After attending four-hour-long classes at her coaching centre in Mukherjee Nagar, 21-year-old Shweta Dagar gears up to travel to the other end of the city to her college in Delhi University’s South Campus. But the 50-minute metro ride cannot be “wasted” by sitting idle. That is when her curated playlist comes in handy. No, it is not Spotify, rather it features the YouTube stars of UPSC. When the stakes are high, every minute counts.
YouTube is rapidly growing to be the new Mukherjee Nagar for young UPSC aspirants like Dagar. An army of teachers has shifted their base online, offering a palette of tips and tricks for passing the highly-competitive civil services exams that go beyond the curriculum. These educators have emerged as influencers in their own right, with millions of aspirants hanging on every word they say.
“It is not always possible to clear doubts in class. There are too many students there. YouTube videos often help with that, and beyond,” Kajal, Dagar’s friend, chipped in. She watches eight to ten videos every day.
As the metro coach fills up with commuters, Dagar makes space for them while listening to the geography lesson on YouTube. She strategically places her phone in the pocket, pulls her bag to the front, wraps one arm around the nearby pole, shoves the extension of her earphones dangling in the air into another pocket, and draws out her phone to resume her on-the-go lesson. It’s just another day in her long journey to cracking the civil services examination.
Delhi has the maximum number of UPSC coaching centres in India, followed by Kerala, Maharashtra, and Orissa. In the capital, Mukherjee Nagar is the hub for most of these centres, along with Old Rajinder Nagar and Karol Bagh.
But, slowly and surely, the tide is shifting online. Social media has allowed educators to expand their sphere of influence beyond the scope of brick-and-mortar classes.
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YouTube stars of UPSC
For Vikas Divyakirti, educator and managing director of Drishti IAS, a UPSC coaching institute, the switch to the online medium was more incidental than strategic. At the brink of the Covid-induced lockdown, when the institute was preparing to move the curriculum online, he discovered ‘clones’ of his content — several YouTube handles under the hashtags #vikasdivyakirtisir (over 8,000 channels) and #vikasdivyakirti (over 5,000 channels.)
They were cashing in on his credibility, which he had painstakingly built over two decades. Several channels also began to monetise via videos.
“We filed complaints, but there were just too many. When we nipped one in the bud, another would emerge,” says Divyakirti. His presence dominates the all-white classroom packed with over a hundred students. The pile of UPSC-related books published by the institute itself serves to underscore the 23-year-old brand’s successful run.
In a way, Divyakirti was a victim of his own success. Prashant Jha, one of the many students who accessed the tutorials online, describes his teaching method to be “mother-like” for students to understand.
Everyone is confused while wondering how this happened, says Divyakirti before beginning a lecture on ‘Article 370 & 35A: Jammu-Kashmir (1947 to 2019)’. The students laugh but soon settle down to listen to him.
The topic at hand is complex, and Divyakirti warns students that understanding the nuances and history of the subject will take some time. But his humour and ability to break down complex topics have students paying rapt attention to him. The over three-hour-long lecture has more than 28 million views on his YouTube channel.
As Divyakirti begins the lecture, he advises students to not view 2019’s events in isolation, but rather take into account all the historical events from 1947 in sequence. “Main koshish karunga ki kisi bhi aetihasik vyakti pe jhoote aarop lagane se bachu (I will try not to put false allegations on any person of historical relevance),” he said, during the lecture — a disclaimer he often gives in his other lectures too, presumably, to instill and endorse objectivity among his students.
The rest of the lecture traces the trajectory of Indian history from the aftermath of independence in 1947, the Instrument of Accession, Indira-Sheikh Accord to the developments of August 2019.
“This lecture is far better than any web series,” reads a comment under the video, followed by many echoing the viewer’s sentiments.
In Divyakirti’s case, it is not just his students, but people from across professions, who resort to the ‘gyaan’ (knowledge) he imparts. So much so, that even renowned actor Pankaj Tripathi swears by the teaching methods and ‘saralta’ (simplicity) with which Divyakirti approaches and declutters complex issues. Ravi Kumar Sihag, who got 18th rank making him the topper of Hindi medium in UPSC CSE 2021, also agrees with Tripathi’s views.
In a video with over 3 lakh views, Divyakirti suggests that students take a glass of water on their first date. “Jab koi bahut tayyar hoke aaye toh ek barsaat toh banti hai (If someone’s flaunting too much, you must think twice),” he said, urging both boys and girls to try the trick out so as to know and understand the “real” face. And just like that, the sound of students’ laughter echoed in the room for minutes.
“He is not only a teacher but a fabulous performer,” reads a comment under the video. While Divyakirti marinates life lessons with the subject matter, Mahipal Singh Rathore, a UPSC expert on current affairs and history and is currently heading Unacademy’s PathFinder YouTube channel, does not shy away from taking on controversial subjects.
One of his most viewed lectures, titled ‘Left Wing Extremism in India’ has received over 5 lakh views on YouTube and lasts 1:33 hours.
Rathore argues that as a civil services aspirant, one must be well versed in this “comprehensive topic” of the syllabus. “There is a subject called internal security in the UPSC syllabus which has a section dedicated to ‘left-wing extremism’. Hence, it is crucial to educate students about the detailed history and current scenario of the topic. And while there is a video on left-wing extremism, I have also done a video on the ‘history of RSS’ that received nearly 3 million views,” said Rathore, who cleared Rajasthan PCS and IB exams in 2016 but stuck to teaching as he developed a passion for this “incidental profession”.
