Cinemall, a shopping centre where students are not seen in their coaching uniforms in the evening. The most interesting aspect of the mall is the brands that it has: From Pizza Hut to PVR
Image: Kapil Kashyap S
eptember 2020, Mumbai. It was supposed to be a sucker punch. And Toppr, an online learning platform for class 5 to 12 students, timed it to perfection. Schools and colleges had switched to the online mode of teaching, students had comfortably embraced a mobile way of learning, and thousands of brick-and-mortar coaching centres across the country, including the ones nestled in the engineering and medical hub of Kota in Rajasthan, were brutally reeling under the impact of the pandemic.
Offline coaching centres were on the ventilator, and an online edtech upstart made a brazen attempt to cut the supply of oxygen. ‘Coaching se nikalo, Soching mein daalo [take your kids out of coaching and enrol them in Soching)]’ was an audacious advertisement blitzkrieg across television, newspapers and the digital space. Toppr’s campaign implored and intrigued parents, who started shifting their kids from offline coaching to online soching. And who would have not? Back then, offline was as good as dead.
The move was tactical. And the ‘executioners’ were rubbing their hands in glee. “When students start ‘soching’ or thinking, better results become the outcome of a better learning process,” Zishaan Hayath, CEO and founder of Toppr, underlined in 2020. The message was clear: Online edtech players pronounced themselves as the undisputed winners. It was predicted that trains to Kota—during the pre-pandemic days, they were excessively crammed, students would jostle for every inch, and the railway station would buzz with intense action—would soon have to contend with a deserted look and scores of empty bogies.
Fast forward to July 2023. The Kota railway station, some 471 km from the national capital of Delhi, is grappling with an unprecedented problem of overcrowding. And it’s not the students who have occupied every inch, centimetre and metre of the entrance, exit and the expansive platforms. It’s not thousands of parents who swarm the station to seek academic salvation for their kids. The visitors are, in fact, a bunch of outsiders who have waged an intense battle to grab the attention, and welcome lakhs of medical and engineering aspirants.
In fact, the ‘alien’ that hogs the maximum limelight is the one who was born with a name and desire to kill the coaching rivals: Unacademy. ‘GG sir’ leads the welcome team. There are other members as well who are waiting at the entrance of the railway station to warmly receive the kids: AY sir, RKC sir, VKS sir, MB sir. All of them are immaculately dressed in a black T-shirt, are standing upright in countless billboards hung across the railway station, and raise only one slogan in sync: Achieve your IIT-JEE dreams with Kota’s top offline educator. Giving Unacademy a close fight is Byju’s, which is championing the cause of its adopted family member Aakash. “Welcome to Kota” reads a huge poster of Aakash. Four numbers boldly printed on the hoarding are 3, 4, 6 and 8, alluding to AIR (all-India rank) of four students from the institute.
Once inside the railways station, one gets to meet one of the original inhabitants of Kota: NV sir of Motion coaching institute. After every railway announcement, the speakers blare a commercial jingle of Motion. The not-so-melodious loud sound keeps hitting your senses intermittently. Also read: Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve There are thousands who swarm out of the coaching centres of Allen, the biggest coaching player in Kota, in green T-shirts. Then there are black and red T-shirts of PW (PhysicsWallah).
A ‘Sir’real, Colourful Experience
The epicentre of Kota’s coaching hub is a few minutes drive from the railway station. The first thing a visitor gets to see and learn when she enters the coaching city is a lesson on abbreviation plastered on the walls, poles, autorickshaws, scooters, bikes, buildings. AK sir, VKR sir, MJ sir, AC sir, CM sir, RD sir, AG sir… they are omnipresent, and unending. Abbreviations, points out a snappy auto driver, denote the names of the teachers. Take, for instance, the abbreviated names at the railway station. ‘AY’ is Abhishek Yadav, RKC is Ravinder K Chauhan, VKS is Vinay Kumar Sharma, and MB is Mohit Bhargava.
