History in the times of social media: Why this Bengaluru researcher is sought after in Karnataka

With more than 135K followers on Instagram, 336K on Facebook, and 152K subscribers on YouTube, Dharmendra Kumar is the most-sought after history researcher in the state of Karnataka.

ByRama Ramanan

Published Feb 11, 2024 | 9:00 AMUpdated Feb 11, 2024 | 9:00 AM

History in the times of social media: Why this Bengaluru researcher is sought after in Karnataka

The sun beats down the clear, blue sky of Bangalore University’s sprawling campus. It’s peak afternoon, and the volume of vehicular traffic inside the university premises is unusually low. In the distance, I see history researcher Dharmendra Kumar surrounded by a group of four men, seated outside a no-frills tea cafe. As I alight from my taxi to greet Kumar, the quartet bids him goodbye.

“Are they history students?”

“No, they are making a movie on Mysuru’s KRS dam. They came to meet me to discuss some doubts, and facts and get some details,” he shares, and apologises for requesting me to commute for more than an hour to meet him.

“I have to commute further down for my research, and I usually find this to be the apt meeting point,” he says, pointing to the board that reads Aahara Kutheera.

With more than 135K followers on Instagram, 336K on Facebook, and 152K subscribers on YouTube, Kumar is the most-sought after history researcher in the state of Karnataka.

His journey to this popularity is a tale of passion, determination and the relentless need to preserve the rich history of the state of which he considers himself to be a torchbearer.

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A peek into Mysuru history

Born in 1968 in the then Mysore state, Kumar grew up in a no-TV, only radio era. The only form of entertainment was to listen to stories of the kings of the Mysore Palace.

“Most Mysurueans are connected to the Palace in one way or the other. On every street in Mysuru, you will find someone who works in the Palace office either as a secretary or a gardener or cook, who would share stories with us,” Kumar tells South First.

Kumar remembers being fascinated by the Dasara celebrations which were conducted by the Maharajas. It was not government-sponsored like it is now, he says. “The original Mysore state was from Chamarajanagar to Davangere, consisting of 8 districts,” he shares. The state got the name Karnataka only in 1973.

Visibly proud to be a son of this soil, Kumar shares that almost every home in Mysuru has a photograph of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar. In some homes, the photo is inside the puja room, where the former king is worshipped with other deities.

“That’s the love we have for our king,” he says.

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The beginning of a new passion

After working across Saudi Arabia, Muscat, Qatar and Zambia as a civil engineer for 18 years, Kumar returned home in 2013, only to be disappointed by the work culture in India. Refusing to work in a full-time set-up, Kumar took up freelance projects to build homes on a contract basis.

With this new routine, he found a fair amount of free time at his disposal, and started reading about the history of Mysuru.

“The unique quality of being a Mysurean is that you know some 200-odd stories of the town because you’ve heard it from your grandparents, neighbours etc. So I started writing what I knew, including my experience of seeing the Maharajas,” shares the 56-year-old.

Commending his writing, his friends persuaded him to publish a book. Soon, Kumar wrote two books in Kannada — one on his 50 years of life experiences, and the second focussed on the forgotten history pages of Mysuru. The latter, he shares, is a compilation of 50 short stories of Mysuru.

“It was a huge hit and is now in its seventh edition of printing,” says Kumar, as his pleasant countenance lights up with a sense of fulfilment.

But Kumar was worried that the current generation won’t read since digital is their primary medium of information.

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Moving to the digital space

Kannada mein kaun padhega?” says Kumar, occasionally breaking into Hindi during the entire course of the conversation.

Clear that his intention is not to make money, but to ensure that the content reaches the right audience, Kumar first resorted to Facebook.

“For my first video, I went to Bangalore Fort where the 1790 war happened between Tipu Sultan and Lord Cornwallis. It was the famous Bangalore war. I reached there at 5.45 am, and we shot the video from 6 am to 6.05 am, for just five minutes. And I directly uploaded it on Facebook. The video instantly went viral. It was unedited, and I didn’t use a mic or any noise-cancellation device,” recalls Kumar.

Today, Kumar has produced more than 400 videos that narrate the history of Karnataka state.

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The process of verification

“I am not a historian, I am a history researcher,” clarifies Kumar, sipping on coffee that has now turned cold.

Well aware of the responsibility that comes with his passion for history, Kumar follows a thorough process while looking for historical pieces of evidence. He refers to the Karnataka state gazetteers produced by the government of Karnataka, documents published by the then government of Mysore, and the then-British officers, he shares.

“I also refer to PhD theses of scholars, books authored by the British, and other British documents that are freely downloadable,” he informs.

The Mythic Society and the Indian Council of Research are his most trustworthy sources. “At both the libraries, I refer to books that are 300 years old, and I make notes. I also refer to the Karnataka State Archives. It was initially difficult to access it, but now as people know me, I am able to procure copies of documents needed for my videos,” notes Kumar.

“Do you know that the north Karnataka documents are in the Pune Archives?” he asks, quickly responding, “It is because of the Maratha presence in Karnataka. For any north Karnataka history reference, Kumar now reaches out to his fellow researchers and historians in Maharashtra.

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Planning of videos

Initially, Kumar’s videos were focused solely on Mysuru. Gradually, he started exploring other regions including Chitradurga, Gulbarga, Tumkur, and Davangere.

