscriptionin Kavumthara village in Kerala| Photo Credit:Special arrangement
“Had an amazing day yesterday, hopping from one temple to another around Kozhikode with @sruthinlal, tracing their distinct histories (and stories), the transformations of their gods and legends, and simply staring in awe at some of these shrines,” Pillai later tweeted. And just like that, what was village lore or information privy to academia was suddenly in the public domain accessible to millions of netizens.
Meanwhile, over 2,500 kilometres away, in Delhi, Sam Dalrymple (@travelsofsamwise) posted: “People are often surprised to learn that over 100 Mughal era mandirs survive in Old Delhi. Over the next few days, we will be sharing a handful of these with you…” Beginning in May 2022, as East Delhi was wracked by bouts of communal violence, he and historian Rana Safvi discovered and detailed dozens of temples that appear to be hidden in plain sight. The photographs were colourful and the stories, backed up by scholarly evidence, were even more so. There was a subliminal message about the syncretic culture of India that remained intact during the Muslim rule in India. It was saying boo to divisive WhatsApp messages that were stoking the riots.
Ghanteshwar Mahadev Sivalaya (#MughalEraMandir no. 1), built under the rule of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar| Photo Credit:@travelsofsamwise
It is this mixing of memories, memes, and reality that is creating tactile engagement with history for a different generation of users.
Shifting debate with micro-histories
The legacy of the late R.V. Smith in Delhi and S. Muthiah in Chennai or the ongoing work of Rahul Mehrotra in Mumbai and V. Sriram in Chennai has helped frame the history of these cities. Now, the mantle is moving to youngsters who are sharing and unravelling an Indian history that goes beyond binaries and biases. “Youngsters bring high levels of enthusiasm… and I am happy about the dissemination of information that is happening now,” says Sriram, who began conducting heritage walks in 1999 and has been instrumental in exploring little-known tales about Madras that is now Chennai. “They are phenomenal with technology and a lot of areas lend themselves to be photographed.”
Watch | How young Instagrammers in India are using social mediato give history context
Using the sensory rich medium of Instagram, young Indians are combating textual misinformation with tangible evidence. Instead of a single photograph or long, convoluted explanations, they are repositing history as they capture it with their cameras and phones. And their images and messages are drawing more and more young people to heritage sites and sending them to libraries. In a nation largely in love with myths and stories and not facts, these social media users are shifting the debate on micro-histories.
“I think Instagram is a great medium for history storytelling. There is so much to learn from the audience as well,” says Sam, whose travel to research his book, Five Partitions: The Making of Modern Asia, set the stage for his account. When he is not going through archives or clicking photographs bringing forgotten stories to life, author-historian William Dalrymple’s son is currently working on his next book.
Correcting the lens
Kozhikode-based Lal decided to start ARPO (Archival and Research Project @arpo.in) last year to document the history of Kerala beyond the limited tropes of caste, coconuts and cheena vala (Chinese fishing nets).
Seetha Satheesh, the first female Thirayattam performer | Photo Credit:@arpo.in
“People in Kerala know more about South America and Russia than their own state as there is not a lot of academic research on the region. Even the simple fact about a place where Vasco da Gama landed is not correct in government documents,” he says. Recently, when he posted a quiz about the exact place where the Portuguese navigator landed in 1498, it elicited only two correct responses: Panthalayani Kollam. The majority of the respondents thought it was Kappad.
He sees historiography as an exercise of neglect or glorification. But “youngsters are coming to the subject without preconceived notions. They are open to learning factual history. They are consuming the information without judgement,” says Lal, who is currently working on a project with school children in Kasaragod and Malappuram, recording folk and tribal songs on their phones and sharing it with his team to create a digital repository. Called LoreKeepers, it aims to preserve cultural memories.
A clip from LoreKeepers| Photo Credit:@arpo.in
Another popular account is Karwaan Heritage (@karwaanheritage), a student-led history collective founded by Eshan Sharma, 22, a history student at Dyal Singh College, in 2019. What began as a “rebellion against confining history to classrooms” soon grew into heritage walks around Delhi and a strong community on Instagram. “There is a big gap between academic history and WhatsApp history — fake narratives that often divide communities,” he says, explaining how the page picked up over the lockdowns when they hosted Instagram Live sessions with historians. “Instagram is a visual platform and gives us the avenue to present what could be considered dry academic history in an attractive way through photos and reels.”
One of Karwaan Heritage’s recent walks to Tughlakabad| Photo Credit:@karwaanheritage
The collective (16 students from across India and a few from Pakistan) extensively researches each post, and provides all their sources. “When we started, we mostly had older people following us. But now it’s changing with Manu Pillai and other young historians being more active on social media, and more history platforms coming up on Instagram.”
COVID and shrinking attention
The two years of COVID-19 lockdown that had people cooped up at home riveted to their palm-sized screens has had a transformative effect on perspective. While health conspiracy theories hogged attention, another battlefront was the old bugbear of misinformation about the past.
Walk with them
Heritage walks across India first began as an effort by the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to connect citizens with history. The first one in Hyderabad, inside the Chowmahalla Palace, had just 12 guests in the late ’80s. But today, all you have to do is search for “heritage walk + place name” and you will get dozens — from Goa, Mumbai, and Chennai, to Delhi, Kolkata, and Aurangabad.
