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The language of social media returns to its roots

Digital content creators and publishers pivot to local languages as viewers around the world seek to stay in touch with their culture

Audiences connect with creators in Indian languages. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Audiences connect with creators in Indian languages. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

Dehradun-based Abha Godiyal Kakar rang in the new year with her retirement, after a lifetime spent teaching English to students across the country in physical schools. With over 130,000 followers, the 61-year-old is a popular figure on Instagram via her profile @insta_aunty, which she has had since October 2015. A 12 April video of a home-cooked meal, narrated in Hindi, has had over 3.7 million views, with over 1,800 commenters actively engaging with her. While this may seem to be business as usual for many creators on the platform, there’s one thing that stands out—Kakar’s Hindi storytelling.

“Not to take away anything from any language but I found my comfort as a storyteller in my own mother tongue. I took to creating content in Hindi, for my stories are best told and narrated in this language that I am more expressive in,” she says.

Kakar took to content creation as more of a hobby—treating her account as a journal of daily life. It is only in the past year that she has taken the role of content creator seriously, realising she has built a community that relates to her slow living, old-school lifestyle. It might seem like a thread common to many on social media but Kakar’s story is a little different. Very rarely has one seen an urban audience, with an average age of 30, interacting on Instagram in a language beyond English. They all converse with her in Hindi.

Kakar’s community on social media is a clear example of a rising trend—the language of social media consumption is returning to its roots. Through Indian language literature in book stores and content on social media, an increasingly displaced generation, which has migrated to urban hubs for work or education, is pivoting back to its own languages.

Paras Sharma, director of content and community partnerships at Meta, says: “In addition to Reels and its features, we have also been investing in growing the overall creator ecosystem with a special focus on regional markets. One such initiative is our creator education and enablement programme, ‘Born on Instagram’.” The programme offers modules on an easy-to-use e-learning platform available across languages such as Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali. “Today there are over half a million creators registered for it and a majority of them have registered from regional markets and tier 2 and tier 3 towns,” he adds.

Also read: How Ranjeet Singh of Pratilipi cashed in on storytelling

Online platforms such as Instagram and YouTube—with a combined five billion monthly active users between them—are seeing an influx of local language content creators too.

Abha Godiyal Kakar’s food content in Hindi is very popular on Instagram
Abha Godiyal Kakar’s food content in Hindi is very popular on Instagram

A 2022 report by Google News India pegged India’s local language addressable market at nearly 730 million users. A 4 May joint report by Google and Kantar Group on the growth of local language content in India noted that as demand for local language content grows, advertisers are spending more on local language publishing platforms.

Sanjay Gupta, country head of Google India, said in a statement at the time: “In a world where content can be translated into multiple Indian languages at scale, the opportunity with Indian language content, unconstrained by geography, is no longer regional but global. Content businesses, including digital news publishers, have the potential to unlock new growth avenues by better engaging with an evolved and affluent cohort of Indian language digital news consumers.”

Kolkata-based Sibendu Das, 42, who conducts heritage walks on the history of sweets in Bengal, has observed a clear uptick among users looking for content in their own languages. This has had a domino effect—spurring creators to focus on their mother tongues.

Case in point is the popular Bengali food YouTube channel @BongEats, which has over 1.5 million subscribers and has been posting content in English for six years. Responding to an increasing demand across every age band, it launched a Bangla channel, Bong Eats Bangla, as well last year. It has already garnered over 120,000 subscribers on YouTube in 12 months.

A host of parody and social commentary accounts too have flourished over the past year. The reasons are many: for one, a strong diaspora looking to reconnect with its roots and keep its own culture alive in a foreign land.

Mumbai-based food influencer Saloni Kukreja, 27, too, has pivoted to more content in Hindi. Both Das and Kukreja agree that the biggest advantage of creating content in local languages is that it amplifies the reach of what they create.

“If I create in English, I restrict engagement to only those who are comfortable speaking in the language. When I post in Bangla, both factions (including those who aren’t comfortable or conscious of speaking English socially) respond and actively engage—as a creator, it makes more sense for me to post in my language, something that has happened over the past two years or so,” says Das.

