Meet the seniors keeping India’s intangible heritage alive online

They’re taking to social media to preserve, in multimedia format, elements of culture that are typically conveyed person-to-person — heirloom recipes, oral histories, legends, ancient games, puppetry and more.
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Updated on Aug 21, 2021 05:11 PM IST
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Everyone has heirlooms they can’t touch. A story, song or recipe, wedding traditions, festivals, the games a family plays on rainy afternoons.

Amid the homogenisation of cultures that has accompanied globalisation, these are being lost and / or replaced. Not because better versions or alternatives emerged, but because the originals are hard to reproduce in the new formats.

The stories, poems, traditions often exist within people, are hard to wrest into physical form, and therefore hard to pass on in a world of rushed schedules, shortening attention spans, bytes, merchandise and microblogging. As it turns out, those bytes could hold the answer. What’s the best way to keep a katha alive? The internet. The best way to record not just the heirloom recipes but the stories that have shaped it? The internet again.

Across India, with its vast and varied forms of intangible folk and oral heritage, seniors with a passion for intangible heritage are taking to the internet to do just this. “I type with one finger, but most of my followers are aged 25 to 40, which makes me feel young at heart,” says Shanthi Ramachandran, who is passing down heirloom Tamil recipes on Instagram, along with the message that, done right, food is medicine. She helps with tips on substitutions, can tell you what to do with what’s left in your fridge. But what she enjoys most, she says, are the questions about why something is made a certain way. “That taps into my beliefs, my memories and stories too.”

Elsewhere, Sophie Johari, 62, is bringing back unique and ancient Indian board games, some played on embroidered cloth, all crafted by hand. It’s part of our culture, and it’s a way for families to bond, she says. “Some of these games go back 1,000 years. Customers tell me the games are also helping children bond with their grandparents. Grandparents reminiscence about their childhoods as they play, and I think that’s beautiful.”

Puppetry and katha traditions are being preserved in this manner; coastal Koli recipes too, by people like Rajni Kathin, 65, who says her grandson’s friends can make pizza but not bhakris and she wants to see that change. Her grandson runs their social media pages, and can make bhakris, so that’s a start.

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EAT

Catch and cook

Rajni Kathin aka Rajni Aaji is a 65-year-old fisherwoman from Mumbai’s Koli community. By day she sells fish with her two daughters. In the evenings, she helps her YouTube, Facebook and Instagram audience learn how to make traditional Koli fish dishes at home. Her recipes have never been written down. They’re a sort of lived heritage passed on from generation to generation, usually between the women.

It all began for Kathin in January 2020, when a pop-up events company asked if her family would be willing to teach paying customers to cook Koli food, in a real Koli kitchen. After a video of that event did well online, Kathin’s 25-year-old grandson Tanay Tapke began helping her make videos of her own. She and her two daughters, Harsha Tapke, 50, and Triveni Koli, 39, do the cooking. “We don’t make any extra efforts for the videos. He shoots while we cook our daily meals,” Harsha says.

Rajni Kathin, 65, says she makes her videos partly because it bothers her that youngsters in her community can make pizzas but not bhakris.
Rajni Kathin, 65, says she makes her videos partly because it bothers her that youngsters in her community can make pizzas but not bhakris.

In the pandemic, with fish markets closed and the business flatlining, the family started an account on Instagram (@bombaystatefisheries) and a YouTube channel.

“Now, when people come to buy fish from me in the market, I tell them about our channel and ask them to subscribe. So many young people came back to me after watching the videos and asked for the ingredients. I also sell them homemade masalas,” Kathin says.

The videos are in Marathi, with English subtitles. They’re easy to follow. Try the Sukha Vakti Aambat (a sour curry of dried river fish) and the Bharlela Kekda or stuffed crabs. The latter video starts with a live crab crawling around the kitchen. Kathin shows how to catch, clean and cook it. There are interesting traditional recipes for fish-and-vegetable combinations too.

“It’s really important to preserve these recipes as my grandson’s generation and the people younger than him don’t even know the dishes’ names,” Kathin says. “They can make pizza but not bhakri which is the traditional Koli roti. These videos will make them learn.”

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Root to peel

Senguttuvan S is 72 and, in a word, cool. The former business manager from Chennai had never cooked before retirement. After, he began taking down his 62-year-old homemaker wife Jayanthi S’s recipes and posting them online because friends and family seemed to enjoy them and find them helpful.

