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Meet Deepika Arun of Kadhai Osai, who is bringing Tamil listeners their favourite classic stories with her super popular fiction podcast.
With India now the third largest market for podcast listenership (after the US and China), the rise of Indian language podcasts should come as no surprise to anyone. What’s more, fiction podcasts in Indian languages are finding a tremendous audience. These podcasts take us back to the first stories we were ever exposed to; even if the stories have changed, they evoke the memories of the bedtime tales parents and grandparents told us.
As podcasts grow in India, my PodQueens series helps you meet some of India’s interesting podcasters who happen to be women.
In each interview in this 6-part series, I interview one or more podcasters, on a particular aspect of podcasting. The idea is also to create a kind of ‘wisdom bank’ for anyone in India who’d like to start a podcast today.
In this interview, I talk to Deepika Arun, the podcaster behind Kadhai Osai, a very popular Tamil fiction podcast where she reads classic works of fiction for an audience eager for more. Here we discuss the audience for Tamil podcasts, how fiction podcasts work, and Deepika’s own experience with growing into her role as a podcaster.
Before we dive in, I wanted to understand a little bit about you. From some of your past interviews, I understand you used to run the Jhoola Centre for children in Chennai, for non-gadget based engagement. You also work with Storytel. So tell us a little more about how you became a podcaster.
I’m an engineering graduate and like most people in engineering, I ended up in an IT company. However, I always felt unhappy with my job there.
I wanted to become a teacher, I think teaching runs in my blood! My grandfather was the school headmaster back then and I always had a passion to be with children. However, when I started attending interviews at schools, while I was coming back from an interview, I met with a major accident. Because of this, I had a six week break and I think this break sort of helped me to decide that I do want to quit the IT job.
Thankfully, I got the job at the school that I interviewed at right before my accident, and started my career as a teacher.
And when was all this happening?
This was in 2011-12. The first year of my teaching career was awesome, I could connect with every child in my class, and each minute inside the classroom was so blissful. I felt like I had finally landed in a place where I belonged. But every minute inside the staff room used to be the complete opposite. Corporate politics was much better than the staffroom politics!
There was a lot of jealousy, primarily because I was a hit with children. I think the main reason is one, I was not a trained teacher, and I was very young back then, so I brought a new perspective into the classroom, and this, many of the teachers were not okay with. Inside the system, you have to do certain things and that was not going very well with me. So I decided to quit my teaching job.
That was when my brother was looking to start something on his own. With his advertising and communication background and my creative skills, we started a digital marketing consultancy called Productive Solutions that that successfully for almost six years.
Almost one year into Productive Solutions, I had my daughter. I was very happy working from home, and handling clients from different fields. While that was going on. I decided to raise my daughter gadget-free. This gadget free upbringing was something I started reading and researching more about, before starting Jhoola, the activity centre. I started it in July 2016 and I ran Jhoola and Productive Solutions together.
At one point, the digital marketing company got an offer of acquisition and that’s when I decided to go out of Production Solutions, because I had this idea for my audiobook podcast by then. I launched Kadhai Osai in 2019. Jhoola was also going on, but in 2020, I had to close it because of the pandemic.
I don’t know what the future is for Jhoola, because things happened so fast in terms of the audiobook side of things that right now, I’ve become a full-time audiobook person!
When you started Kadhai Osai, did you do any research into what the potential audience could be? How has it grown in reality?
When I started, I had only one thought on my mind: We don’t have quality Tamil audiobooks and I want to bridge that gap.
I was listening to English audiobooks, and I wanted to listen to Tamil audiobooks but the limited number of audio books available on YouTube were of very low quality, either in terms of pronunciation or sound quality or modulation. I really did not think about who is the audience for this, will anybody even listen to my audiobook… it was more like, there is a gap that we fill in.
I have read stories in person, to a small close knit group earlier, and I have had this experience of seeing people’s reactions. Once I read this really emotional story to a small group of ten women (I run this book group called ‘Sthreedom’). This was a short story by La Sa Ra (noted Tamil writer La.Sa.Ramamirtham) called Paarkadal about a young woman who is just married. It is a letter that she writes to her husband, on her thalai Deepavali (the first Deepavali that a married couple celebrate together).
When I read this story to this group of women, I could see that they were all moved. A couple of people cried, and there was pin drop silence when I finished the story – nobody wanted to talk. Nobody wanted to break the silence, or the emotions that they were overwhelmed with. So, this was a certain kind of feedback.
I sort of believed that I have certain storytelling skills and if I just invest in a good mic and learn editing, then I could start posting. Or at least the people who are friends and family would listen! That was my thought process when I started.