How successful content creation in a local language can be is evident from the popularity of creators like Dimpu Baruah, 27, a technology YouTuber from Assam with close to 1.8 million subscribers; Madhura Bachal, 42, a Marathi recipe YouTuber with 6.98 million subscribers; Kiran Dutta, 27, a Bengali language YouTuber with 3.8 million subscribers; and many more like them.

A 2019 survey of YouTube, says its representative, found that nearly 93% of the platform’s viewers prefer local language content. YouTube says there has even been a rise in the number of creators in languages such as “Kokborok (a Tibeto-Burman language of Tripura), Santhali and Chokri”.

Also read: Is this the big moment for Indian writing in translation?

Fuelling this trend is the increase in number of streaming platforms in Indian languages, such as Hoichoi in Bangla, Manorama Max in Malayalam and Chaupal in Punjabi. The change is evident in social circles too. Bengaluru resident Deepa J. Pillai, 36, who curates an open-source English-Malayalam dictionary called Olam, says that on “Gen Z social occasions” in physical settings, more individuals seem to have become comfortable conversing in their own languages. She attributes this to the dominance of over-the-top (OTT) video streaming services.

“Most fiction work in Malayalam uses local dialects and is a fun way to learn how different parts of the state speak,” she says. Films have done their bit too, she adds, be it the mid-2000s release, Rajamanikyam, the small-budget OTT release Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam or the smash-hit Kannada movie Kantara.

It all happened first in publishing

This trend first made itself evident in the publishing landscape—and the impact of social media is evident here again. Minakshi Thakur, editor and publisher of the Bengaluru-based Indian language audiobook publishing platform Pratilipi, has only been seeing a consistent rise in the number of non-English authors and content publishing in Bangla, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi and Tamil, even as Hindi remains the most popular non-English publishing language in the country.

Abhinav Bamhi, 26, the fourth-generation proprietor of the iconic family-run book store Faqir Chand & Sons in Delhi’s Khan Market, has seen a “positive improvement” in the sentiment of book buyers towards “Hindustani literature”—books in Hindi and Urdu—particularly noticeable among buyers between 20 and 30 years of age.

“Social media has had a great role to play (in popularising Hindi and Urdu literature) by spreading the love of shayaris. Many of our customers heard audio snippets of (Punjabi novelist and poet) Amrita Pritam on Instagram, got intrigued, and came to our shop looking for her works,” says Bamhi.

In Punjab, the non-profit platform Gurshaahi has been attempting to preserve Punjabi literary work. The four-year-old digital platform has gathered over 24,000 “patrons” who donate to keep it afloat. Gurshaahi, according to co-founder Paramjot Singh Joga, plans to set up 10 Punjabi-literature libraries across rural districts of the state to promote authors and interest in the script. The first of these libraries will be inaugurated soon in the town of Khem Karan, Joga says. The non-profit said that each library will cost upward of 1 lakh to establish, and the entity has presently raised enough to inaugurate the first one in July 2023.

Also read: How do language barriers impact artists?

“There has been a rise in interest around Punjabi literature over the past four years, driven by the pandemic and even the farmers’ protest movement in 2019 that increased awareness towards many Punjabi literary works, and even music, by virtue of social media in particular. Punjab has even welcomed a number of young authors who have gained repute in the recent past, such as Harmanjeet Singh and Karanjeet Komal. Social media platforms have also played a big role in popularising our culture, and reviving interest in ‘Punjabiyat’. Other initiatives, such as The Punjab Club and Letters of Revolution—all on Instagram, are working to reinvigorate interest in Punjabi literature, while the state government is also said to be working on setting up libraries with literary work from the state,” he adds.

What everyone agrees upon unanimously is that Indian languages no longer play second fiddle to English as a first language in urban circles—an achievement that is being credited to social media.

Clearly, Indian languages have come into their own.

Vernika Awal is a journalist and food writer

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