Millennials and Gen Z may have been de facto rulers of Instagram and TikTok but a new wave of senior influencers is staking their claim in the digital world.
“Hello ma’am, is it safe to use vaginal tightening or lightening cream?” reads the caption on a seven-second Reel on Instagram. The inquiry is a DM extracted from the inbox of Seema Anand (@seemaanandstorytelling) who features in the Reel waking from her sleep, presumably rolling her eyes to the question and lip-synching “Fuck!” to a remix of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” A message flashes on the screen: “When you think you can take a break but then realise you still need to shift mindsets.”
Viewed over 35,000 times, reactions in the comments section range from requests to elaborate on the issue to fire emojis. Aside from the subject, the Reel is distinct for its main character: a sex-positive writer and sexual health educator who happens to be 60 and rocking the silver-haired look in a saree and bangles. Seema Anand is one of a number of “granfluencers” on Instagram. Millennials and Gen Z may have been de facto rulers of Instagram and TikTok (now banned in India), but a new wave of senior influencers is staking their claim in the digital world. Not so long ago, the catchphrase “OK Boomer” erupted among younger generations, who continue to use it in memes that dismiss the views of baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – including their resistance to new technology, condescension towards the values and beliefs of Gen Z and millennials, and climate change denial. However, this supposedly technophobic and unwoke generation is now inspiring tens of thousands on the very platform they are considered “not young enough” for. The “Instagrannies” are here, and they’re in no hurry to go anywhere.
Closer home, the trend began to take shape during the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, when the older population at an increased risk of suffering from the virus chose to explore the medium they saw younger family members engaging with. Soon, they made it their own by pushing the online narrative towards greater authenticity, as they tend to be more open and honest about their struggles. Also, unlike their younger counterparts, granfluencer pages tend to have a focus.
Moradabad-based Ravi Bala Sharma (@ravi.bala.sharma) – who goes by the moniker Dancing Dadi (dadi = grandma) – began her digital journey in 2020 when a video she made for a dance competition went viral on Instagram. Two years later, the 63-year-old’s feed now features a mix of paid partnerships, progressive and inspirational messaging, and Reels with hook steps of trending Hindi film songs, in addition to classical dance moves. Around the same time, in Gurgaon, actor-model Dinesh Mohan (@dinesh.mohan.58) – also 63 years of age – discovered ways to generate additional income through social media. After recovering from an almost decade-long battle with depression, Mohan found his calling and purpose in modelling, thanks to a referral from his physiotherapist to a talent agency. Roles as a supporting actor followed in films including Veere Di Wedding (2018), the Salman Khan-starrer Bharat (2019), and Saand Ki Aankh (2019), in which he played the Maharaja of Alwar. Today, he has a following of 306K on Instagram. In 2020, taking a cue from the lockdown, then 25-year-old Delhi resident Yukti Bajaj turned to social media to help her grandmother showcase her crochet skills publicly. In November of that year, Sheela Bajaj, 76 at the time, launched her own account (@caughtcrafthanded) on the Gram. Today, Bajaj has over 40,000 followers and, earlier this year, was featured as an entrepreneur on the website of digital media company The Better India.
In a world where stages and auditoriums were no longer accessible, UK-based Seema Anand, too, was urged by a member of the younger generation – in this case, her college-going daughter – to use the social media platform for her writing and storytelling abilities, as well as her experience as a sexual health educator. “It’s a blessing,” exclaimed Anand, whose work gives her the opportunity to meet and learn from new people every day. In a country where the average retirement age is 60, “our lives become narrower,” she believes. “You’re not going out as much.”
A resounding “age is just a number” philosophy unites these new digital influencers, but not all their viewers are likely to be supportive of their approach. In India, entering one’s senior years is accompanied by societal expectations to immerse oneself in religious or spiritual pursuits. “Once in a while, viewers will comment saying, ‘aunty, puja karne ki umar mein naach rahin hain’ (aunty is dancing at an age when she should be engaged in prayer) or ‘aunty bhajan-kirtan karo’ (aunty, sing devotional songs),” shared Bala Sharma. “There’s been all kinds of comments – from people calling me sinful to a defier of Hindu culture,” added Mohan. A quick look through his account reveals comments from spectators that range from the occasional sarcasm-laden “dadaji” [grandpa] and “guruji” [teacher] to downright cussing.