The discussions his wife’s recipes sparked got him interested in the different variants that one recipe could have. Senguttuvan now has an Instagram account (@sengut2006) with 13,600 followers, documents traditional Tamil recipes on it, and made it to the Top 24 on this year’s MasterChef India – Tamil, a local offshoot of the global franchise.

Senguttuvan’s page is full of simple traditional recipes, from how to use millets to dishes that make use of vegetable peel.
Senguttuvan’s page is full of simple traditional recipes, from how to use millets to dishes that make use of vegetable peel.

The main reason he posts his recipes on Instagram, Senguttuvan says, is “to let Gen Z know the values of the traditional food staples like different types of rice and millets”. Many young people don’t even know what millets are, he adds, even though we’ve been cooking them in our homes for hundreds of years.

Senguttuvan’s page is full of simple traditional recipes, from ragi rotis to traditional dishes that use the peels of vegetables. “Somewhere in 2017 I started posting cooking videos. My traditional South Indian cooking — recipes from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh — seem to draw more viewers to my feed. The ones where I use my tawa to make dosas of different varieties are always a hit,” Senguttuvan says.

It makes him happy, Senguttuvan says, that his passion for cooking is inspiring people of varying ages, and men too. “Not many men in my age group are active cooks on social media. I try to inspire and motivate people of my age to come out and extend their support to the women in their homes and showcase their traditional food and culture,” he says.

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What the doctor ordered

Shanthi Ramachandran describes herself as a ‘Proud ex-banker, mom, grand mom & insta aunty to many’. That last bit relates to the many questions she’s addressed for young people via her Instagram account (@shaanthram), from what to make with what’s left in the fridge, to where they went wrong in their last experiment, and most importantly, how are the crows.

Ramachandran documents traditional south Indian recipes. She also has pet crows who hop on to her windowsill from time to time, to be fed, and feature regularly in her videos.

Ramachandran began by posting traditional Tamil recipes handed down within her family, to try and preserve them for her children and grandchildren. She soon began drawing interest, and questions, from young Tamilians living abroad, away from family, homesick and missing the food they grew up on.

‘I like questions of why something is made a certain way. They tap into my beliefs, memories and stories,’ says Ramachandran.
‘I like questions of why something is made a certain way. They tap into my beliefs, memories and stories,’ says Ramachandran.

As more people began to tune in (the account currently has over 53,300 followers), she began to use it to pass on what she believes is a core message inherent in traditional Tamil cuisine: that food is medicine. Done right, it eliminates the need for any fad diets, and can eliminate the need for frequent doctors’ visits too.

She enjoys the interest from young people in why a certain recipe must be followed a certain way. It makes her feel she is passing on a living tradition in ways that recipe books usually can’t do. “People also ask for ways to modify a dish according to what they have in hand. But the questions of why something is made a certain way taps into my beliefs, my memories and stories too,” she says.

“My page will remind you of your mom because there wouldn’t be any fancy things either in my write up or in my pictures, all are easy to make, healthy vegetarian recipes,” she says. “I type with one finger because I’m not used to typing with two like the young people do. But most of my followers are aged 25 to 40, which makes me feel young at heart.”

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PLAY

Have you heard…

A katha is not exactly a story, Geeta Ramanujam, 64, likes to say. It is an oral Indian tradition that marries elements from myth, epic, legend, anecdote, theatre, dance and music.

The katha exists across the Indian subcontinent. It was to preserve this art form that Ramanujam started Kathalaya in 1996. “Each state in India has different cultures of storytelling. There are varied kinds of oral performances, told through pictures, scrolls, masks and art depictions. Our target has been to save and revive these formats as art,” she says.

In 2009, Kathalaya has been using social media too. In many ways, this is ideal. The katha is best experienced as a performance, rather than a written text; it is also best experienced live.

‘Each state in India has different cultures of storytelling. Our target has been to save and revive these formats as art,’ says Ramanujam.
‘Each state in India has different cultures of storytelling. Our target has been to save and revive these formats as art,’ says Ramanujam.

“The challenge is that social media is a kind of global space and the intricacies and atmosphere of a local setting are often lost with such a diffused reach,” says Ramanujam. “We are still learning how to use the medium as it keeps evolving every day too. But it has been a great help in ensuring global interest.”

