Instagram famous photographer Maroof Culmen has a knack for unveiling India’s hidden treasures through the lens of his camera and the enchanting narratives around them. But what truly sets him apart is his storytelling prowess. The modern-day storyteller talks about his interest in history, travelling, and breathing life into static images one story at a time.
Excerpts from the interview with Maroof Culmen:
T+L India: You often call yourself a heritage storyteller. How did you develop an interest in history?
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Maroof Culmen: I’ve always felt a magnetic pull towards heritage. It began innocuously. Whenever I visited shopping malls or any modern edifices, be it in Lucknow or abroad, I couldn’t help but notice a consistent pattern. Everywhere, the ambience was homogenized – the blinding glitter of lights, the hum of urban life, and the standardized architecture. It seemed like the world was being wrapped in a uniform cloak.
But it was an entirely different experience when I stepped into the precincts of a monument. Each one had its character, its own story. The ambience of each monument was distinct, soaked in history and myriad tales of the past. The textures of ancient stones, the intricate patterns carved out over centuries, and the aura that each of these historic marvels emitted were in stark contrast to the monotony of modern constructions.
It was this divergence that inspired me to start documenting heritage monuments. I wanted to capture their essence, the feeling they evoked, and most importantly, share it with the world. For me, these structures are not just remnants of the past; they are the soul of a place. They define its history, struggles, victories, and evolution. And through my documentation, I aspire to be a voice for these silent storytellers, to make people realize their worth, and to feel, as I do, the profound emotions they embody.
T+L India: At a time when social media is constantly evolving, how do you adapt your content to keep up with trends?
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Maroof Culmen: It’s easy to get caught up in chasing the next big trend or constantly tweaking strategies to appease algorithms. However, for me, the essence of content lies in its story. I’ve always believed that a compelling narrative, one that resonates with human emotions, has the potential to surpass any trend. If a story touches the heart, it can naturally go viral, irrespective of algorithms.
That being said, we cannot operate in a vacuum. Awareness of the digital landscape is crucial. We constantly analyze how our audience interacts with our content. Their reactions, comments, and engagement levels guide us in making subtle shifts to ensure our content resonates.
One of the conscious efforts we’ve made is diversifying our content palette. While heritage monuments and their stories remain our core, we’ve branched out to cover cultural nuances, traditions, and local food stories. This not only adds richness to our narrative but also widens our audience base, appealing to those with varied interests.
And while short video formats like Reels are undeniably effective, we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. Our strategy encompasses a mix – from photo carousels that give a deep dive into our experiences to interactive stories that engage and inform. It’s these myriad little nuances in content curation and presentation that, I believe, make all the difference in our social media journey.
To sum it up, while trends and algorithms do play their part, it’s the heart and soul we pour into our stories that truly make an impact. It’s a balance of passion and strategy, and that’s been the key to our success on social media.
T+L India: Heritage storytelling often involves connecting with historical events and traditions. How do you research and bring these stories to life in a way that resonates with modern audiences, especially with the younger generations that are active on social media?
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Maroof Culmen: In today’s digital age, our timelines are dominated by fast-paced content, catering to our rapidly dwindling attention spans. Yet, I’ve always believed in the power of stories that transport us back in time, making us pause and reflect. And it’s precisely this break from the relentless hustle of social media that draws people to the content we create. Our slow-paced, deeply rooted narratives cut through the noise and offer a moment of serenity and nostalgia.
The allure of nostalgia is timeless. Even in our tech-driven, modern world, there’s a part of us that yearns for a connection to our past. We all have an inner child, curious about tales of old, and when our content reaches out, it taps into that deep-seated sentiment. This emotional connection, this rekindling of memories and a link to traditions long passed resonates powerfully, particularly with younger generations.
But, it’s not just about the story. The way we present it is equally crucial. To bridge the gap between historical tales and the modern, digitally-savvy audience, we focus on high-quality video production. Crisp visuals paired with well-researched narratives make for an immersive experience. It’s this amalgamation of arresting visuals and enriching information that appeals to the younger generation. They’re not just passively consuming content; they’re embarking on a journey that’s both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating.
