Maroof Umar, better known as Maroof Culmen, calls himself a ‘heritage storyteller’. “I feel the identity of a place is defined by a few hand-picked monuments and heritage sites, which overshadow the smaller places. Examples are Bara Imambara and Rumi Darwaza in Lucknow, Hawa Mahal and City Palace in Jaipur, etc. Tourists do not go beyond that. Hence, the idea was to go beyond these and introduce people to the lesser-explored places,” he says.

Sitting on 230,000 Instagram followers, Umar, through stunning imagery and videography, introduces people to “hidden gems” such as Bilehra in Malihabad, UP, known for its mangoes; kothis of Barabanki, also in UP; culture of Purani Dilli, and the people and heritage of Lucknow. Vibrantly colourful and aesthetic visuals, slow-mo shots that make you slow down, and a personal storytelling style can easily encourage anyone to pack their bags, explore such sites and completely immerse themselves in culture. While Umar has captured several states through his lens, the focus remains on Uttar Pradesh as “there is so much in the state that has not been showcased enough”.

Over time and across India, several such projects have come up on Instagram, breathing a new life of sorts into India’s heritage experience.

“I started the page just for the sheer love for the city and its monuments,” says Mohammad Anas, who runs the popular Instagram page Unzip Delhi. Through attractive visuals and a personal style of storytelling, he takes his followers through the “ruins and alleys” of the old city. “My family hails from Purani Dilli (Old Delhi). We can trace our lineage back to about 200 years. Although we shifted in 2013, you can take a purani Dilliwala out of Purani Dilli, but not the other way round,” he says. And it shows. Far from the noise and chaos associated with the city that has been inhabited continuously for hundreds of years, Anas offers a pristine and romanticised side of the city, breaking stereotypes whipped by tales, people and pop culture.

The Haryana Junction, which delves into the “unexplored history, heritage and cultural vestiges of Haryana,” showcases the state’s heritage beyond the ruins of the Indus Valley Civilisation and takes one through places like the pre-Partition mosques, havelis, forts, etc. Similarly, through incredible pictures, the Calcutta Photo Tours takes one through the city of joy’s composite culture that transcends beyond religions and ethnicity, while heritage also features prominently in the work.

While India’s northeast is prominently known for its bountiful natural beauty, the Where Is Northeast page on Instagram traverses nature’s route while also diving into the heritage of the places. Writer Sam Dalrymple’s Insta page also serves as a documentation of some of the neglected and lesser-known heritage sites of India.

Breaking stereotypes

“Earlier, when I used to travel outside and introduce myself, there was a very bad image associated with the Dilliwalas. Through my work, I try to showcase a different side of the city,” Anas says.

While Purani Dilli Walo Ki Baatein started as a nostalgia project, as its creator Abu Sufiyan missed home while studying engineering at a Punjab college, a turning point came when he participated in a guided tour of the city. “The information that was peddled there was just not right. It showcased Old Delhi in a very bad light, such as that people who live here are pickpockets, etc. As someone who hails from the city, it hurt me, and that is when I started doing a lot of research, talking to people, and spending long hours in the library sifting through books,” Sufiyan said.

Similarly, Umar, who is based in Lucknow, gets at least 20 to 30 texts daily from people telling him they are visiting the city and enquiring about places to explore. “It feels good that people are coming here, and their perspective is changing. The way people look at monuments has also changed over the past decade,” he says.

Similarly, for Johann Kuruvilla and Amrita Gangatirkar, who run The Kochi Heritage Project and Nashik Heritage Trails pages, respectively, it was to tell the culture and heritage tales of their respective cities that served as a motivation.

Walking the talk

While Instagram is helping to up India’s heritage game, it is turning out to be bigger and branching into newer spaces. While Unzip Delhi started as a page to document heritage, history, and culture, presently, it is better known for its heritage walks, on which he takes one through the history and tales of places in the old city.

“During the first few months of the Covid lockdown, I had around 400 to 500 followers, which grew to around 10,000 at the end of it. The community grew. So, when Covid ebbed, some of us decided to go for a walk through the Red Fort. It was not led by anyone and was more about us sharing experiences. I posted that on my Insta story, and there has been no looking back. Earlier, the walks were free-of-cost, but eventually, I realised it was a good opportunity to monetise too. So, heritage walks became paid, and I have conducted those every weekend, barring a few,” Anas said.

