This Indian historian fights the far right, one makeup video at a time

Ruchika Sharma combines her passion for history and eyeshadow, taking on myths about the past shaping India’s present. Both her audience and the threats she receives are growing.

Ruchika Sharma, 33, a historian, recording a video for her history YouTube channel. (Md Meharban/Al Jazeera)
Historian Ruchika Sharma recording a video for her YouTube channel [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

New Delhi, India – It is close to midnight. Ruchika Sharma sits in her makeshift studio at her home just outside India’s capital, New Delhi, a small mic hooked to her shirt. The 33-year-old historian and former professor is getting ready for her latest YouTube video show.

The recording hours are odd, but it is a considered decision. There is little ambient noise at this time, she reasons. For an independent creator like Sharma, a studio with fancy audio setups and soundproofing is beyond reach – especially since she knows that each video she puts out makes it harder for her to land a job.

Sharma looks at a phone that doubles as a teleprompter. Another phone serves as her recording rig. On two small wooden racks hung on the cream-coloured wall behind Sharma, sit a dozen history books. Also on the wall are a picture of Indian revolutionary icon Bhagat Singh, who was hanged by the British colonial regime in 1931, and a copy of the 17th-century painting of the Sasanian king Khosrow Parviz’s first sight of his Christian wife Shirin, bathing in a pool.

On her wooden table, alongside tripods and ring lights is an eclectic mix of cosmetic products: brushes, mascara, concealer, powder puff, and, most important of all, eyeshadow.

She hits the record button.

Sharma starts with an introduction to Nalanda, a sixth-century Buddhist university in northern India that was home to nine million manuscripts and was burned down in a major fire in the 12th century. A widely held belief – promoted by sections of India’s Hindu right, amplified by a government-run modern-day version of Nalanda University, and referenced in multiple news articles – suggests that Nalanda was destroyed by a Muslim general named Bakhtiyar Khilji.

Sharma calls this one of the “biggest myths of Indian history” before citing a slew of historical sources that she says buttress her assertion. These sources, which she says are often cited by those who paint Khilji as Nalanda’s villain, don’t actually refer to the university at all, she points out. Instead, she says, the sources suggest Khilji attacked another Buddhist university, where many people were killed in his attack.

Midway through the narration, she picks up a bottle of concealer and applies it under her eyes. She drops a sarcastic joke – telling her viewers that she is citing the very same sources that WhatsApp forwards pushing dubious or fake history tend to quote. A sponge comes out to blend with the skin tone, and soon, a lilac eyeshadow is in place.

At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and its Hindu nationalist allies face allegations of rewriting history, turning the past into a political battleground for the future, these unconventional history lessons, laced with makeup and satire, are Sharma’s attempt at setting the record straight.

With more than 200 YouTube videos in just over two years, the historian is building a growing audience: Her YouTube channel, Eyeshadow & Etihaas, has nearly 20,000 subscribers, while on X, where she amplifies the arguments she makes in her videos, she has 30,000 followers.

But perhaps the biggest testament to her mounting influence lies in the threats and abuse she routinely receives for her videos. They’re a badge of honour she shrugs off, but would rather not have to wear.

“I often get such death threats. Rape remarks keep coming,” she says. “They no longer work on me.”

A spread of makeup palettes, brushes, and mascara in front of Sharma which she uses during her recording for makeup. (Md Meharban/Al Jazeera)
A spread of makeup palettes, brushes and mascara in front of Sharma, which she uses during her recording [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Eyeshadow and history

Sharma grew up surrounded by history, in a family shaped – like millions of others – by India’s modern tumult.

A grandchild of partition refugees, Sharma spent her childhood in Mehrauli, New Delhi’s oldest surviving inhabited area. After India’s cleavage at independence in 1947, her grandparents, both Punjabis from present-day Pakistan, found sanctuary in the neighbourhood and bought land on which they built a home.

She thinks of the stories of partition she heard from them as her first brush with history. From her terrace, she would watch Qutub Minar, a five-storey red and buff sandstone tower built in the 12th and 13th centuries by Muslim rulers that is as much a landmark of New Delhi as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. “I have a strong emotional connection with it. I think that monument is beautiful,” Sharma says.

When she was 13, her parents decided they needed more space and moved out of the family house to a district neighbouring Delhi, where she lives with her elder sister and her 61-year-old mother, a retired government official who worked at Indian Oil, a government oil and gas corporation. Sharma lost her father to cancer in 2017.

Sharma says she was always interested in eye makeup. She would wear kohl in high school. She began using lip gloss in college, and during her PhD in 2020, she started applying eye makeup and lipstick to cope with an abusive relationship.