In essence, while our approach might be ‘old school’, it’s precisely this departure from the norm that captures the imagination of young audiences on social media. It’s a testament to the fact that well-crafted, authentic stories, regardless of their era, have the power to captivate hearts and minds across generations.
T+L India: Authenticity and factual accuracy can be a challenge in history. How do you overcome this?
Maroof Culmen: Authenticity and accuracy are indeed paramount when delving into the vast realm of history. However, the challenge lies in the fact that history, at times, isn’t black and white. Different sources might offer varied perspectives, leading to myriad interpretations.
Our approach, therefore, has been a little unorthodox. Instead of delving deep into the potentially contentious historical details, we focus on the experience that a place offers. Every monument and every heritage site has a unique ambience and a distinct feel. This is what we aim to capture and convey to our audience. By sharing these experiences, we not only provide a fresh perspective but also bypass the controversies and debates that often surround historical events.
Nevertheless, when it comes to sharing factual information, we take no shortcuts. The internet, while a vast repository of knowledge, isn’t always the most reliable. So, to ensure the veracity of our content, we turn to more traditional and trusted sources. Books, experts in the field of history, and gazetteers are some of our go-to resources. By consulting historians and referencing authoritative texts, we ensure that the information we share is as accurate and credible as possible.
In essence, our storytelling blends experiential insights with rigorously sourced facts, striking a balance between authenticity and engaging content
T+L India: Visuals play a key role in your storytelling. What is your creative process for the same?
Maroof Culmen: Visuals are the bedrock of our storytelling, acting as a window into the rich tapestry of heritage we aim to showcase. Our creative process is rooted in authenticity and an intention to immerse the viewer in the true essence of the narrative.
First and foremost, we uphold a strict principle of rawness. We consciously avoid staging or orchestrating scenes. By capturing moments in their organic form, we believe we’re able to present an unfiltered glimpse into the past, making the content inherently more engaging and relatable.
Quality is paramount to us. We invest time and effort in ensuring that every shot, and every frame is of the highest quality. Crisp visuals are pivotal in holding a viewer’s attention, transporting them to the setting we are spotlighting.
But visuals alone, no matter how stunning, can’t fully capture the emotion and ambience of a place. Music acts as the soul of our videos, amplifying the emotions and setting the tone. We meticulously choose tracks that complement and elevate the visual experience, ensuring that they resonate with the story we’re trying to convey.
Narrative cohesion is a hallmark of our work. Every reel we produce is more than just a montage of images; it’s a story in itself. This storytelling approach is our signature style, distinguishing our content from the plethora and helping us connect with an audience that appreciates depth and substance in visual narratives.
In essence, our creative process is a harmonious blend of authentic visuals, evocative music, and compelling storytelling, aimed at creating a holistic experience for our viewers.
T+L India: You’re from Lucknow. What do you love the most about the city?
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Maroof Culmen: Ah, Lucknow! Just the mention of its name invokes such profound sentiments in me. Whenever I am posed with this question, I am instantly reminded of the words of William Howard Russell, the war correspondent of The London Times. Upon witnessing the grandeur of Lucknow, he remarked, “Not Rome, not Athens, not Constantinople, not any city I have ever seen appears to me so striking and beautiful as this, and the more I gaze, the more its beauties grow upon me.” Such words, coming from a man who had travelled far and wide, speaks volumes about the allure of the city.
But for me, Lucknow is not just about its architectural marvels or the enchanting stories of its past. It’s the living heart of the city that truly captivates me. Beyond its famed heritage and delectable cuisine, it’s the ethos of the city that stands out. The ‘Gangajamuni tehzeeb’, an exquisite blend of Hindu and Muslim cultures, is palpable in every corner. The warmth, the hospitality, the sense of community where people from diverse backgrounds live in harmony – it’s a tapestry of experiences that’s unique to Lucknow.
