SPOTLIGHT

India’s heritage influencers: Unearthing stories, archiving the past

Published : Jan 04, 2024 13:34 IST - 6 MINS READ

Social MediaSabine Ameer
A storytelling or qissa-goi session in the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.

A storytelling or qissa-goi session in the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. | Photo Credit: Umair Shah

From videos to walks, these passionate storytellers are reviving history and fostering a crucial sense of belonging.

Cultural heritage is a contested space these days, with the politically powerful seeking to concoct, contest, and appropriate it. Since without memory, heritage loses its emotional value, the agenda is either to create false memories or to erase blocks of them altogether from the collective consciousness. Social media has become a tool in this mission as it is being used to spread misinformation and false narratives.

At the same time, a group of young heritage influencers from South Asia is harnessing the wide outreach of social media to bring stories of almost-extinct cultural traditions or less-explored heritage precincts to their audience all over the world. Frontline spoke to a few of them to understand what is driving them to push back against attempts to distort and disregard history. The list, however, is not exhaustive: there are many more engaged in similar projects all over India. 

Umair Shah aka Sikkwala in one of the alleys of Chandni Chowk.

Umair Shah aka Sikkwala in one of the alleys of Chandni Chowk. | Photo Credit: Umair Shah

Delhi-based Umair Shah (28) is an entrepreneur running Noon Social, a digital marketing and creative studio for fashion brands. But he has another identity: also known by his Instagram name, Sikkawala, Shah organises heritage walking tours in the old areas of Delhi-NCR and western Uttar Pradesh. What started him off was his passion for collecting ancient and mediaeval coins, which stoked his interest in the lives of the kings and queens who minted them. Now a professional numismatist, Shah spices up his heritage walks with the stories he uncovered while collecting coins. “Memory is preserved not just in archives, but also in the cultural heritage of cities,” he says. 

Shah’s aim is to make history accessible and engaging while ensuring it stays true to facts. He humanises historical figures in his storytelling, delving into anecdotes, even gossip, to paint a vivid picture of lived lives. For instance, he talks about Akbar’s fondness for samosas or a queen’s morning ritual of smoking hookah. “I want to make people realise that those who were living 500 years ago were similar to us, but without the technology,” he says. 

A storytelling session in Delhi.

A storytelling session in Delhi. | Photo Credit: Mohammad Anas

Mohammad Anas (29),the person behind the Instagram handle, Unzip Delhi, would agree. He too seeks to reanimate Old Delhi through visual and oral storytelling in his Instagram account. An anthropologist by profession, Anas attributes this interest to his family, which has been living in Shahjahanabad for over 250 years. Growing up in the walled city, he would hear age-old legends and tales passed down the generations among relatives and friends. He used these anecdotes for a research paper on the cultural layers of Old Delhi during his college days. Later, he expanded on them further to create content for his page. “It’s all about bringing history alive, with a dash of masala for entertainment,” he says. The mainstay of his project is storytelling: “I want to revive memories of sitting together and sharing stories, as it was in the old days,” he says.

Inside Bilehra Fort.

Inside Bilehra Fort. | Photo Credit: Maroof Culmen

Anas is referring to a time, not so long ago, when families and friends would gather on terraces under the starlit sky during interminable power cuts to exchange stories. With people moving from standalone houses to flats in apartment blocks, this simple pleasure is all but gone, especially in urban areas. Heritage collectives like Rameen Khan’s CityTales seeks to recreate it by organising modern-day baithaks—storytelling sessions leavened with the poetry of Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Sufi mystiques, as well as Mughal history centring on the walled city. Khan (35), believes that storytelling in its true qissa-goi format can breathe life into the material fabric of a monument. And by doing this, it can create among audiences a sense of belonging and connection with public spaces that transcends ownership. 

A heritage walk conducted by CityTales in Feroz Shah Kotla, New Delhi.

A heritage walk conducted by CityTales in Feroz Shah Kotla, New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Rameen Khan

Maroof Umar’s videos of monuments also tell forgotten stories, albeit on a different medium. A graphic designer by profession and a photographer of Instagram fame (his Instagram handle is maroofculmen), with a body of collaborative work across platforms like Google and National Geographic, Umar documents lesser-known heritage monuments of Lucknow, like Bilehra Fort or Butler Palace, in his short films. His video story of Mahmudabad grabbed eyeballs on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter). What makes his videos appealing is the presentation—he uses striking drone shots, soothing ghazals, and engaging narratives to recreate life from the bygone eras. The videos are meant to preserve a vanishing way of life and its cultural signifiers, such as the arts of naqqashi and zaridari, for the present generation and beyond. 

Yunus Lasania during one of the heritage walks.

Yunus Lasania during one of the heritage walks. | Photo Credit: Yunus Lasania

Umar (29) still remembers vividly the impression left on his mind by Lucknow’s Imambara, which he visited as a child with his father. His purpose in creating the videos on art and monuments is to make everybody feel the awe and excitement he had experienced. He seems to have succeeded in his aim: “Viewers started visiting the places I described. They said they felt the same connection with those cultural sites,” Umar says. 

Forging connections is also the purpose of journalist Yunus Lasania (34), who organises heritage walks in Hyderabad. The enthusiastic response to his February 2017 article on the 50th anniversary of the last Nizam’s rule in Hyderabad inspired him to start an Instagram page, The Hyderabad History Project, focussing on local heritage. This evolved further into heritage walks, where he narrates stories of everyday spaces, blending oral and written history, archival photos, and critical reflections. The participants often come up with their own inputs. “The walks create a sense of shared heritage. People not only reminisce about their experiences but also create new experiences together,” Lasania says.

Abu ka Maqbara, Meerut as depicted in the archive outsourced from the British Library.

Abu ka Maqbara, Meerut as depicted in the archive outsourced from the British Library. | Photo Credit: British Library

In their quest to conserve the past, the storytellers have often made startling discoveries, which have added layers to already documented history. For instance, Shah helped uncover the significance of a heritage site known as Abu ka Maqbara in Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh. With an archival photo sourced from London’s British Library, he pieced together the mausoleum’s story, showing that it had been a symbolic site of resistance during the 1857 mutiny. Similarly, CityTales documented how “nature always returns, replaces and reclaims” in the context of the Delhi floods of July 2023. Khan’s archival research revealed that until the late 19th century, the Yamuna used to flow right past the Red Fort. Urbanisation has slowly pushed it back, but during the flood, it returned to reclaim its original channel. 

Rameen Khan engaging with the participants during one of his heritage walks.

Rameen Khan engaging with the participants during one of his heritage walks. | Photo Credit: Rameen Khan

As more and more heritage buildings are demolished in the name of development, it is up to the storytellers to conserve what remains—most often, memories, photos, impressions—through their posts. India’s heritage influencers, doubling up as archivists and amateur historians, are proving themselves to be more than capable in this task. They are not only bridging the gap with the past but also inculcating a sense of ownership among people that is crucial to conservation. Most important, by underlining India’s shared cultural heritage, they are countering the effort to reduce history to a unipolar narrative of just one group of people. 

Sabine Ameer is a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow. Her research examines the linkages between cultural heritage and human (in)security.

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