With a two-man army, including his videographer, the production of each video lasts a little over two weeks. There is no script. Kumar makes mental notes and then proceeds to shoot his video. This is preceded by 15 days of reading different authors’ works. If the author is alive, Kumar connects with them to verify his references. If the author has departed, he tenaciously reaches out to someone senior from the area. Besides these, he also checks the Janapada (verbal history of the local land).

“It is very difficult to read the gazetteer. The old British English is difficult to follow, so I have to keep a dictionary. Sometimes, I have to ask someone who understands archaic British English,” he admits.

“After all this, I arrive at a conclusion about the occurrence of the event in history,” says Kumar.

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All about the wow factor

But it’s not regular history that Kumar seeks. It’s digging out a “Wow factor” that brings him joy. This is the only way, he says, to evoke curiosity in the audience and nudge them to become aware of the history of their land.

At this point, Kumar shares some nuggets of his findings. “During the 1790 war, the British demolished a Burj (tower), beside the Fort, which was built by Kempegowda and later strengthened by Hyder Ali Khan and Tipu Sultan. This location had a 20-pounder cannon which was imported from Denmark. Can you believe Hyder Ali Khan imported it from Denmark, back then?”.

Narrating a similar wow revelation, Kumar continues, “Back in the 18th century, there was a place called the Mookanayakan Kottai (fort), which was 140 km from Bengaluru. During that time, from 1704-1799, the Marathas were against the Mysore kingdom, and supported the British. In 1791, after Lord Cornwallis won the war, the Marathas were allies of the British. On their return, after the victory, from Dharwad to Pune, the Marathas looted 10-15 villages in then Mysore state. The villagers around this fort received a hint of their impending arrival. With their bare hands, 200 villagers fought against 4000 Maratha soldiers and defeated them. I read this in a gazetteer.”

But when Kumar reached the village to shoot his video, he couldn’t spot any boulders or historical traces. The locals too refused to divulge any information. Disappointed, he returned to the entry point of the village and sat down for a cup of tea at a roadside stall.

Noticing the frown on his face, the stall owner enquired. Minutes later, Kumar found himself back in the village along with the tea shop owner, only to discover that the houses in the village were built using the boulders of the fort.

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Rising popularity

“Initially, seeking the trust of the locals was my biggest challenge,” he shares.

Eventually, Kumar changed his approach. Upon reaching a village, he gathers the villagers. Then, he delivers a five-minute speech about his work and research. This, he notes, is the ideal way to educate them about the historical significance of their village, which makes video shooting easy.

However, now with his growing popularity, Kumar receives tips from his followers about stones, and inscriptions that they find in their town. “I answer all calls from unknown numbers patiently because I wait for some tip that can help me in my research,” he laughs.

“Most of Karnataka now knows me. So I contact the concerned person in the village and they keep their information ready for me to shoot the video. They even take care of my food, accommodation etc.,” he states.

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Technology in sharing history

Initially, Kumar shot videos using a mobile that had no advanced features. Upon receiving suggestions from his viewers, Kumar procured appropriate technical devices to aid his shooting and production quality.

“Now I have three sets of microphones, a gimble and a camera. Now I am a YouTuber,” he announces.
Acknowledging that learning technical skills at his age is difficult, he remains unabashed in asserting that “I am very passionate about this work.”

Kumar prefers to shoot videos on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as the footfall is low on weekdays.

Beyond shooting, Kumar ensures the videos are meant for all kinds of audiences. For this, he distinguishes the length of the videos for each platform, for which he shoots three different videos. For Facebook, the video spans about 15 minutes, YouTube is 5 minutes, and Instagram is 1 minute.

Based on the media, the script also changes, he says.

With a growing fan base, Kumar now faces a unique challenge, but one that he is happy to have in his life — keeping this work going.

“I can’t stop now. It’s like riding a tiger, my followers keep messaging and sending requests of places to cover,” he shares.

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Making history likeable for students

“In school, history is a very boring subject, it’s just a timeline of events of wars etc.” Kumar wants to change this narrative by showcasing the subject in an engaging format. Instagram, he realised, is an ideal medium.

Looking at the time on his watch, he pauses the interview to tell me that it’s 3.30 pm. It was time for him to post his video on Instagram.

“This is my daily routine at 3.30 pm. I found it to be a good time,” he laughs, asking the attendant to bring us our third cup of coffee.

Kumar posts videos on Facebook and YouTube on Monday, Thursday and Friday or Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7.15 am.

“My regular viewers are used to this time. If I get slightly delayed in posting, I start getting messages enquiring about the video!” he laughs.

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Making history accessible for tourists

Kumar has been in talks with government officials to place audio scanners at historical spots in three languages — Hindi, English, and Kannada.

He has also proposed to train 20-30 youngsters in the history of Karnataka, by taking them to all the spots and educating them. “These youngsters can then be assigned to Karnataka tourist buses so that they can explain the actual history,” he shares.

Giving a new meaning to Kumar’s history conservation efforts, the Azim Premji Foundation hired him to conduct workshops for teachers of government schools and colleges. “I took the teachers to different historical spots. Now, it is their onus to take their students here and educate them too. Because history cannot be understood only through the syllabus,” suggests Kumar, having trained 200 batches of teachers.

Beyond this, his videos have aided in the preservation of various historical places in the state. “I have saved 40-50 such places,” he shares.

But all this comes with a cost. Kumar too faces threats and trolls from various groups of society. Yet, he remains undeterred in his spirit and steadfast in his passion. Like Arjuna only saw the eye of the bird, Kumar too has a singular vision — to preserve, protect and promote the incredible history of his state and country.