On 2 November, 20 children from two remote districts of Arunachal Pradesh—Anjaw and Dibang valley—were in for a surprise. When they got down from the buses that had ferried them to the indoor stadium in the villages of Hayuliang and Hawai, they saw an inflated dome-like structure in the middle. Inside, they got a chance to immerse themselves in a world of stars and planets.
It was their first experience of a planetarium.
The digital mobile planetarium stayed in the two districts for 10 days. Around 1,000 children from various schools in Anjaw, and 500 from Dibang valley villages like Anini and Etalin, were ferried in batches for this unique experience. Ayushi Sudan, deputy commissioner of Anjaw district, tweeted: “Anjaw organised mobile planetarium in Hayuliang and Hawai to inspire students to ‘reach for the stars’ and cultivate spirit of scientific inquiry. A big shoutout to Varnaaz Tech, Bangalore and all local staff for the event’s success.”
The district administrations had been keen to replicate the experience of Varnaaz Tech’s Tare Zameen Par initiative in schools in rural Karnataka. “In these districts (in (Arunachal), we face two challenges. There is hardly any internet connectivity and the literacy levels are very low,” says Sudan. Dibang valley deputy commissioner Minga Sherpa and she waited for the pandemic restrictions to ease before going ahead with the plan. “The reactions were simply amazing. I remember some kids literally trying to grab the stars in the show. They were mesmerised,” laughs Sudan.
The digital mobile planetarium has its roots in Dinesh Badagandi’s childhood. The founder of Varnaaz Tech grew up in a part of rural Karnataka that was dry and remote, with no good schools. “But even then, I would organise science exhibitions with my limited means and knowledge,” he says. “Luckily, I got admission in Sainik School, Bijapur, for my higher secondary, and that changed my life.” Badagandi was able to access resources and went on to study mechanical engineering and complete a master’s in business administration. It was when he took up a job as technology program manager with KPMG in London between 2001-05 that he became aware of the kind of outreach common to museums in Europe. “We simply didn’t have that in India. Children from the countryside had no access to museums or planetariums,” says Badagandi.
In 2007, he returned to India and set up a firm that focused on enterprise application solutions. In 2010, it was acquired by an American company, Aelera. Soon after, he founded Varnaaz to help graduates from small towns find employment. But he also wanted to create experiential and experimental learning experiences for children in rural areas.
In most cases, they are only able to learn about space theoretically. So Badagandi started the planetarium as a pilot project in select government schools. In 2017, he presented this at ELEVATE 100, an initiative by the department of information technology and biotechnology, government of Karnataka, to provide a platform to startups. “The project was selected and awarded a cash prize of ₹30 lakh,” he says.
For the setup, Badagandi got inflatable domes designed to withstand Indian weather conditions, with vents for air circulation. He tied up with Evans & Sutherland, a US-based company which creates content specifically for planetariums. Each unit costs around ₹1 crore.
Today, mobile vans zip across villages in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala and other states, ferrying the inflatable domes, solar panel-powered UPS, GPS, projectors, fish-eye lens and 55-inch television sets. The fish-eye lens offers a 360-degree immersive view. It takes barely 30 minutes to put all this together.
“We have 12 mobile planetarium units. Some of the content we have created on our own. For instance, we have a short video of a granny busting myths and superstitions. Children can easily connect with this,” explains Badagandi. This is followed by videos related to the working of the cosmos. There is also content related to Indian heritage, the human anatomy, birds and wildlife. All the content is now being dubbed in Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and other Indian languages to enhance accessibility.
Usually, each dome can accommodate 40-50 children at a time, as well as teachers. Due to the pandemic, however, they have limited the numbers. Yet the initiative, supported by the Karnataka Science and Technology Promotion Society, has managed to reach around 800,000 students so far. “I had once seen an exhibit in Singapore, where you can walk through the human anatomy and see how glands feel and touch the heart. We want to create similar content inside the dome. We have also tied up with Vedarth Animations, Pune, to create content on the Indian initiatives in space,” he elaborates. The content is being dubbed in Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, and more, to increase its accessibility. The planetarium is now also being clubbed together with a DIY science lab on wheels.
“Earlier, children would just look at the sky and that was it. After being exposed to the mobile planetarium, the sky has now become a space of possibilities for them. They try to recognise stars, planets and constellations,” says Renukappa S. Buradi, who was the block education officer at DIET Gadag in Karnataka from 2017-20, when the planetarium visited the villages there. He is now the block education officer in Shirahatti.
Raju Bhooshetty, who was the science teacher at Gokul School, a government high school, in Hubli, concurs with Buradi, and adds that the planetarium has triggered a sense of curiosity and creative thinking. “The future lies in the realm of space. And this is the right time for children to get interested in it. Astronomy and space is difficult to explain in theory. When kids watch those concepts come alive within a dome in their language, they understand it much better,” he says.