“I was in a physically and mentally abusive relationship for 10 years, battling PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and scary thoughts of self-harm. I was in therapy for it,” she explains.

Sharma saw an eyeshadow YouTube video that caught her attention. “Watching eyeshadow videos, seeing the colours arranged in palettes, and putting them on my eyelids was incredibly therapeutic for me. It would calm me down,” remarked Sharma.

She was teaching in a college at the time and would buy eyeshadow palettes, though her mother disapproved of it.

“I’ve never worn makeup in my life, even to parties or weddings. I don’t like her makeup and clothing style. I’m conservative and religious, and I come from a different generation and period,” said her mother, who requested anonymity.

Her mother’s other concern was that Sharma was spending too much money on expensive eyeshadow palettes.

As with makeup, Sharma’s academic pursuit of history was not something her parents supported initially.

Sharma was in eighth grade when a history teacher who she remembers as “Sheila ma’am” changed her view of the subject. Until then, she says, teachers would ask students to underline important dates and moments in history in their textbooks, and then memorise them.

“However, at our first lesson with Sheila ma’am, she said that history could not be taught using a single textbook and that she would give us lectures like they do in colleges, and that we would have to take notes,” Sharma says. “Initially, I thought I would fail the history exam.”

Sharma began to visit the school library frequently and study any history books she came across, finding the process fascinating. Sharma got 94 percent in her 10th grade examination and took up humanities in high school.

Sharma got into Lady Shri Ram College, one of New Delhi’s top arts institutions, for her undergraduate studies, but her parents believed there was no future in history and pressured her into taking up an undergraduate programme in business studies.

Fresh out of college at the age of 21, she was recruited by a high-paying corporate firm. She left her job after just four months. She was bored. “I realised I needed to return to history. My parents were not very enthusiastic about my change of plans,” she says.

Sharma had continued to read history as a hobby during her undergraduate years. One book influenced her above all others – The Hindus: An Alternative History, by American historian Wendy Doniger, who was targeted by the Hindu right-wing who claimed that her book vilified the Hindu religion. Publishers subsequently pulled the book from the Indian market in 2014, raising widespread concerns about the state of free speech in India.

Making the leap from a corporate life to go back to school, she joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which regularly ranks as among India’s top research universities, for her master’s and PhD in history.

Sharma took up a contractual teaching position at Indraprastha College For Women in Delhi University. And in mid-2022, as physical classes resumed after COVID-19 cases dipped, Sharma started wearing eyeshadow to campus. “My students were very piqued by it and encouraged me to start a YouTube channel where I could provide makeup tutorials,” she says. “I declined. but then a student proposed that I talk about history while putting on eye makeup”.

That intrigued her. She read up online on how to start a YouTube channel. And two weeks later, she recorded her first episode where she matched her blue outfit with blue eyeshadow.

Her first video was a trip down memory lane: a 28-minute episode about Qutub Minar, where she discussed the monument’s history and construction, its architecture, and the history of architecture and design in Islam.

That first video, which she described as an experiment, brought her more than 400 subscribers in the first few days.

Sharma, the YouTube historian, was born.

Sharma, shooting a YouTube live for her history channel from Humayun's tomb, a Mughal-era monument in Delhi, India. (Md Meharban/Al Jazeera)
Sharma shooting a YouTube live for her history channel from Humayun’s tomb, a Mughal-era monument in New Delhi, India [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

‘Cannot let these myths slide’

Myth-busting was not the idea behind her YouTube channel initially, she says. She wanted to introduce people to aspects of Indian history that they were unfamiliar with.

She soon started recording videos on architectural reuse, non-vegetarian food in Indian history, homosexual and interfaith relationships in the Mughal period, and Sati, an ancient Hindu practice in which widows would burn to death by sitting atop their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres.

But the comments she saw under her videos often had little to do with the content of what she had said.

“People used to comment a lot on videos about the Mughals breaking temples and oppressing Hindus. This is how I learned about the widespread myths, which I compiled into a video debunking the 10 biggest myths about Mughals,” she explains.

With each video, the responses alerted her to more historical myths, half-truths and instances of complex themes from the past that were often presented publicly without context.

“Initially, the trolling and abuse I received for my videos affected me greatly,” she says. Her past mental health struggles compounded the hurt, she said. “But over time, I became immune.”

Since then, she has had no shortage of material to work with: from the razing of Hindu temples, ostensibly by medieval Muslim rulers; to stories of atrocities committed by these rulers that eliminate nuance.

