Anusha Parthasarathy meets Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara, a chronicler of cities who steers clear of landmarks and stops to smell the flavours

The sun, after hibernating for two days, is out with a vengeance when we set out to meet Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara. “Harsh lighting,” says our photographer, bringing along the lights, batteries and the works. When Vijay arrives, we find ourselves on the terrace of Giri Trading, facing the mandapam of Kapaleeshwarar Temple. The photographer tries to reflect some of the ‘harsh lighting' on to the silhouetted subject but the sun refuses to oblige. Giving up, we head to the beach.

The photo shoot finally commences and Vijay, standing by a small fruit stall, papaya in hand, says, “A lot of people think Storytrails offers guided tours about landmarks and heritage buildings. So we consciously avoid talking about or taking people to these places. We're more about the local flower stalls, vegetable markets that lend a flavour to the city.”

Vijay, who won British Council's Young Creative Entrepreneur Award earlier this year and took part in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, adds, “I grew up in Delhi, Kochi, Indore and other places but my parents are from Andhra Pradesh. I've been in Chennai for seven years now since my wife is from here.”

With an MBA from IIM, Indore, Vijay began his career as a banker and then, three years later, shifted to the IT industry. In December 2006, he quit his job to start Storytrails, an attempt to give people a glimpse into the local way of life, using stories as the medium. “When I was working with TCS, we would host a lot of visitors and usually we would pack them off in a cab to Mahabalipuram. I love travelling and I believe that every place has something to show, not just the chaotic roads and its landmarks but the way people there live, because it reflects the culture,” Vijay explains. “You find these elements in our stories.”

Vijay was Storytrails' first storyteller. “To start with, it was just me. Then we decided to hire storytellers. We were looking for people who loved research, travel and telling stories. Our first trail was the Peacock Trail through Mylapore's narrow mada streets. While the trail can be done anywhere, I thought Mylapore is a nice place to begin since our culture is very visible here. For the first six months, we had only this trail but we came up with a new story every time we went there. Storytrails is a simple concept and I started it because I saw potential.”

The trails are all scripted, leaving no room for personal interpretation. “People have always left our trails feeling satisfied and the scripting ensures this every single time. Initially many people came to us through word-of-mouth. We do a lot of research before introducing any trail, whether it is showcasing an area, arts or crafts. We also use plays, picture cards and props.” He has a team of 15 and “we dig out everyday stories to create a trail but that's not enough. What is more important is to present it creatively. This is especially true in the case of children, where we have a Measurement Trail, explaining concepts without the kids suspecting that they're being given lessons.”

Organising trails for corporates and schools, Vijay's five-year-old venture has expanded from its original target audience of expats to include locals. “We first started trails for visitors who came on business trips. They are not meant for tourists who are on a schedule but for those who want to see a bit more of the place. But nowadays, we're getting locals too who are inquisitive about their surroundings. We do a lot of work for schools and conduct workshops and experiential programmes for corporates,” he says.

And now, Vijay is looking to expand to other cities. “We've hosted trails in Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, but we'd like to set up bases there so that we don't spend a lot of time working from here. We hope to get it running in a couple of places next year.”

“So, what else do you do?” I ask him. “Travel,” he says immediately, “I travel frequently.” A few seconds later, he adds, “I'm a guitarist too.”

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