India’s vibrant landscape, culture, history and people, has invited scholarly attention for centuries. Among the many narratives recorded by the British (during the 18th-19th century), the name of Pran Puri, an ascetic, appears frequently. He had travelled extensively across Asia : “from Benares to Malaya, from Cochin to Baluchistan, from Bahrain to Samarkand, from Moscow to Tibet, Pran Puri had seen all manner of people and places“. But who was Pran Puri ? Although a popular figure of his time, this ascetic’s incredible story and travelogue had remained buried in the archives – until now. Rahul Sagar (author and Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at New York University Abu Dhabi), together with Nidhi Shukla and Khushi Singh Rathore have reconstructed Pran Puri’s travels into a fascinating visual avatar – a StoryMap.
“From the moment I came across Pran Puri’s story, I knew I would have to write about him. At a human level alone, his tenacity and curiosity are utterly remarkable. He travelled tens of thousands of kilometres with his hands held above his head. It certainly puts our travel inconveniences in perspective! At a broader level, his travels and commentary open our eyes to the many ways in which the Indian subcontinent was connected to its neighbouring regions, before European colonialism brought these manifold interactions to a standstill.”
When and how did you first come across Pran Puri’s story?
I came across Pran Puri in September 2019, when I was about to launch Ideas of India. This is a database that indexes English-language periodicals published in India between 1800 – 1950. I found scattered references to him in these periodicals, but before I could pursue the story, the pandemic brought archival research to a grinding halt. Once the worst was over and the archives reopened, I went searching for the original travelogues, and equally importantly, for documents and paintings that would shed light on Pran Puri’s life and the places he visited.
Why was it important for you to share his story – and why a story-map? What was your vision for it?
From the moment I came across Pran Puri’s story, I knew I would have to write about him. At a human level alone, his tenacity and curiosity are utterly remarkable. He travelled tens of thousands of kilometres with his hands held above his head. It certainly puts our travel inconveniences in perspective! At a broader level, his travels and commentary open our eyes to the many ways in which the Indian subcontinent was connected to its neighbouring regions, before European colonialism brought these manifold interactions to a standstill.
I had initially planned to write (and indeed started to write) a scholarly essay about Pran Puri. But the further I went along this path the more dissatisfied I became, because I felt I was doing a disservice to the vibrancy of his travels. I was turning a vivid human and cultural experience into a dry theory about connections before the arrival of modern European forms of colonialism. So, one morning I abruptly decided I would try something I had long been curious about but had never had the chance to employ before–a StoryMap. I would probably never have a more suitable topic for one. I then asked Nidhi Shukla and Khushi Singh Rathore, who have worked with me closely on Ideas of India, if they would be willing to collaborate. They instantly agreed and off we went!
How do you approach a project such as this? Tell us about your process of combining historical research, storytelling and technology ?
It certainly is time consuming! When you make a StoryMap on a contemporary theme, often the challenge is winnowing down an excess of maps and data. By contrast, when you make a StoryMap about the 18th century, the challenge is finding the material you need to keep the story moving forward in a coherent and plausible way.
It was not easy, for instance, to find a historical map that covered the wide range of territories that Pran Puri covered (and those that did, then lacked detail on the regions he visited). In some cases, we spent an entire day trawling the archives for an image of a location, only to come out empty-handed. For example, we were unable to find an 18th century painting of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan in spite of searching over 30 different archives.
What drew you to digital projects such as this one? What opportunities do you think digital tools offer humanities researchers & academicians today?
We are in the midst of an epochal change in how knowledge is consumed and shared. We are moving from a print culture, which dominated for centuries, to a culture based on various kinds of digital medium. Given this change, I think it is essential, indeed unavoidable, to begin telling stories in the richer, deeper hues that multimedia allows.
This does not at all mean that books are unimportant or outdated. Not at all! Rather, it means that books will benefit from being adapted to multimedia in the same way that they are adapted into audiobooks or movies. Scholars will need to think more carefully about this dimension than they have in the past.
Any advice for researchers who want to create a story such as this?
ArcGIS has an excellent guide on this, and there is little I can add to what they advise. I strongly concur with them that it is essential to storyboard in advance and to think very carefully about visual design elements. I did not do this enough and paid the price–I had to re-do our StoryMap three times 😭.
As a closing comment, how do you see the field of digital humanities evolving? Do you see it extending beyond academia?
I think these techniques will begin to be used much more widely as technology advances. We are already seeing outlets like the New York Times invest considerable resources in digital storytelling. The output is truly remarkable in some cases, e.g. the New York Times’ Visual Investigations series.
I am personally looking forward to the arrival of richer “augmented” reality storytelling technologies. Imagine being able to tour a city like Mumbai or Pune and using Apple Glasses to see long lost buildings or entering a Metaverse model of Lakshmi Vilas Palace and sitting by Maharaja Sayaji Rao as his Dewan, Sir Madhava Rao, lectures him on good governance. There is an exciting future ahead for storytelling and storytellers.
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