The Birla Planetarium in Chennai continues to enthrall and fascinate visitors who flock in every day.
An avenue of tall trees leads to the ticketing counter, where uniform clad children proclaiming their requirements in raucous voices jostle to buy tickets, accompanied by stern faced school mistresses telling them to keep in line. A few young lovers holding hands linger in the shadowy corners and picnicking families consume banana leaf wrapped lunches on grassy patches. A bored guard ambles towards the crowds of visitors, proceeds to check their tickets and then waves them through. Familiar enough sights at almost every tourist spot in Chennai—sights that the Birla Planetarium has been witness to for nearly twenty three years now.
The planetarium was built in the memory of philanthropist and industrialist BM Birla in 1988 with the financial assistance of the Government of Tamil Nadu. It is located in the Periyar Science and Technology Centre campus on the Gandhi Mandapam Road in Kotturpuram—a densely wooded area often referred to as the green lung of Chennai. It is open from 10:00 am to 5:45 pm on all days except on national holidays.
The planetarium offers courses in astronomy and night sky observation. It also organizes a special show for night sky viewing between seven and nine on the second Saturday of every month.
The biggest attraction, however, is the GM II projector that recreates celestial occurrences on the 360 degree sky theatre inside the main building. A series of images flit across the specially perforated aluminum inner dome of the theatre, while you lie stretched out in the cool darkness. The planets, their moons, the sun and stars, Copernicus, Newton, Galileo and Hawkins tango with one another on the screen creating an almost surreal experience. The universe stretches infinitely before you, forcing you to confront your own insignificance in the greater scheme of things. Three shows are held every day—three in English and three in Tamil. There is also a special 4.30 show that outlines the work of NASA over the last fifty years. "Our shows are very popular. Around 1000-1200 people come here every day for the Science Show,” says Chinnarajan, a security guard working at the planetarium.
In addition to this show is a 3-D Science Picture that features mad scientists, dinosaurs, strange serpentine monsters and a few bubbling test tubes. Though not particularly informative, it appears to be highly popular among most children, who make wild grabs towards the screen, as images veer towards them , appearing almost real through the tinted lenses of their 3-D glasses.
Adjoining the planetarium is the Science and Technology Centre that houses eight galleries and contains over five hundred exhibits. Exhibits relating to Physical Science, Electronics and Communication, Material Sciences, Energy, Life Science, Innovation, Transport, International Dolls and Children line the corridors of the building, offering a little for almost everyone.
Unfortunately the planetarium is losing some of its sheen and the streams of visitors that trickle in often leave disappointed. Much of the equipment is broken and poorly maintained. The unavailability of assistance and guidance also tends to leave many visitors rather bewildered by the end of their visit. A pungent smell of unclean toilets and rotting garbage lingers in the corridors The glasses doled out for the 3-D show are cracked and the image and sound quality of the movie itself is rather poor. The sculptures around the building are rusting and dusty. One even housed hives of wasps as one young visitor found out at his expense.” I was sticking my hand in the dinosaur’s mouth to take a photo when I got stung,” he says tearfully holding out a very swollen hand wrapped in a grubby handkerchief.
The officials are aware of the inadequacies and there has been talk of investing more into the planetarium to ensure better infrastructure and maintenance. According to R Srinivasan,a Science Officer,”We charge very little at the entrance but our expenses are high. This is completely government funded and that is often not enough”. However recent reports say that the government has sanctioned over a million rupees to be invested in the planetarium. In fact a new Mathematics Gallery is being planned and will open shortly, according to Mr Srinivasan.
The planned changes should take place soon. In spite of these issues, the planetarium will continue to remain a fascinating place to discover the mystique and beauty of science and draw large bunches of visitors to it.