For Kuruvilla, a heritage walk in Mumbai encouraged him to do the same in his city, Kochi. “It started in 2022 on April 18, which is World Heritage Day. While I had built a small community during the Covid lockdown, some of us decided to go on a heritage walk, on that day. Those were free walks around Heritage Day. However, that ended up generating a lot of interest among people. I started getting more requests and started conducting both public and private walks. I have realised it is a good way for people to connect with heritage,” he elucidates.

Similarly, Gangatirkar always wanted somebody to tell the heritage tale of her city, Nashik. So, when this documentary filmmaker and researcher decided to move back from Pune in 2016, she thought of doing that herself. “Although initially, I did walks for family and friends, the Nashik Heritage Trails officially launched as a company in 2019. While Nashik is known for vine tourism and pilgrimage, I tried to connect the two with heritage so that people visiting for either of the two reasons also explore this side of the city,” she explains.

While these are individually led, Sufiyan in his walks incorporates much more. “When I design a walk, I ensure there is not just one person conducting the walk, but there are others too, such as local artists. For example, if I curate a walk in the pre-Shahjahanabad period, there will be a storyteller leading the walk. There would be local shopkeepers. We would take them to a library, and maybe end the walk at a haveli, where the owner would have personal experiences to share. There would also be a calligrapher that would also help in reviving the art form,” he says. An intrinsic element of such heritage walks is the style of personal storytelling. There is a problem “when everything gets academic,” Anas says.

Not just Delhi, Kochi and Nashik, people are conducting heritage walks across the country at places like Agra, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Pune, Diu, Shillong and Darjeeling, to name a few.

A favoured platform

While many started their heritage projects pre-Covid, the pandemic, which expanded people’s virtual lives, played a part in popularising that. Then came the Insta Reels, following the 2020 ban on TikTok, which further boosted many such pages that are continuing even now.

While there are multiple social media platforms, Instagram remains the first choice of heritage storytellers.

“Although I started Instagram just as a landing page and a place where I could put the thousands of pictures that I took of heritage sites, somewhat as a city chronicle, my interest in the platform grew during the pandemic,” says Gangatirkar. “As I could not go out, I saw it as a medium to continue the conversation around heritage. Instagram Live was huge back then, which I used to interview experts. I used those recordings to create a podcast. When Reels were launched, I got interested and used to make those every day. It is only recently that I have gone back to the picture format,” she adds.

While Instagram has offered a breeding ground to several heritage content creators, some have blamed the changing algorithm for reduced reach. However, Anas thinks it depends on the content and how one interacts with the audience. “Instagram has been good for me, as I’ve built a community here. My intent now is not for it to grow but to interact with the members,” he says.

At the same time, Umar, who makes Instagram-first content, feels that the platform is increasingly moving away from visuals and aesthetics and towards the Facebook way, where the emphasis is more on entertainment and massy content. However, he feels that Reels have been a game-changer as “with just pictures, you cannot provide the feel, and develop curiosity among people. However, with Reels and good music, you can make it way more relatable,” he says.

Monetising their passion

While many of these creators have parallel sources of income, heritage storytelling, over time, has also grown to become financially viable. “The content on Instagram is not monetisable. However, we make money through brand collaborations and they hire us to shoot content for them,” says Umar. Others have monetised heritage walks.

“When I started, I used to charge just Rs 200 to Rs 300 for a walk and even provided refreshments from my side. Now, a public walk can fetch anywhere between Rs 800 and Rs 2,500,” Sufiyan says. Kuruvilla, too, holds both public and private walks, with the latter being costlier than the former.

In the end, ‘our past needs a future too’, as goes Kuruvilla’s tagline. And India’s heritage storytellers are doing exactly that.

I feel the identity of a place is defined by a few monuments and heritage sites, which overshadow the smaller places.

The idea was to introduce people to the lesser-explored places

— maroof umar @maroof culmen

While Nashik is known for vine tourism and pilgrimage, I tried to connect the two with heritage so that people visiting for either of the two reasons also explore this side of the city

— Amrita Gangatirkar @Nashik Heritage Trails

I started the page just for the sheer love of the city. My family hails from Purani Dilli (Old Delhi). Although we shifted in 2013, you can take a

Purani Dilliwala out of Purani Dilli, but not the other way round

— Mohammad Anas @Unzip Delhi

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