Foraying into the field of arts, like acting, always means an element of financial risk as it is a game of hits and misses. Founder and CEO of Vaayusastra Aerospace Private Limited, Jagadeesh Kanna, had two dreams since childhood: aircrafts and movies. Coming from a middle-class household, pursuing a career in the movies was a long shot. Kanna tried a different route by putting his engineering degree to good use by clubbing his passion for acting and science. His start-up, Vaayusastra, which is incubated under IIT-Madras RTBI (Rural Technology Business Incubator) trains children in AeroModelling workshops and science workshops by combining theatre arts. The venture, which surprisingly gained strength and fame during the lockdown has some big dreams.

Tell us about Vaayusastra.
As an organisation, Vaayusastra, addresses a problem statement related to knowledge transfer. For example, if a child is interested in music, dance, athletics or robotics they have a specific set of places to enhance their skills and learn. If a child, aged five or six, is interested in aeronautics or rocketry, where will the child go? Where will you take him for a properly designed curriculum? We created a holistic method of training children from five to 14 using storytelling methods. The second problem statement is: I am an aeronautical engineer and while pursuing my bachelors and master, I noticed that the focus was more about scoring marks and getting placed in companies. At our start-up, we have hands-on models for learning. The third problem statement is, career guidance. I had no clue about my future after completing my bachelors and I ended up doing Masters. If someone had told me, I would have worked towards building my start-up much earlier. At Vaayusastra, we are connecting with other starts-ups and training students to start on their own. Our fourth problem statement is, as a full time actor I struggled to generate revenue support and subsequently began conducting acting workshops to make ends meet. Vaayusastra gives work opportunities to aspiring actors, till they get a break. They can work at our start-up part time and generate support. They can perform in front of children, but they need to add science to their performances. Vaayusastra is a combination of all this.

What can children learn at Vaayusastra?
They learn basic science rooted in aeronautics and aerospace. For example, the concepts of pressure, molecules, density, Newton’s laws, momentum etc are basic sciences which need a different perspective in aeronautical engineering. An aeronautical engineer teaches how pressure and Newton’s law is related to aircraft. Those who take class are aeronautical engineers, and they learn it with hands-on science models.

You club theatre and science, why such a teaching methodology?
When you sit in a theory class, the attention span of a student is maximum 10 minutes-15 minutes. But for a movie like Interstellar, which is over two hours, we sit for the entire duration and even re-watch it even though it is full of science. Why? What is missing is the emotional connect, we need to engage the students in such a way they love it. Storytelling is the method we use. Based on research, it works for children for close to one-and-a-half hours. We introduce a character with a basic concept, who ask questions and solve problems through this we make a science model.

Who conceptualised Vaayusastra?
It was conceptualised by me. The problem statement addressed by Vaayusastra is from my personal experiences in school and college. I completed my Masters in 2012 and was working full-time in a private company. After work I would go and be part of theatre sessions and practise drama. I was addicted to it. I left my full-time job in 2014 when I got a movie offer. Coming from a middle-class background after taking a plunge into full time acting, I began thinking of what I was going to do for survival. I did not want to ask my parents for money. Since I am well connected with theatre groups, along with the support of my actor friends Krishna Kumar and Yog Japee, I started conducting workshops for children using paper planes. In one of the workshops, Yog asked me to add mythological stories to my narration. I chose one from Ramayana, the part where Ravana abducts Sita and is flying on the plane. I played the role of Ravana’s driver. We played out a conversation where Ravana was asking questions such as what is left wing, right wing and how a flight happens and I explain all of it and the storytelling ends with Ravana making a paper plane. During one such session, Yog performed with me the Greek mythology of Icarus which was well received. Soon we began receiving queries of new workshops and it began spreading through word of mouth.

What kind of a student were you in school?
I was a middle-bencher. I scored 74-80 per cent, in that sense I was not a brilliant student. Since childhood I have loved aeroplanes. At the age of five, I used to say I wanted to be an actor or pilot. I am glad my dreams stayed with me.

How did you pursue your love for acting amid this?
I began shooting for my first film in 2015, during which, a friend connected me to the IIT-Madras incubator. For eight months I was guided by them on making a business plan for the start-up. At the same time, I finished two movies and I began assisting Rajeev Menon. I was the Assistant director for Sarvam Thalamayam and associate director for 90 ML. I was also part of a music album and penned lyrics for a song. I began writing a script as well as building a company.

How did you establish Vaayusastra financially?
By the end of first year, Vaayusastra was able to generate close to Rs 13 lakhs. IIT was keenly watching our growth. Soon enough, we generated Rs 35 lakhs by the end of second year and it hit the Rs 50 lakhs mark. By 2020, they gave us a grant of Rs 10 lakhs seeing how hard we were working.

How did your start-up survive the pandemic?
When the pandemic began, we hit ground zero. Guided by our IIT-M appointed journey mentor, former Managing Director, TTK Prestige Group, Ravi Chandran we came up with an online module, ‘Triggers that Spark’. During the lockdown I was dwelling on a few books on the lives of Elon Musk, Abdul Kalam and Wright Brothers. Each of them had a moment in their lives that triggered a spark. For Kalam it was at the age of 12 when his teacher told him a story about a bird, for Musk, it was his addiction to space related video games and for Wright Brothers the spark ignited at the age of eight when their father got them a helicopter toy. With these on my mind we decided to make an online module programme using paper planes, mythological stores and basic science modules which can be created using paper. My mentor, Ravi, asked me to keep optimal pricing to attract parents and at the same time not make them feel burdened. We expected traction from Tamilnadu, but we were overwhelmed with the response from eight countries including US, Singapore, Dubai and UK.

What are your future plans for Vaayusastra?
We are signing Memorandum of Understandings with many colleges and we are focusing on product development for DRDO.

Can you share an impact story at Vaayusastra?
Recently I was teaching our students how to access Chandrayan footage from ISRO. A student of class 4, Bhairavi made a really good presentation, after which I casually mentioned about making her work into a book. She began working on it and her 400-page book is in the process of getting published