While my work often takes me to distant places, I find solace in the knowledge that at the end of the day, or the end of a journey, I get to return to the place I call home: Lucknow. The city has an indefinable magnetism, an allure that beckons, and I often find myself echoing Russell’s sentiments – the more I experience it, the deeper I fall in love with it.
T+L India: What, according to you, are some lesser-known experiences/places in Lucknow?
Maroof Culmen: Every city in the world has its hallmark attractions – those iconic monuments and experiences that become emblematic of its identity. In Lucknow, structures like the Imambara and Rumi Darwaza often steal the limelight, proudly standing as symbols of the city’s glorious past. However, this prominence, unfortunately, often casts a shadow over the myriad other jewels that the city has to offer. As throngs of visitors flock to these signature landmarks, other lesser-known sites risk being forgotten, leading to encroachments and, sadly, sometimes decay.
It was this stark contrast – of overcrowded iconic monuments juxtaposed against the lesser-known treasures fading away – that spurred our mission to document Lucknow’s hidden gems. Our journey of exploration has led us to a treasure trove of experiences and places that many might not be aware of.
Bagh Baba Hazara, for instance, is a serene retreat, echoing tales of bygone eras. The Kothis or Summer Houses of Lucknow stand as poignant reminders of a time when the city was a confluence of art, culture, and architectural brilliance. The Ghats of Lucknow, where the Gomti River lovingly embraces the city, offer serene spots of reflection. Then there’s the majestic Butler Palace, a structure that merges various architectural styles. The Maqbara Begum Alia and numerous other sites further enrich the tapestry of Lucknow’s heritage.
In bringing these hidden gems to the fore, we aim to not only preserve their stories but also to balance the scales, ensuring that the true breadth and depth of Lucknow’s heritage are recognized and celebrated.
T+L India: Any advice for budding storytellers?
Maroof Culmen: To all the budding storytellers out there, my advice is simple yet profoundly powerful: Keep going. Storytelling is an art, and like all arts, it is honed and refined with practice and persistence. There’s no manual, no shortcut to mastering it. The only true teacher is experience.
Embrace every opportunity to experiment, play with narratives, and explore different mediums. Each attempt, successful or not, is a step forward. Every creation, whether it resonates with the masses or just a few, adds to your repertoire and shapes your unique voice.
So, immerse yourself in the world of stories. Dive deep, stumble, get back up, and dive again. It’s through this iterative process of trying, learning, and creating that you’ll not only discover your voice but also refine your craft. Remember, the journey of storytelling is as much about the teller as it is about the tale.
T+L India: Could you tell us about a few projects you’re working on right now?
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Maroof Culmen: Certainly! I’m currently diving deep into a few exciting projects that extend beyond the boundaries of Lucknow.
One of my most ambitious undertakings involves venturing into the outskirts of Lucknow and gradually encompassing the rich heritage of Uttar Pradesh as a whole. The state, in my opinion, remains an untapped reservoir of cultural wealth and history, and I am eager to shed light on its lesser-known facets.
A particularly intriguing segment of this project will revolve around the Taluqdars of Awadh. Their history, influence, and the remnants of their legacy form a fascinating narrative that I believe deserves a broader audience.
In addition to this, I am keen on capturing individual tales that often get lost in the grand tapestry of history. Much like our project that spotlighted the Vintage Cameraman of Jaipur, I’m on the lookout for compelling personal stories that offer a unique lens into the past. These narratives, woven with emotions and personal experiences, resonate deeply with audiences and bring history to life in a more intimate manner.
These are just a few glimpses of what’s on my plate at the moment. With every project, I aim to unearth, preserve, and share the myriad stories that collectively define our rich cultural tapestry.
T+L India: In a sentence, tell us why you love India.
Maroof Culmen: India, for me, is a boundless land of possibility, where every nook and cranny brims with stories yearning to be shared with the world.
Featured image/hero image courtesy: Maroof Culmen/YouTube