Photographing the Past

Cultural Diplomacy By Vikramjit Singh Rooprai

“I was even told that companies do so much in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), but never for heritage. My answer was, why CSR? Where is our ISR (Individual Social Responsibility)? Why do we expect a few hundred people sitting inside a circular building to care for these dead structures, when more than 100 crore sitting outside and living around these do not?”

My name is Vikramjit Singh Rooprai and I would like to share my story with you. Since childhood, I was irritating everyone with my questions. To keep me busy, my dad started sending me to his friend, who ran a computer training centre. In class 6, I started learning how to use computers. By class 12, I was developing professional software. I started my career without even bothering for graduation. In 12 years of my IT career, I scaled many heights, but something was missing. Stress of a hectic job was taking over.

In order to detoxify, I went on an exploration to Mehrauli Archaeological Park in Delhi. To my surprise, the park was loaded with amazing monuments, which I had never heard of. When I asked locals about them, they were not able to give me a satisfying answer. Every question of mine was responded with a surprised look. They were not able to digest the fact that someone could be so interested in these ruins. Ultimately, they did what every Indian is best at doing. They started blaming government for not maintaining these structures and not telling anyone what they were. I was even told that companies do so much in the name of CSR, but never for heritage. My answer was, why CSR? Where is our ISR (Individual Social Responsibility)? Why do we expect a few hundred people sitting inside a circular building to care for these dead structures, when more than 100 crore sitting outside and living around these do not? A dead man, lying six feet deep cannot cast a vote. Hence, he is least important for a political leader. But if he can be important for those who are still alive, politicians will have to change their priorities.

I remember clearly. It was the 24th day of October in 2009. I was sitting in Mehrauli, excited to have discovered amazing jewels in the form of monuments, but sad at same time for not being able to learn about them properly. I could have come back cribbing like others, but instead, I decided to change the game. Next day, I went there again, with a mission. I explored the park to find some common links. The next few days were spent searching for books that could hint about these monuments. Luckily, I found some information.

I started writing about these monuments on my blog. But in few weeks, the Digital Marketing expert in me was pinching me to go beyond a plain blog. So I started* and developed a content managed system, where each monument could be tagged and later found on a Map. While searching for more monuments, I came across a 1905 listing of Delhi’s Monuments prepared by an officer of Archaeological Survey of India. This exhaustive list talked about more than 1300 monuments in Delhi. I managed to get that Delhi’s Heritage Bible and started tracing all those hidden structures. So far, I have been able to trace less than 700.

While exploring monuments, I also realised, there were hundreds of kings spread over 15 dynasties that ruled Delhi. In fact, the longest-ruling dynasty of Delhi appeared to be Tomars, who were also the original settlers of Delhi. And all these years, we were just reading about Mughals. Reading more, I realised that names of colonies in Delhi have a strong history attached to them.

This changed the way I looked at history. Now it was time to show others, what I have learned. I tried to tell my friends but apparently no one was interested in dead monuments. However, slowly, people started liking the unseen sites I clicked, and requested me to take them there for photography. This gave me a chance to change things in a more innovative manner. I told my friends, I can take you to unseen sites, provided you put them on Facebook. They would get more likes and comments and I will get promotion for the lesser known monuments. Hence, ‘Delhi Heritage Photography Club’ was born*. Today this community has crossed 20,000 members and has become the largest online group, which talks only about heritage. We get pictures from all across the globe, but primarily India. We then discuss about the place and its history. The idea was so powerful, that it earned us special permissions from various government and non-government organisations, where we could access monuments at odd hours and get pictures, that can exhibit serene beauty of yesteryear.

The next step was to take this a level up. So, we started a program called ‘Heritage Durbar’. In this, we invited experts from all over India (and even Pakistan) to share their expert knowledge on various aspects of history. We never talked about fancy stories associated with kings and queens. Our focus was always the scientific evolution of society through its language, food, culture, lifestyle and traditions. These sessions were welcomed by people from all walks of life.

Our members from other states started inviting us to their cities to explore lesser known structures there. We started another program called ‘Heritage Hunter’, where we started going on hunts in villages, hills and forests to find monuments that were forgotten in the race to urbanisation.

In 2014, we formed ‘Youth for Heritage Foundation’ and registered all our initiatives under this banner. What started as a solo journey was now a huge team trying to give something back to society! We started workshops in schools, where we taught the scientific elements of certain practices, which have been labelled as superstition. We talked about Vedic Maths, daily lifestyle practices that are dictated by Ayurveda and Yoga. We also talked about how trade and culture flourished across the globe. How language from one region influenced the other from totally different side of continent. The journey continues with more souls joining at every step. With over 60,000 followers spread across different channels, the community has grown to a level, which is strong enough to prove that people love to learn about their past, provided it is delivered in the right scientific manner.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.