Updated: July 3, 2021 6:16:38 pm
By Satviki Sanjay
Every evening, without fail, literature, history and heritage enthusiasts get together on Clubhouse. The rooms, started by The Karwaan Club, are an initiative of Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration, a student-led history initiative. The club has more than 400 members, 1500 followers and welcomes anyone even slightly interested in exploring the past.
Karwaan is not the first one, or the only one, to use social media to create a space where history can thrive. In the last few years, especially during the pandemic, many such projects—from pages documenting niches such as the history of hair, to Sahapedia’s online museum repository—have either begun or adapted to the internet’s many virtues.
The subject has been labelled ‘boring’ far too often in the popular understanding of it. The academic study of this discipline at the school level, where stories are reduced to dates, causes most people to distance themselves from it early in their lives. “But how can history be boring when it is an ocean of stories about us and how we have engaged with the universe since time immemorial?” asks Eric Chopra, the founder of Itihasology, an Indian history platform functioning primarily on Instagram. “And yet, it seems so because it does not reflect the reality around us.”
But history is more than calendar dates. “Social media makes the subject boundless,” says professor Harbans Mukhia who has taught history for more than six decades. “Unlike academics, there are no boundaries of syllabus here. You can engage with exactly what interests you.” Through Instagram posts, YouTube videos, Facebook lives, podcasts, and online heritage tours, initiatives are now trying to engage with the audience with stories beyond the boundaries of what is traditionally taught.
Earlier this year, Visvak founded India Ink, a platform that aims at communicating history in a way that is simple and accessible. As a postgraduate student, he had his first brush with history academia and realised that the history that stays with people through popular culture and dinner table conversations is largely factually incorrect. However, how can it be accurate when the realities of the discipline do not reach most people? “Academic writing on history is highly relevant, but it is also largely inaccessible to the common public,” says Visvak. “It is written by academics, for academics, and frequently behind a paywall, which means the general public rarely gets to engage with it.”
He started this project along with two other members to mould historical knowledge more inclusively and holistically. At India Ink, they simplify complicated academic texts essential to the understanding of India and make videos debunking popular myths.
As part of the project, they explore the legacy of colonial history that is still deeply rooted in our present-day lives, and are currently working on a six-part series Past Continuous. Their primary interest, however, is in talking about caste. While it is the most ignored aspect in the popular understanding of history, Visvak emphasises that caste is the key to understanding India.
For how many generations will reservations continue, the SC asks. The question arises because quotas are seen as a concession given to disadvantaged castes.
What about those who benefited from discrimination? How did they become casteless & meritorious?
A history in 8 tweets👇 pic.twitter.com/mCThCQSsmu
— India Ink (@IndiaInkHistory) March 23, 2021
Karwaan has a similar belief. “The basic aim behind Karwaan was to create this dialogue with the past where people can explore authentic history and connect with heritage,” says Eshan Sharma, its founder. “What we are reading today through various platforms like WhatsApp is rarely accurate. We realised that there was a neglect of heritage from government and institutions and started the project.”
It was one of the initiatives that began in the glorious pre-pandemic days. They started with conducting heritage walks in and around the monuments of Delhi, and when the world shut down last March, they took their operations online. They started an online series known as the Karwaan Online History Festival: more than 60 historians from around the globe explored the subject for about five months through live streams on Facebook and Youtube.
Now, the initiative has more than 90 historians onboard, according to Sharma. Through these live streams, scholars have delivered lectures, interacted with the enthusiasts of the subject, and have had a chance to reshape how the story is being told. They boast of an audience from not just India, but Pakistan, UAE and the US. While their lectures do deal with mainstream political and economic history, they’ve found special fans of cultural history that covers the whole spectrum, from food to films and more.
Their events mostly take place on Facebook and YouTube, but through Instagram posts, they have built a loyal following.
Itihasology also harnesses the power of Instagram to promote history. Using the 350-word limit on Instagram post captions in their favour, they try to capture the digital age’s fleeting attention spans. They have everything that the Instagram algorithm promotes: attractive aesthetics, bits of consumable information, and youth-centric language.
“We recently did a post on a riddle by Amir Khusro where he compares a mango to a lover,” says Chopra. “We mentioned in the caption that this riddle was tweeted by Ariana Grande as well. My point here is that imparting historical knowledge doesn’t have to be burdened with books, contrary to common perception. Using slang and content from Stan Twitter is just an appealing way.” And with attractions such as giveaways, they are finding new ways of engaging with their readers.
But beneath the Gen-Z sensibilities, their project has a much larger motive. “One thing that kept coming to me while thinking about this project and history at large was that whatever we were taught in school was difficult to connect with because of its lack of inclusivity,” adds Chopra. “When I started this page, I decided I won’t try to specialise in anything but look at each fact, each idea with as many dimensions as I can.” Their mission, he says, is to make history break out of heteronormativity, patriarchy, and religious bigotry.
Their online events—museum tours, heritage walks, and the like—see participants as young as school kids to as old as 70-year-old enthusiasts, according to Chopra. The page serves as an equaliser of sorts, connecting people across the age spectrum. And as Itihasology expands, with podcasts, journal and feature writing from South Asia, the discipline also sees internet-led expansion.
But social media is also a double-edged sword. No conversation is complete without the mention of misinformation that proliferates on the platform. The perception of the subject as ‘boring’ has more far-reaching implications than we realise. It causes a fundamental lack of historical consciousness: our understanding is coloured with half-baked knowledge and unchecked prejudices. And that is a weakness that gets exploited to change the facts of the past.
“Social media and the internet lead to the spread of wild theories and inaccurate histories and there’s no mechanism to keep it in check,” says Professor Mukhia. With striking graphics and selective information that plays to biases, false narratives are hard to distinguish and point out. And problems for society arise when these are used to advance political projects and reshape historical events to fit certain interpretations.
This is why the presence of forces that question these false beliefs on the same platforms, in a manner that is accessible to all, is necessary. And these history platforms embody this principle and they open spaces for civil dialogues. “A guiding force for our initiative is to challenge this project of trying to rewrite history in bigoted and politically-motivated ways,” adds Visvak. “The entire South Asian subcontinent is incredibly diverse and belongs to many different cultures and people, which makes it essential to challenge such misinformation.”
A photograph of India’s first Prime Minister #JawaharlalNehru 📸 by Homai Vayarawalla soon after the country’s Independence 📍Palam Airport.
Homai was India’s first woman photojournalist! pic.twitter.com/zdNVgrVItd
— The Heritage Lab 🏛 (@theheritagelab) May 27, 2021
The truth is, a lot of histories often make people uncomfortable. Chopra, for example, says he frequently sees readers indignant with the information Itihasology posts. So, he directs these people to the sources he adds in his uploads to placate them. And this culture of citing proper sources and building credibility goes a long way: when information comes to people from a source they trust, it becomes a part of their everyday conversations. This makes the information a part of society—and is carried forward further.
But all scholars, historians, and aficionados agree that history, like every other field of study, evolves with its own momentum. New facts, new pieces of evidence, and new research come along every now and then to deepen our understanding about ourselves. All revelations in the field, however, are futile if the information doesn’t reach the masses. In the age of the internet, then, what better a medium than social media?