These are subjects that are often invoked by leaders of Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and their allies to paint India’s history as one filled with the oppression of Hindus by Muslims – a narrative that critics have long warned feeds into the demonisation of India’s 200 million Muslims. In an animated Instagram video in late April that the platform later took down, the BJP portrayed India as a Hindu land pillaged by Muslim raiders for centuries. In fact, Islam arrived in the Indian subcontinent as early as the 7th century – much before Khilji, the Mughals and other Muslim rulers and commanders.

Under Modi, school textbooks have been changed to incorporate this Hindu nationalist reading of history – including suggestions that a Vedic sage was the “father of aviation” and that atomic science was known to ancient Hindus.

“I cannot just let these myths slide,” Sharma says.

“Lines were always blurred in India between history, faith and politics. But what has changed is that blurring of lines has led to violence,” she adds, arguing that the portrayal of Indian Muslims as historical villains has helped make it easier for Hindu majoritarian politicians and mobs to target them. Since Modi came to power in 2014, hate crimes – including lynchings – against Muslims have skyrocketed.

No figure in Indian history evokes the kind of hatred in Hindu nationalist historical accounts that Aurangzeb, the last major Mughal emperor does. He is accused of having killed hundreds of thousands of Hindus, committing unimaginable atrocities on his ‘kafir’ (infidel) subjects, and razing down religious sites of ‘non-believers’.

Sharma believes this portrayal of Aurangzeb ignores the time he lived in.

“Aurangzeb arrived at a critical juncture in the history of the Mughal Empire when the empire was on the verge of disintegration,” she says. The wars he waged had “little to do with religion”, and were “all about political conquest”.

Breaking temples built or patronised by defeated kings was the norm at the time, she says – one that Hindu kings too had long followed. The idea was simple: Such temples were seen as manifestations of the former sovereign’s authority. Aurangzeb followed that practice, and patronised at least 25 Hindu temples, Sharma says.

Yet, the widely held image of Aurangzeb as a particularly evil king has real-world consequences for those who differ. The Mughal king is also eulogised by some for having practised a humble lifestyle and for his religious knowledge. This landed a 14-year-old Muslim boy in trouble. In June 2023, police arrested a teenager for putting up a social media status praising Aurangzeb, after receiving complaints.

“This idea is that because Aurangzeb broke a temple, so I will break this person’s house because he is a Muslim and because I think Aurangzeb and this person are the same,” Sharma says.

According to Abhilash Mallick, an associate editor of the fact-checking unit of The Quint, an India-based digital news organisation, history is challenging to fact-check because “we are unable to provide a yes or no answer”.

“So we must cite historians and their research and then allow the reader to draw their own conclusions,” he says. “We need people who can simplify history in videos and give all kinds of proofs in the same link. Videos work best. People consume them the most.”

That is where Sharma comes in. “She removes the historical jargon and makes videos in Hindi which is what I like about Ruchika’s approach,” he says.

As India votes in its seven-phase national election, the race between the politicisation of history and attempts to counter myth-making has only grown in intensity.

In late April, Sharma decided to take on a particularly powerful opponent – Prime Minister Modi himself.

Who is an ‘outsider’?

Speaking at an election rally in the western Indian state of Rajasthan on April 21, Modi appeared to describe Indian Muslims as “infiltrators” in trying to suggest that the opposition Congress party wanted to take the private property of Hindus and distribute them among Muslims.

Within hours, Sharma posted a link on X, referencing a video of Modi’s comments and pointing to a YouTube episode of her show, challenging common beliefs about the Mughal empire that ruled India from 1526-1719 AD, though weaker kings from the dynasty continued to control an ever-shrinking empire all the way up to 1857.

The Mughal video, like all of Sharma’s history videos, begins with a more than one-minute preview of the video, followed by her introduction, in which she lists her credentials and tells viewers that her channel is a “passion project”.

Sharma applies a reddish eyeshadow that matches her red top. Throughout the video, she combines memes and Bollywood music to inject humour. Three minutes into the video, she picks up a skin serum and pours a few drops on her right palm as she takes on the first myth – that the Mughals were outsiders.

She discusses how, with the exception of Babur, the dynasty’s founder, and his son Humayun, the remainder of the Mughal rulers were born in India. Mughal food and clothing, she claims, are now commonplace in most Indian households. She discusses modern borders and the idea of nations and how they emerged centuries after the Mughals, and how by today’s notions of nationhood, most of the dynasties that ruled India would have had roots that could make them “outsiders”.