These walks are changing the discourse between cities and history. In Chennai, Madras Inherited has been seeing a lot of engagement across demographics — both online and off. “Presenting history in a more engaging and digestible format has definitely reflected in how people engage with us; especially the younger generation,” says Ashmita Athreya, who heads the outfit’s Instagram (@madrasinherited), adding that they also keep in mind that the present needs to be highlighted “because one day that will be history”. This month, they’ve debuted a social media project on beverages in the city. “The intention is to talk to different communities in Chennai and understand the city through this lens.” In Delhi, Karwaan Heritage is bringing together Swapna Liddle, Amar Farooqui and Sohail Hashmi in February to explore the Northern Ridge and Red Fort.
“Rather than exhausting ourselves by trying to debunk misinformation, I think showing people that history is more complex and giving them the tools to understand this is a more powerful approach. It gives them a sense of the scale and nature of historical change and equips them to sense when history is being manipulated for political purposes,” says Aniruddh Kanisetti, 28, author of Lords of the Deccan who frequently holds forth on debates about medieval kings, queens and their battles on @anirbuddha.
“I’ve received a lot of trolling and hate, but the messages of appreciation have been much more. There is a genuine curiosity and desire for factual and well-told histories, and I do that not only through my book but also through Instagram posts, columns, and memes,” he says.
One of the corridor in the Mysore Palace| Photo Credit:@anirbuddha
This model is something that Itihāsology (@itihasology), a blend of walks and talks with a distinct slant to hyper-rich portraiture, also follows. Started by Eric Chopra and Kudrat Singh in 2019, when they were students of St Stephen’s in Delhi, it has been unearthing and sharing information about Indian art, culture, and history. “Itihāsology uses Instagram reels to make fun yet informative content. While these videos may be short and lively, the captions include the major chunk of the information along with a section on the sources referred to,” says Chopra.
What would be a footnote in a big tome becomes a nugget of fun information here. Is there a Yemeni connection to the haleem in Hyderabad? How did the life of Guru Nanak transition from the oral tradition of Janamsakhis to paintings and finally to text. “Our focus is on debates, discussions, and uncovering interesting connections and interpretations, rather than merely presenting a collection of ‘facts’. Our sources are academic monographs, edited volumes, and journal articles and citations are available for all the information that we present,” he says.
Eric Chopra leading an Itihāsologywalk| Photo Credit:@ithasology
Lucknow-based Maroof Umar grew @maroofculmen to 113k followers in under two years by showcasing lesser-known monuments and their history through reels and Instagram carousels. “The history of most cities is populated by its famous monuments. In Lucknow, for instance, people know the Imambara and Rumi Darwaza. But what about the others that are neglected, such as Maqbara Begum Alia [tomb of the Hindu wife of the Nawab of Awadh Shuja-ud-Daula] and Makka Darzi Imambara? Once, I read a book about how, before the mutiny of 1857, the city had over 500 monuments. These were destroyed by the British, and later by city expansions. So, I wanted to document what’s remaining,” says the 29-year-old, who runs a design agency by day.
The heavily encroached Maqbara Begum Alia| Photo Credit:@maroofculmen
“Unless locals become sensitive about these places, we can’t do much to conserve them,” says Umar, who believes that with visual storytelling he is helping change how people perceive their own history.There’s more interest among the youth now, with many writing to him aboutthe places they would like to see featured. “I am delving into cultural history now, looking at food, traditions, art, and the like,” he says.
Tap, type and swipe
According to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at University of California, the average attention span is shrinking. In her new book, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, she reckons that in 2004 the average attention span on a screen was 2 1/2 minutes. Later, it shrank to 75 seconds and is now estimated to average 47 seconds. It is this short-attention span that is at the heart of the struggle to build a stimulating narrative. But these youngsters are successfully redrawing the intersection between history, society and social media.
Hussaini Kothi in Hyderabad, belonging to the family of Husain Ali Khan, where majlis is conducted during Muharram| Photo Credit:@theexploregenie
“Instagram has reduced the attention span of people; nobody wants to read long captions. If I am sharing something on my stories, I do it for an audience that only watches stories and doesn’t check the feed,” says Sameera Kazmi (@theexploregenie), who has been creating a buzz with her reels about Hyderabad and its historical places. She adds that making content has also changed her perspective of the city. “It was through Instagram that I discovered heritage walks. Be it the Ashoorkhanas [the house of mourning where Shia Muslims mark the martyrdom of Husain] that I visited for years but knew nothing of its history, to now discovering many historical places in Hyderabad,” she concludes.
Instagram and collectibles
As interest in history booms, decorative arts, which have been neglected for long, are also finding a place in the sun. At Phillips, a popular haunt with collectors in Mumbai, their social media is helping them get wider reach. “Instagram has led to us being discovered by people across the country. There is a lot of information available on the platform and it is a good way to learn and discover more about your area of interest,” says owner Farooq Issa.
His son Faisal, who took over the handle a few years ago, is making sure the storytelling is on point, too. “We focus a lot on folk art, featuring photos of masks, puppets and the like,” he says, adding that the narratives that accompany each post are bringing in a diverse clientele. “More youngsters are interested in history and antiques now. And even if they don’t buy from us, they use this as a database to explore more on their own — heading to small towns and antique shops.” Faisal follows Arts of Hindostan and India Lost and Found platforms, both for their stories and the artefacts featured.
With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar
The Hindu Sunday Magazine/society/internet/social networking/history/monument and heritage site