Information can be fun. That's the motto of the Storytrails team that plucks stories out of everyday happenings to enrich lives, writes Subha J Rao.
Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara fits your image of a white-collar worker — someone who'll be comfortable in stiff boardrooms, the hustle and bustle of the financial sector and the sleek efficiency of the IT industry. After a Masters from IIM Indore, he did just that, before taking a 180-degree turn and deciding to tell stories. Not just the kind your grandmom told you, but also those drawn from real life.
Thus was born Storytrails. “Any information can be made interesting with presentation,” believes managing director Vijay, who hit upon this “workable model” in 2006, starting off with expats. And then, discovered that locals were flocking in too. Today, Storytrails, is an evolved entity that services both kids and adults and has among its multi-faceted team retired professionals, college students, dancers, teachers, radio jockeys and engineers drawn together by the love to learn and communicate knowledge.
But, why Chennai? “Well, this is home now. But, our trails are not city-specific; they have more to do with experiences.” A travel lover, Vijay's journeys have been more about experiences than sightseeing; that's what's he trying to replicate with Storytrails, which also has a branch in Mumbai.
As for the stories, they can be anything. For instance, why do we wear bindis? “There might be different perceptions; each one is a story. We then dig deeper to ferret out interesting tid-bits,” he says. The topics are varied too — from art, architecture and mathematics, to gardening, village life and Superman! “We make it all so much fun that kids don't suspect they are learning in the process,” he says.
The first trail was around the streets of Mylapore. “We walked down the streets, took in the flower sellers, the temple, the old houses… everything.”
Packed with activity
Every trail is thoroughly researched, scripted, rehearsed, and dry runs conducted before it makes a debut. The content remains the same irrespective of who leads a trail; only the delivery mechanism differs. “Every minute is accounted for; it is packed with activity. For kids, there are songs, dances, role play, props…We don't want their interest to wane.”
One thing that has worked to Storytrails' advantage is that a trail is never led by an expert. So, he/she knows where to stop. And, how to present a concept based on the target group.
In a sense, it is the perfect marriage of creativity and great management practices. “Yes, a clear case of right brain-left brain synergy. In fact, telling stories is the best part about my work,” states Vijay.
Among memorable trails are those conducted for special kids, and those from Corporation schools supported by CSR initiatives.
And, though English is the language of communication, reinforcements are in Tamil.
So, did Vijay ever imagine himself as storyteller? “Actually, I never slotted myself even in B-school. I just went with the flow. I've always been open to new experiences… Four years down the line, I'm happy I created a service the city needs and built a capable team and a reputation. Best of all, I know the model works,” says Vijay, who now plans to take it to other cities. “We've focussed on creative resources that are portable.”
The model works, all right. How else do you explain why the treasures in a museum, the magic of mathematics, the innocence of village life and the bounty of Nature linger in a child's mind long after leaving the place?
There are about 60 trails for children, more than 10 for adults, besides workshops and theme-based birthday parties. There are some full-day outings too (Camp Out, Village Trail). For details, visit www.storytrails.in
Children can be difficult customers, asking questions about issues taken for granted. For example, the query “Why did Lord Shiva not put back Ganesha's own head? Why an elephant's?” left veteran teacher Akila stumped. But, she went back, got the info needed and enriched the next trail.
You can't lie to kids. “I once played a person who knew nothing, and returned a while later as someone else. Said a little boy, ‘How can you talk? You don't know anything!'” laughs Lavanya, a graduate in History of Art.
Lakshmi, a Montessorian who manages operations, talks about how they have a set of commandments — never talk down to kids, don't preach, and remember the kids are not obliged to listen to you. Most of all, tell a story so well they see what you see.
Who is a Storytrailer?
Someone with a pleasant personality who is interested in learning, and enjoys the idea of talking and sharing stories. If you sing or dance, that's a wonderful extra.
Samarth, Sandiya, Soundharya… there's a long list of engineers in the team. “Coding to story-telling is a sea-change. But, an enjoyable one,” says Samarth.
Sandiya, a singer, dancer and poet, has always looked for creative outlets. So has Soundharya, who was an RJ before she starting telling tales.
A Royal Enfield bike enthusiast, Poornima, an MBA, has done lots, including journalism. “All this learning and sharing keeps the child in us alive,” she says.
There are also Lalitha, who followed almost the same route Vijay took — from working in the financial sector in Manhattan to telling stories in namma Chennai, and organic farmer Krishnan, who juggles many interests, and does his best to get kids to love Nature.
Then, there's freelancer Savitha, a dancer trained in bio-technology, who uses mudras to teach kids something as scientific as the extraction of snake venom!