The one thing that I was very sure about was that I would only do copyright based work or nationalised works; my father was an author himself – he used to publish short stories in magazines, so I asked him if I could do his stories and I started doing other authors who are nationalised. That was the only thing I was clear about, that I would not violate copyright, so that’s how the journey started. Today, I have over 1 million listens for all the stories, across the different platforms that I have. On an average, every day, I get close to 3000 listens on the various platforms.
Wow, given that you launched in 2019, that’s not a very long time at all. Despite your past marketing background, is there a reason you have chosen to stay non-commercial?
I’m not non-commercial per se, because I have an option for people to donate on my website.
Right, but you don’t accept ads or sponsorships. Is that likely to change?
Definitely not. The first and foremost reason is I’m doing the work of authors who are nationalised. I do not owe money to the writers whose work I really like – these are copyright free content that I’m doing, so I’m not really spending money to acquire rights for these stories.
When I started Kadhai Osai, I did not even think of having an option for people to come and donate because it was something for the love of the language, for the love of stories. It was one of the listeners who gave me the idea. That was a revelation for me. I was doing it just because I really enjoyed doing it. People also appreciated the fact that it is of good quality, good sound quality, right pronunciation, only as much modulation as is required. Now there are quite a few people donating to the efforts that we put in, from across the world. It’s very, very heart-warming to see that recognition of our sincere work.
So one question I had is, is podcasting in Tamil, and for the Tamil audience any different than it would be for an English audience and if so, in what way?
I think people with Tamil as their mother tongue, have a very special bond with it. I mean, I don’t know if the English speaking audience holds English so close to their heart as Tamil people hold Tamil in their hearts. So I think that is the major difference when it comes to podcasting in the mother tongue or regional languages. Apart from that, the production or anything else, I do not see how it’s going to be very different from English.
One point I would like to highlight is when it comes to Tamil podcasts, the most important thing is pronunciation That is a sort of constraint for a lot of people, so when somebody does it with the right pronunciation, that is being appreciated a lot. There are so many comments and messages that say, Your pronunciation is awesome.
In terms of the market, would you say that Tamil listener’s choices are also a lot more today? One of the reasons you mentioned for starting this podcast was that when you heard audio books in 2019, you felt the quality was not up to par. How have the choices for listeners changed today?
When it comes to audiobooks, definitely people have a lot of choices. There is no doubt about it. A lot of people are doing audiobooks on YouTube and as podcasts. If you consider just podcasting as a concept, even then, quite a lot of people have now started podcasting in Tamil so there are people who tell stories rather than read out stories as an audio book, there are people who have conversations in Tamil, there are people who do movie reviews in Tamil, so the podcast as is a medium is evolving very well in Tamil. Especially in the lockdown I think a lot of people started exploring podcasting as something that they would like to do.
When it comes to audiobooks, as you know, I am the Language Manager for Tamil in Storytel, and last year alone, we produced close to 200 odd audiobooks in Tamil with many voice artists.
For people who are entering the space of Tamil podcasting, besides pronunciation which you’ve already mentioned, what other advice would you have?
Content is king, okay, there is no doubt about that. So if you have the right content, and you have a decent sound quality, that is half the battle one.
What do you mean by the ‘right content’?
So for example, if you want to talk about parenting in Tamil, do you have the right expertise, do you have the right information? Are you packaging it into a podcast, where people don’t get bored listening to you? The most important thing is choosing the right topic which is relevant, and people want to listen to time and again. Will listeners look forward to the next episode? That is the key point here.
The second point is how consistent are you in terms of producing content. When it comes to podcasts, people know that this is going to come out in a certain frequency, like I do every day one chapter of Ponniyin Selvan and then one day it gets delayed, you know, I start getting messages. It’s really important that you’re consistent and you plan in advance
that you’re going to release one episode every week. And if you don’t do that one episode a week, people are going to drop off.
And final question, which I ask everybody in this PodQueens series. Can you give us your favourite podcasts which you would recommend to our readers?
This one is predominantly in English but also uses some amount of Hindi. It’s called Croc Tales, and what the podcaster does is, he gets a few words or a sentence from his listeners and he spins the story based on that sentence or words and then posts that story. It’s fun to listen to! If you’re not yet a podcast listener, I hope this series encourages you to start listening – and if you understand Tamil, do add Kadhai Osai to your list!. You can follow their work through the Kadhai Osai website, or via social media at Facebook or Instagram. And of course, the podcast is available at all major podcast platforms such as Google, Apple, Spotify and Saavn.
Top image provided by Deepika Arun
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