The second striking thing about Kota is its overwhelming vibrant colours. And the entire coaching hub is painted in green, maroon, black, yellow, sky blue and navy blue by lakhs of students. The predominant colour, though, is green. There are thousands who swarm out of the coaching centres of Allen, the biggest coaching player in Kota, in green T-shirts. Then there are black and red T-shirts of PW (PhysicsWallah). Another prominent colour is sky blue (Bansal, the oldest player of Kota). One can also spot kids in yellow (Reliable coaching). The city gets its colour from dozens of coaching players. There were more, and smaller coaching guys. Most of them, who just had operations in Kota and didn’t have resources to survive the pandemic onslaught, died. The ones who survived, and the ones who have come from outside—all online edtech players—are the ones who are humming with action.
Welcome to Kota. And no Soching, it’s still coaching. “It will always be coaching,” reckons SPS sir—aka Shashi Prakash Singh—who has been teaching in Kota and Delhi for over 17 years, including his stints at Aakash, Allen and Unacademy. What always amazed the chemistry teacher is the naivety of a bunch of new-age edtech players who either thought that offline coaching would die or online would be the rule rather than an exception. “From Unacademy to PW to Byju’s… everybody is in Kota. And ‘this is the only reality that is eternal’, says Singh who has seen the city transform over the last one-and-a-half decades. He takes us back in time. There have been recurring waves of smaller offline players emerging in and from Kota, and threatening to eat into the lunch of the bigger players. “The big fish always win and survive though,” he says. “They are the superstars of Kota.” A mini truck has been converted into a bookstore
Take, for instance, the might of Allen, which traces its roots to 1988. The ‘greenery’ of Kota can be sensed by having a look at the scale Allen operates in the city. It has over 1.35 lakh students studying in 23 campuses across New Kota, Baran Road, Naya Nohra and the Landmark City. Outside Kota as well, its might is massive: Presence across 53 cities, over 200 classroom campuses and 350 test centers. In fact, last year, Bodhi Tree—the equally owned joint venture between James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems and former Walt Disney Asia Pacific head Uday Shankar—picked up a 36 percent stake in Allen for $600 million. Back in Kota, Bansal Classes, started by the father of coaching in Kota, VK Bansal, in 1981, is continuing to grow in a bootstrapped way. NV sir (Nitin Vijay) of Motion is another formidable player of Kota. Also read: How PhysicsWallah solved the profitability equation
Singh explains why Kota thrived before the pandemic, and how and why it got a new lease of life after the ebbing of the pandemic. “Who can kill the fun and the power of classroom teaching?” the seasoned tutor from Kota asks. Online, he argues, can at best be a supplementary tool to offline. It can’t replace offline coaching. “Kids don’t come to class just to learn,” he says. They need a competitive environment, they get to soak up the intensity of competition from their peers, and they have a teacher to talk to. “It’s not digital interaction. You get to meet him, see him and solve your doubts and queries,” he adds.
Just a few metres from one of the sprawling coaching centres of Allen is a market dotted with eateries, local cafes, branded players and book shops. “It’s more-than-brisk business for us. Students still need and buy notes, books, pens and copies,” says Mohan Kumar, who has converted a mini truck into his bookstore. “Digital can’t kill books,” he smiles. A few blocks away is a Xerox and stationery store, which has also been minting money. “We still do photocopies,” he grins. A few minutes from the local market is Cinemall, a shopping centre where students are not seen in their coaching uniforms in the evening. The most interesting aspect of the mall is the brands that it has: From Pizza Hut to PVR. “Yet, there is only one superstar in Kota,” says Harsh Singh Rathore, the 37-year-old mall manager. Though there is PVR, he points out, you won’t get to see movie posters hanging from the building or any part of the mall.
Rathore is right. There is one imposing poster of a beaming Alakh Pandey of PhysicsWallah that hangs from the top of the building and greets you as you enter the space. Another poster next to Pandey is that of NV sir of Motion. ‘Go to any part of the city, you will get to see only teachers,” says Rathore. Kota, he underlines, is nothing without its teachers. “And coaching will continue to be its lifeline,” he says.
In over three years since the onset of the pandemic, Kota is back to its glory years. It’s coaching. And there is no soching. (Toppr was acquired by Byju’s in July 2021)