Kathalaya has a combined following of 10,000 on Facebook and YouTube. In videos, you see Ramanujam narrating folk tales from different parts of the country with different props and backdrops. Sometimes it is a story from the Garo community in Meghalaya, sometimes a folk tale from Kerala. “Children learn many things about the world through stories. In my three decades as a teacher, I used storytelling to teach history and English. In fact, I have always felt that students can understand concepts better when told as an interesting story,” she says.

Kathalaya works with different local communities to preserve local storytelling cultures too. “We have worked with people like Prakash Garud, a shadow play and puppeteer from Dharwad in Karnataka, and with Tol Gombe artistes from Madurai, Tamil Nadu and with Kathputhli artistes from Rajasthan, to name a few. In some of our modules, we design courses in a way where payment from students benefits these community storytellers directly,” she says.

— Dipanjan Sinha

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Game plan

Sophie Johari, 62, fell in love with board games as a child, during summers at her grandparents’ home in Gujarat. The Dawoodi Bohra family played, among others, an ancient game called Dadu, a strategy game played on a cloth board where the objective for each of the two teams is to take all their pieces across from their side to the opposite one.

Marrying that love for games with her love for embroidery, she began making board games as gifts in 2017. The first one was a wedding gift for her daughter’s friend, who often played board games with the family. “She liked it very much. My daughter posted about it on her Facebook page and I began getting orders,” Johari says.

Sophie Johari combines her love for games and embroidery in her handmade board game sets. Online, she posts videos of herself playing with her family, and of customers playing, as how-to guides.
Sophie Johari combines her love for games and embroidery in her handmade board game sets. Online, she posts videos of herself playing with her family, and of customers playing, as how-to guides.

She now replicates ancient board games such as Thayam (which combines maths and strategy and has roots in ancient Tamil culture), Pretwa (with roots in Bihar; played with beads on a circular board) and Tablan (with origins in Mysore, played on a 12 x 4 grid) and sells them online. She also makes customised sets of Chaupar, an ancient version of Ludo.

On her social media accounts (@sophiejohari on Instagram and SoSophie on Facebook), she posts videos of herself playing the games with her family and shares other families’ videos of how these can be played.

The family has a tradition of making their own games, she says, particularly since some of these traditional games are rare and hard to find in toy stores. “Our Dadu set was made by my grandmother,” says Johari.

Some of these games are more than 1,000 years old, she adds, so it’s important to keep them alive. “Some of my customers tell me that the games are also helping children bond with their grandparents. Grandparents reminiscence about their childhoods while they play with the grandchildren, and I think that’s beautiful.”

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Making a scene

Ramachandra Pulavar, 61,is a 12th-generation practitioner of the traditional shadow puppetry or Tholpavakoothu of Kerala. He learnt the craft from his father, KL Krishnan Kutty Pulavar, and has been practising since he was 11.

Tholpavakoothu comes from thol (Tamil for leather), pava (Malayalam for puppet) and koothu (Sanskrit for play). The ritualistic puppet shows were traditionally performed in temples. Until 2000, Pulavar only performed the story of the Ramayana. Then he began contemporising his content, performing in puppet theatres and at community events. Now, amid the pandemic, he’s gone online.

Ramachandra Pulavar (centre) and his sons Rahul and Rajiv are using current tales and online platforms to promote Kerala’s ancient shadow puppetry.
Ramachandra Pulavar (centre) and his sons Rahul and Rajiv are using current tales and online platforms to promote Kerala’s ancient shadow puppetry.

The pandemic has been hard, Pulavar says. His Krishnan Kutty Pulavar Memorial Tholpavakoothu Puppet Centre has had to downsize from 50 staff members to just seven.

“Puppetry is a struggling folk art and the puppeteers are not used to the online platform. We don’t know much about how to market our art online. But I am doing everything I can to try and ensure the art form survives,” says Pulavar, who was awarded the Padma Shri this year. “My two sons (Rajiv, 32 and Rahul, 25) and I use Facebook, YouTube, Zoom, Google Meets… you name any and we have used it. They help me make the videos. We upgraded, bought the necessary equipment like cameras and lights.”

There are online workshops as well as free and paid puppetry shows available on these platforms.

“The difficulty is getting people’s attention,” Pulavar says. “People are used to watching puppetry shows live, online shows are not the same. But on YouTube we try to offer some variety. We show them what it’s like behind the scenes, how the puppets are made, how we produce a play. We still haven’t got a large number of followers but we are working on that. Online is the future. The platforms are helping us to keep on being visible to people. An ancient craft like puppetry needs that. ”

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Strings attached

Anupama Hoskereis an engineer who has always been fascinated by dolls that combine art and engineering. In 1995, she began to study puppetry under the renowned puppeteer MR Ranganatha Rao.