Some viewers lauded Rathore’s elaborate videos decoding complicated subjects, while many also remembered and shared anecdotes, in the comments, of their family members who lost their lives while serving in CRPF.
“If teaching history is an art, Mahipal sir is Picasso (sic),” reads a comment, while Rathore weighs in on the “real culprit” of the 9/11 attacks in a nearly 34-minute long video lecture.
Rathore is on a mission to be relevant on Instagram as well. His modus operandi changes as he switches the medium. Most of his Instagram posts offer a glimpse into his Rajasthani heritage, but of late, he has begun to upload reels on topical issues from rising fuel prices to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. “I switched my classes to an online medium completely in 2017. And, for the last two years, I have also been actively making reels and shorts. This is the age of ‘tiktokification’ of all forms of media. You cannot teach history in a minute but you can surely create interesting but relevant content in that time frame,” said Rathore. As images play in the background, seated in the front is Rathore with an elaborate podcast setup. Unlike his YouTube videos, content here is quicker and crispier. His reels aim to provide trivia like the ‘number of countries that weren’t invited to the former queen’s funeral’ or a quick history lesson on ‘where does India import crude oil’.
Educators like Rathore and Divyakirti who already have ‘followers’ in the real world have a ready-made fan base when they transition online. With nearly three decades of experience as an educator, Manikant Singh also found success quickly when he switched gears to online platforms. But much like his institute, his teaching methods have also been introspected, modified, and upgraded.
Traditional educators have to adapt and cannot rely on the same classroom format. The current generation is the “most challenging” to teach, said Singh.
“With social media, opinions and views are often polarising and half-baked. Getting through them is a big challenge. Just a few weeks back, a student took offense at something Romila Thapar said at some event. I had to reason with him and make him understand the difference between disagreeing and taking offense,” he added.
One of his most liked and viewed lectures is an ode to his evolving teaching method — ‘How to understand History?’ — with 5.6 million views. “History’s biggest lesson is change. Facts are just examples,” Singh explained, during a two-hour-long lecture, underlining his biggest learning, that history doesn’t change but it is the society’s perception that changes with time.
“Itihaas ko itna rochak banaya, kaamal hain” (You have made history so interesting. Great.) — this comment under the video is a testament to Singh’s grasp over, not just the subject, but also the students.
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As the world has evolved from ‘paathshalas’ to online classes, so have the teachers. It is no longer sufficient just to teach what the syllabus demands. These ‘modern gurus’ are also hand-holding the students to tell them how many hours to sleep, how many hours to study, and how to build their psychological fitness for the highly competitive civil services exams.
Considering the massive amount of study material floating online, it is important for students to be selective and nurture the right approach to use in the examination, says 30-year-old UPSC educator Shashank Tyagi, who is affiliated with an online study platform StudyIQ.
But YouTube has helped many like Tyagi to reach students beyond the confines of four walls. “One of my videos on ‘reality of India’s oil imports from Russia’ crossed 1-million mark in just two months. Teaching so many people was never possible without YouTube,” says Tyagi.
Patna-based ‘Khan sir’ is yet another example of how these modern gurus have flourished on social media with lakhs of followers swearing by their teachings. “I am not a student neither I am preparing for any competitive exam, but I watch Khan sir’s videos regularly” — this is a gist of hundreds of similar comments posted under his videos online.
Be it the “full story” behind former PM Indira Gandhi’s death, or decoding whether Osama bin Laden was a scientist or more recently, his take on the Allu Arjun starrer Pushpa: The Rise — Khan sir’s views, in Hindi, on anything and everything easily rakes in millions of views. It is not just his ‘simplistic’ approach to complex matters but also the comical elements that he effortlessly sprinkles during the lecture that has helped him broaden his fan base. Do you remember Pushpa’s peculiar walk from the Telugu blockbuster? Khan sir enacts the same, only to — besides making students laugh — assert his point while teaching Thermodynamics.
Influencer educators have begun to consider how they appear to viewers – strangers – unlike the students in their classroom. Wearing the right attire also falls in the purview of a ‘modern educator’. Dressed in white and black, paired with a waistcoat and leather bag, Tyagi often takes cues from students before making reels for social media. He understands their hopes and dreams which makes him more relatable.
“As someone who has been in their shoes, I can relate and understand their day-to-day struggles,” he said while sitting across a conference table, reminiscing his tryst with cracking the UPSC exam.
The overload of information online can be overwhelming, but there is nothing wrong with it. Recalling his preparatory days, Anil Swarup, former Union secretary and retired IAS officer, acknowledges the abundance of knowledge available in different forms, from videos to podcasts. He cracked civil service exams, back in the 1980s .
What aspirants need “is not so much coaching as guidance”. “I am not sure if coaching would help. It is my personal choice. Fundamentals cannot be changed in one year through coaching but guidance will help them,” said Swarup.
Tyagi, too, looks beyond the curriculum. His Instagram posts and reels resonate more with students. ‘How to get over self-doubt like a warrior’, ‘how to overcome failure’, or ‘when you don’t feel like doing anything’ — these are some of Tyagi’s ‘motivational’ reels that have garnered thousands of likes.
“Your words always relax me,” reads a comment, while another says, “Guru ji, aap mera saath dijiyega, main bhi manzil ko uda launga (If you support me, I will reach my goal)”.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)