What’s age got to do with it?
Given regressive attitudes around Anand’s subject matter – sex – coupled with sexism and ageism, she’s encountered harassment including being sent death threats to dick pics. She’s usually able to ignore them but.she does recall a particularly horrific message once sent to her. “They sent a photo of a mutilated woman who had been raped, murdered, and slashed, saying, ‘This is what I want to do to you.’ I was shaken up for a long time.” Though Anand was tempted to publicly out the sender, she settled for blocking and reporting them. Yukti Bajaj was once accused of exploiting her grandmother’s skills for money. “Dadi ki shakityan istamaal ho raha hai” (grandma’s skills are being put to use), commented a user. Disturbed by the allegation, Yukti chose to ignore it. “It’s ironic because I started this venture for Dadi’s well-being,” she explained, adding that her grandmother has had to cope with the loss of loved ones including her son, daughter-in-law, and husband over the years. “She breaks down when alone,” said Yukti. “But that’s changed since launching her own business.” How do they cope with the hate? For Bala Sharma, it’s the belief that such netizens are usually projecting their own insecurities onto other people. For Mohan, it’s his outlook and “a strong friend circle” that shields him from moments of doubt; for Sheela and Yukti, it’s putting on their earphones and tuning out the naysayers. Professional therapy combined with reading empowering words of love and hope are what keep Anand afloat in the industry.
From age-shaming to cyber trolling, these granfluencers are taking it all in stride. But – as all four agree – what keeps them going in the face of physical and psychological inhibitions is the overwhelming affection, respect, and admiration from their followers.
There is no place for hate for these granfluencers. Yukti recounts an instance where a customer travelled over an hour – from north Delhi to Gurgaon – just so they could meet her grandmother in person, and pick up their order for a knitted headband. “I have dedicated a large part of my life to my children. So, there’s been unparalleled joy in getting the love back from the young ones,” Bajaj added. “What makes me tick? Not the money, never the fame, just acceptance,” said Mohan, adding, “The same message has been conveyed to me in different ways: When we grow up, we want to be like you. And when it comes from teenagers and youngsters, I feel absolutely thrilled.” “People are saying that they now have a role model where they didn’t before,” shared Anand, adding that she has helped followers on their own self-love and self-acceptance journeys. “Some have even thanked me for improving their relationships. I love that I’ve helped people find each other again.”
Powered by love
On Bala Sharma’s page, her 186K followers frequently shower her with love, she said. “You are an inspiration to our generation,” read a recent comment. “It’s such fun to watch your fabulous expressions,” writes someone else.
Their influence and attitude may seem to indicate otherwise, but the influencer marketing industry is far from a level-playing field for many granfluencers. Physical illness and the lack of technological knowledge are the two biggest challenges to their creativity and autonomy. Bala Sharma suffers from a knee injury that prevents her from doing certain moves. “I yearn to learn hip-hop and contemporary dances. Youngsters do all kinds of crazy movements; I want to be able to move like them,” she said. As a compromise, she improvises to create her own moves. She’s also dependent on her son – who has a family and a full-time job – to shoot, upload and monetise the content. Bajaj often tires after two or three hours of work and needs to rest, even though she tries to dedicate eight to ten hours to her knitting routine everyday. She’s also dependent on her granddaughter, who works a full-time job at a consulting firm. For Anand, who has a team to manage her 706K followers, the limitation lies in the medium itself. For a storyteller with 19 years of public speaking experience in front of audiences, the transition to social media was “soul-destroying.” “You’re just looking at yourself, and I find that really hard. I can't tell the story. It doesn't come alive,” she said. Still, the boomers speak matter-of-factly of their roadblocks, perhaps by virtue of belonging to a generation that has seen much more hardship.“Influencer culture is one of those things that we made ourselves believe is for younger people,” said Anand. In a country where age is the less talked-about “ism” that deprives an entire generation of important conversations and opportunities, granfluencers are rewriting an age-old script and, in all likelihood, building inter-generational solidarity in both the digital and real worlds.Follow Mihika on Twitter.