V.Brabu with his mini digital planetarium is stealing the hearts of students in city schools

Last Friday at the Sadhana School in Kochadai, V.Brabu brought the sun, the moon and the stars with him in the back of his car. With the help of two assistants he assembled an air blower, a generator set and a big silver-grey fabric into a digital planetarium in less than half an hour in the school’s auditorium.

Students gathered impatiently around the igloo-shaped room for a tour of the larger universe. Instructions followed and about 50 of them kicked off their shoes and ducked into the opening. Inside, the thick lining of the balloon-shaped tent shut out daylight. The interior sparkled with stars and planets and the children let out squeals. For them, the journey into outer space had just begun.

Thirty minutes later, they crawled out happily. “Super!” was the word on every lip. It is in this response that Brabu lives his dream. “As a kid, reading about the solar system, the galaxy, the milky way fascinated me. Night after night I would drift into the world of the beyond staring at the dark blank ceiling of my room,” he says.

Though he had stars in his eyes, his feet were on the ground. He had a practical background in photography because his grandfather and father were professionals. “My grandfather set up a photo studio in Usilampatti five decades ago and we were the first ones to bring the digital camera to Madurai in 1978. My father set up the second photo studio in the city in 1989.”

Joining his father’s photo studio was Brabu’s natural choice after he finished his studies, but he could not get the star trek out of his mind. “The more years I spent in Madurai, the more I realised children here do not have an opportunity to visit a planetarium.”

The Madurai Kamaraj University operates a small planetarium on request.

Brabu started researching planetariums and that is when an idea struck him. “Why not a mobile planetarium? Children can take a journey to the stars without leaving their school!”

Of course investment was high but that did not deter him. It took him more than two years to scout the market abroad, become familiar with operations, and get loans to finance it all. Brabu imported the digital planetarium to Madurai two months ago.

The unit installation requires clear ground space and a spacious hall with a 13-foot-high ceiling. The dome is inflated to its full capacity in less than 15 minutes using the blower, which also ventilates the space and keeps it comfortably cool. Once deflated, the thin, fire-proof, rubber dome can be folded into an air-bag. It was launched in Mahatma School on January 22.

Brabu’s plan for the planetarium is to visit at least one school per week. He can run a dozen shows in a full day’s programme. Every batch can accommodate 40 adults or 70 small children, and to give all the students an opportunity to see the stars, he can station himself at a school for two days.

He uses a computer and a suitcase-sized digital starlab that drives the audience to any point in time and space. He pilots the shows and decides which capsule to screen. “I have customised the length and content depending on the class I am screening it for and the school I am visiting,” says Brabu. For kindergarteners, he also displays movies, videos and other digital animations but with the universe as the central theme.

Brabu plans to take his mobile planetarium to rural areas and under-represented schools in the region. “Children anywhere should have science coming to them for digital hands-in experience. It is easier for them then to get involved and enjoy the classes,” he says.

Said Nandhini, a class VIII student,“The star show was really good. It was presented in a way that we could enjoy and understand the basic science of astronomy.”

In his preliminary rounds of screening star shows, Brabu is yet to work out the logistics. “It is a financial struggle but I want to take the mobile planetarium to underfunded schools free of cost,” he says. He also wants to improvise and modify the films he screens and make them bilingual too.

The magic and excitement of the solar system is unlimited, he feels, and every child should be given the opportunity to explore stars and planets, and to learn about comets and constellations.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)