Did you know there is a “mini Bengal” in the heart of Chennai?
Or that a sweet shop in Kochi is being run by a Gujarati family for three generations? Or that before emerging as a tech hub, Hyderabad boasted of only one shop that repaired antique radios?
We would probably have never learnt of these and other snatches of urban history but for the efforts of a young tribe of heritage buffs documenting vibrant local stories from South Indian cities on Instagram.
Take for instance the Bengalis of Chennai. Having flocked to this southern city for medical treatment, many of them today permanently reside at Mackay’s Garden on Greams Road.
This has led to that part of the town developing as hub of Bengali culture, cuisine and activities. Keeping the buzz alive is the estimated 1.5 lakh people reaching the city every month on an average from Bengal and other eastern states for medical treatment.
Speaking of relocation, how can we miss the Gujaratis living in Kerala’s Kochi? Known for its entrepreneurial spirit, the community has contributed immensely to the city’s economic growth, even dominating the International Pepper Exchange in the city.
Take Sandeep and Mahesh Bhajania for instance. Originally from Kutch, the father-son duo has been running a sweet shop for the last three generations in the Mattancherry area.
But not all family businesses have flourished like them.
Before Hyderabad became a tech hub, the Mahboob Radio Service was everyone’s favourite haunt for renting out loudspeakers for functions across the city.
Nearly a century-old business, Mahboob Radio Service used to be the only place that repaired and sold antique radios. The proprietors now use some of their antique horn speakers as showpieces at their store in Chatta Bazar.
Thanks to technology, visual storytelling has become an even more powerful communication tool, and today it is being increasingly used to tell the stories of hyperlocal histories from various cities.
We pick our favourites storytellers on Instagram/social media from southern India:
Co-founded by Tahaer Zoyab and Anupriya Subbian in 2017, this initiative originally sought to document and lead a walk through the heritage houses of Mylapore, a historical precinct in Chennai.
A year later, the project was formalised as Madras Inherited, thus expanding its focus area to all of Chennai, previously called Madras.
Joining the team in 2019 was Ashmitha Athreya, who has been leading the heritage walks in the city.
Their Instagram page is a wonderful mix of heritage stories and nostalgia. Through archival images and well-researched information, they attempt at weaving an ode to Chennai.
“It all begins with an idea or a spark, an area or a topic that we find exciting and want to learn more about,” Athreya told South First.
The team then sifts through available material, writes content referenced from several sources, identifies gaps and tries to fill them through more research. This is supported with visuals that are engaging and also easy to understand.
Consistent efforts have helped expand the number of followers on Instagram, which stands at 11,200 today.
“We have the most amazing support and love from our audience, be it the ones who have been regular patrons of our heritage walks or the ones who cheer us on social media,” she adds.
Recently, the team conducted two heritage walks that focused on the history and heritage of the railways in Chennai.
“The walks were held in collaboration with the Southern Railway, opening the door to greater access and understanding of railway heritage.”
Chennai has a rich railway heritage. The first track from Royapuram in Chennai to Arcot was opened in 1856.
Madras Inherited aims to be an accessible repository of historical information and trivia about Chennai, connect with the people to whom the city is dear, and get to hear their stories.
“The intention is do our bit in protecting the tangible and intangible heritage of Chennai and also to encourage the community to lend a voice,” says Athreya.
The Hyderabad History Project
Journalists Serish Nanisetti and Yunus Lasania had been independently writing about the history and culture of Hyderabad in the blog The Hyderabad History Project for some time.
But in 2016, after Lasania felt the need to build a platform on social media to maintain the archival information, their effort evolved into an Instagram page.
“Instagram is a little more visual on that front, so I thought it would be nicer and more interactive to disseminate information,” explains Lasania.
The idea, he says, was to write about things that are less known, and also to add social or political context to the things we see around us.
“Hyderabad has a continuous history of about 500 years, and the fact that we don’t even remember our founder Mohd Quli Qutb Shah, but instead know the Nizams who came much later, is rather telling,” quips Lasania.
Lasania’s paternal grandfather migrated from Gujarat and decided to settle in Hyderabad; the grandson now wants to tell the city’s story.
“This is the story of Hyderabad,” he says of his project.
“This is a city that was founded by a man whose ancestor came from Iran, and whose mother is believed to be a Telugu woman by the name of Bhagirathi. Our aim is to tell these lesser-known tales.”
Nanisetti no longer contributes to the project, so it is just Lasania who keeps the near-14,000 followers hooked to Hyderabad’s history, using old books or archival information to dig out interesting facts.
Lasania finds Hyderabad’s old churches and Irani cafes the most fascinating. “Of course, we also have the beautiful Qutb Shahi tombs, which is a mind-blowing site for anyone who loves history,” he says.
“But I think what interests me more, is what I call functional history. Like Irani cafes, or churches, or temples, or any place that is still used by the public.”
The Kochi Heritage Project
An avid traveller and adventurer, Johann Binny Kuruvilla came across heritage walks in various Indian cities around 2017 — including the Khaki Tours in Mumbai — and was immediately smitten.
So inspired was he that he wanted to replicate the idea in his home state of Kerala, and what better place was there than his hometown, the historic city of Kochi?
Kuruvilla began reading up on its history and, in 2018, started The Kochi Heritage Project on Instagram.
“The fastest way to get attention from people at the time was Instagram. The Facebook phase was slowly fading away. Instagram also has the power to capture the young minds,” he told South First.
Kuruvilla started with putting up content not found online. “I use a variety of interesting sources to put together these stories,” he says.
For instance, he tracks the references at the bottom of Wikipedia pages that “lead you to books that are not in print anymore, old newspaper clippings etc.”
He also visits archive.org, an online library where people from world-over upload books from their personal collection.
“These books are sometimes 100-200 years old. All you need to do is type in a keyword, and you get lots of information related to it,” says Kuruvilla.
“As you go on digging deeper, you will be amazed to find stories that people have barely heard of.”
Kuruvilla also uses research material uploaded by PhD students on academia.edu, while another source is collectors of rare books.
“Many old homes get destroyed as the owner’s children live abroad. All the stuff, including furniture and books, end up with book traders who sell them in different parts of India. Some of these books might have only 50 copies left in the world, some are as old as 300 years. They sell them at a very high price, and I started buying them to do my research.”
‘Response has been great’
Today, Kuruvilla hosts heritage walks based on the information he has gathered about Kochi. The response, he says, “has been great”, especially during the pandemic when people had more time on their hands to search hidden treasures on social media like The Kochi Heritage Project.
“Once I posted a street board with a Gujarati name on it, and it went viral. Gujaratis living in and outside Kochi who recognised the board started sharing their memories of the street. It was heart-warming,” he says.
What started as a passion project has now become a way of life for Kuruvilla. “I was a travel consultant, and so, initially this page was a side thing I wanted to do for myself,” he confesses.
“But now with so many people showing their excitement towards learning the city’s history through my page and the walks, this has become my main career now.”
A lot of the information Kuruvilla shares is recorded by participants; with some even make sketches of the sites the walk passes through.
“So it is creating an effect, our past is getting preserved for our future generations. My goal is accomplished,” Kuruvilla says.