Sharma then picks up a concealer and begins applying it to her left eye as she debunks the second myth: that the Mughals were especially violent.

She refers to suggestions that the Mughals burned all documents prior to their rule. She explains how the Mughals preserved the histories and texts of the ancient Indian period through translations, such as Razmnama, a Persian translation of the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

A provocative question follows: “If documents were not burned, did they burn people?” she asks, before answering herself.

“Maybe as much as some other kings in India burned,” she says, explaining that the Mughals, while violent, had a track record no worse than many other rulers of the time.

But fighting historical battles in India’s present, surcharged political environment has risks. Doing so while wielding an eyeliner as a weapon is even harder – as Sharma has learned.

Sharma filming b-rolls of a Mughal-era monument for use in her YouTube broadcasts. (Md Meharban/Al Jazeera)
Sharma filming b-rolls of a Mughal-era monument for use in her YouTube broadcasts [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

‘I don’t want to rot in jail’

From labelling her a pseudo-historian and questioning her credentials to hypersexualised slander, the online abuse that Sharma faces is as wide-ranging as the makeup tools on her table and the slices from history she clinically dissects.

Sharma admits that when she first started creating the videos, she worried she wouldn’t be able to withstand the trolling. “They call me ugly. They assume I’m a [religious] convert. They call me a mulli and a jihadi,” she says. Mulli is a derogatory word used to slander Muslim women.

“But I’ve come to realise now I have a thicker skin.”

Still, she feels let down by her own peers. Sharma often hears from members of academia – including female historians – that she is cheapening history by talking about it while putting on makeup in front of a camera. “Women have internalised this idea that if they want to be taken seriously, they need to invisibilise their body and desexualise themselves,” Sharma says. “You shouldn’t have to choose between femininity and academia.”

Meena Bhargava, a retired history professor at Delhi University’s Indraprastha College for Women, believes that few academics are willing to speak out in India’s current political climate, where many universities have cracked down on critics of the Modi government.

“Some historians simply give up. We’ve talked so many times and then grown tired that people aren’t changing. Despite the harassment, Ruchika routinely posts historical videos on her YouTube account, which is encouraging,” says Bhargava.

Academics “who appear simple and dressed in a saree may be speaking nonsense”, she says.

“Then there’s Ruchika, who is flashy, fashionable, and wears trendy clothes. Despite all this, she knows what she is talking about.”

Sharma says Indian historians have a “social responsibility” to convey accurate history to the public – but that for the most part, they’ve failed. “Historians are happy writing journals that only five people read,” Sharma says.

She chooses to make her videos in Hindi, rather than English, to reach a larger Indian audience.

But as her viewership grows, so does – she believes – the target on her back. Sharma has applied for assistant professor positions at more than two dozen Delhi University colleges since August 2023, after her short-term contract job at Indraprastha College was over, but has not been able to land a job. That is no coincidence, she says.

Often, she says, questions asked during interviews are attempts to tease out the interviewee’s ideology. She speaks of an incident where the interviewer turned out to be a senior historian aligned with the current government, whom she had confronted in a separate panel discussion earlier. During the job interview, she says, he inquired about recent archaeological excavations at a Mughal palace and mentioned the discovery of temple remains there.

“He asked me why they discovered temple remains there. I told him that one can find many things during excavation and that archaeology is very layered,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Why is it that only under mosques do you find remains of temples?’”

Sharma knew then that she wouldn’t get the job.

Now, she says, she goes to interviews without any expectations that she might be selected. “One Google search and anyone will know about my ideology and the government does not want somebody like me.”

It is not just her career that is on the line: Dozens of critics of the Modi government, including journalists and academics, have been arrested over the past decade, many on charges that rights groups have described as excessive or motivated.

Sharma doesn’t want to join them.

“I don’t want to rot in jail. I don’t see the point of it. I’d rather say what I can rather than say something that could eventually land me in jail,” she says before turning to the humour that often marks her videos too. “I can do much better work if I stay outside.”

Her mother worries about her daughter. “I keep telling her to quit this work. I feel scared,” she says.

Sharma has asked her mother not to share her videos in family WhatsApp groups and worries about being recognised in public. “I usually don’t tell her that I get death threats but she also has it in her brain that people are getting to know me and she tells me that I should wear a mask when I go outside,” says Sharma.

But despite her fears, Sharma is not ready to give up yet.

In her makeshift studio, it is time for a retake, so she sifts through brushes and picks the eye-shadow palette. She gently brushes the eyeshadow on her left eyelid. “I will continue making videos as long as they let me.”

Source: Al Jazeera