By Nishiraj A. Baruah
Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara is a Chennai based banker. With an MBA from IIM, Indore, he was also an IT pro working with TCS. “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,” he says. Sometimes he would take his outstation clients, business partners and colleagues to various interesting places in Chennai.
Georgetown, with its crowded markets, narrow lanes, chaotic traffic, and noisy hawkers, was one of them. Amidst the chaos, he would also point out the majestic buildings there with all its fascinating history, vivid colours and mesmerising images. Sometimes, he would take them for a peek into colonial Madras, where Hindu Gods sit under Muslim domes, where stained glass reflects Kerala-style roofs, and majestic Greek columns stand next to sleek Art Deco edifices. For the culturally inclined clients, he would take them to Bharatanatyam dance recitals and to temples that showcased various dance forms in its sculptures. At other times, he would walk them through Mylapore, a bustling neighbourhood in the heart of of Chennai that pre-dates the city by at least 2,000 years.
His guests loved those tours which he organised out of personal interest and professional courtesy. He would stop by Dakshinachitra, a living museum of art, architecture and lifestyles of South India, and on occasions, it would be a food and spice trail. His guests were only too happy to take it all in: Pav bhaji, pal kova, murukku sandwich.
But sometimes his guests wanted to know more about the sights and sounds of the city, the story behind it all, and would put forth several questions: How did Cenotaph Road get its name? What transforms a piece of ordinary rock into a venerable deity? What’s the science behind low-slung houses? What could possibly link the Indian Railways and the caste system?
Questions, questions to which he didn’t have all the answers. “It was then I realised that the sights you see are but a small part of a city’s charm. To truly experience Chennai, one has to tell the behind-the-scene story and sample the local life with its assortment of customs, traditions and stories,” says Kamalakara.
He did his research and once he was armed with a quiver full of stories, he quit his job. That was in 2006. He developed a trail and soon started marketing it. The response had been good and soon enough he was unable to meet the huge demands from people. He collected a group of like minded people who are not only experts in their areas of interest – history, culture, architecture, dance forms, crafts – but also love telling stories about them to people. It was a motley group of professionals from diverse educational and professional backgrounds.
Akila Raman, for example, is a postgraduate in History and a collector of assorted historical and mythological stories and trivia, and has over fifteen years of teaching under her belt. Lakshmi Shankar, on her part, has a degree in commerce, a diploma in Montessori, worked as an advertising copywriter and a storyteller with the British Council. There is also a maverick cartoonist named Vasudevan Ananthakrishnan with a diploma in cartooning from the London School of Journalism. And oh, you also have a retired corporate hotshot in SV Kaushik who uses his free time now to tell stories about Chennai.
With the team in place, he dug out more everyday stories to create a trail and present it creatively. For Chennai, Storytrails has developed as many as 10 trails that include Bazaar tours, Spice Tours, Countryside tours, and so on. Each trail is for two hours, but can be extended to a daylong tour too. “We also use plays, picture cards and props. 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,” he says.
To elaborate a little, in the Bazaar Trail, you will learn how black town Georgetown became a bustling wholesale market. In the trail called British Blueprint, you get glimpses of colonial Madras, where Hindu Gods sit under Muslim domes, where majestic Greek columns stand next to sleek Art Deco edifices. Look more closely at these structures and you will find stories of grand ambitions and unexpected revolutions, determined idealists and rascally traders.
In Country Roads, Storytrails take you away from the city to a world of green quilted paddy fields, ancient village temples and sacred groves. Here, you can spend time in a farmer’s house enjoying village hospitality. You can also visit his paddy fields and learn techniques of organic farming or how rice goes from paddy to plate.
For those interested in jewellery and craftsmanship, you are taken to old jewellery workshops to see traditional goldsmiths at work and learn how jewellery depicts the caste system. You will also be left spellbound by the stories of the fabled jewels of the maharajas and of their plunder, of gems and their mysticism, and of the symbolisms in their placement. In the Mystic tour, you will encounter age-old practices that might seem bizarre, but has a meaning.
With all of that, no wonder their website is full of complimentary messages: “Very interesting to hear about Indian farming and the special plants. Beautiful country side,” writes a tourist, Brigitte Nicolagsew.
“The chronological order in which the trail has been woven is truly amazing. The stories that were related and the historical background of each place is very interesting. Great experience!” writes another named Shyamala Christopher, following a Steeple Chase tour that took her deep into Chennai’s Christian history.
“Storytrails bought the magic of India to life. The goodness of her stories. The meals experience was wonderful. It was not just one of the best Indian meals but one of the most memorable feasts ever. Thank you!” That was a tourist named David Woelka who went for the food trail.
“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,” says Kamalakara who has in his kitty the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur Award for his unique initiatives..
Beyond tourists and travellers, these tours are also organised for local corporate houses and schools, expanding from its original target audience of expats to include locals.
The company now organises trails in a few other tourist hubs. How about a food trail in Madurai? Or what’s the story behind Pondicherry’s French connect?