She’s been making dolls and telling stories through them since 2003. She established a not-for-profit puppet theatre and cultural organisation called Dhaatu in 2004 and works with a crew of artists to produce puppet plays with rod puppets and string puppets. She also won a Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2019.

‘We have turned our small stage into a recording studio, invested in proper software and a high-end camera. We are determined to stand out,’ says Hoskere.
‘We have turned our small stage into a recording studio, invested in proper software and a high-end camera. We are determined to stand out,’ says Hoskere.

In the pandemic, she has taken Dhaatu’s shows online. Via @dhaatupuppettheatre on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram (with a combined following of over 15,000), Hoskere posts videos that showcase her plays, sessions on how to make puppets, and discussions around the stories they tell.

“We have turned our small stage into a recording studio, invested in proper software and a high-end camera. We are determined to stand out and make the quality of our production excellent,” she says.

To Hoskere putting everything online is vital because it’s an effective way to preserve this knowledge, she says. “People should not forget puppetry. There’s a high chance of that, as this craft doesn’t fulfil any immediate needs in the current scenario. But it’s a very important part of our history and culture. Puppetry goes back to hundreds of years. It has a methodology, a pattern of storytelling. And yet it isn’t locked in time, it can be very current.”

The younger generation is interested in the craft, Hoskere adds. “The innocence and magic of the art form captures people’s interest. Efforts must be made to make the themes relevant too. We are incorporating Covid awareness and using the reach of the internet to achieve our goals.”

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LOVE

A kinship, reframed

Manjri Varde, 67, is an artist, but some of her favourite works can’t be framed. They’re the videos she puts out with her daughter-in-law on Instagram (@manjrivarde), offering light but honest takes on the power struggles, disagreements and eventually the love of their relationship.

The two women decided to use the platform, they say, to counter the exhaustingly clichéd and only partially accurate stereotypes perpetuated in popular culture: that two women who love the same man will compete, can’t get along, and are destined to make life hard for all those around them.


Of course there is truth to this, sadly, in MIL-DIL relationships around the world, more so in patriarchal societies where the man’s loyalty and love can be the difference between belonging and being relegated to the fringes, Varde says. But does portrayal of this bond have to be this dark in the 21st century, in cities where so much around these relationships has changed? They decided to recast the narrative, with honesty.

Varde, always in bright colours, flowers in her hair, and her daughter-in-law, actor Sameera Reddy, 42, sometimes discuss why the latter wears so much black; what a good outfit might be for a particular occasion; where is the right place to keep an item in the home (they rarely agree on this one).

They also dance together, take online challenges, cook traditional recipes. “Sameera has a great sense of comic timing. She’s the one who decides on the content. We have a great chemistry,” Varde says.

The duo began their saas-bahu videos in March 2020, when Reddy’s husband Akshai refused to do a Flip the Switch video with his mom and she offered to do it instead. Since then, the account’s follower count has climbed from 25,000 to 112,000.

Varde gets a lot of messages from young women hoping they will find a mother-in-law like her. She tells them maybe they can be that mother-in-law to someone in their future too.

“In India, as most of the children lives with their parents even after they marry, there’s usually a sense of insecurity on both sides, financial and emotional. I grew up very independent. Sameera too is like me. So, we have none of these insecurities. That is what allows us to be light-hearted and fun in our videos.”

Off-screen, they have their disagreements, they say. “As in any household, it’s the smaller things that bother us. Sometimes her being messy, my giving too many instructions, her being very protective about me during the pandemic and me wanting to be more carefree,” Varde says.

They have some cardinal rules: be polite at all times; understand the motive. “And we never ever make Akshai choose between us,” Varde says.

Varde thinks viewers love the content because they see that it is authentic. “I get to be myself, a quirky 67-year-old artist, a decent cook, mother, doting grandmother, music lover, a bit of a dancer, full of drama,” she says.

“The videos happened by chance but the relationship we portray is the relationship we have in real life,” Reddy says. “People relate to our love. We are so proud of being able to change the conversation around the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship that has been portrayed negatively for so many years.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Madhusree is a feature writer who loves Kolkata, is learning to love Mumbai. She loves to travel, write and bake

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Tuesday, May 24, 2022