Ever wondered what it takes to be a YouTube sensation?
“Content is king, but in creating that content you’ve got to be unique,” suggests Bengali vlogger Shibaji Paul, better known as Explorer Shibaji, which is also the name of his already-popular and rapidly growing YouTube channel.
Over the last couple of years, Shibaji’s channel has caught fire, taking his present tally of subscribers to nearly 140,000. Focusing primarily on travel (and the food that comes along with it), Shibaji, 48, provides a holistic guide to traditional Bengali holiday destinations like Digha and the Dooars, more adventurous locations like Sandakphu and Gurudongmar, as well as more quaint ones like Valkimachan and Jhilimili.
“I try to feature places where the common person can go. I want to provide as much information as possible so my audience knows where to stay, what to eat and how much to spend. I want to give my viewers the complete package,” explains Shibaji.
Shibaji at Amer, or Amber, Fort in Jaipur, originally built by Raja Man SinghCourtesy: Shibaji Paul
‘I got bored… I needed a change’
Inspired by the docudrama techniques of Shyam Benegal in Bharat Ek Khoj during his formative years and an avid reader of Bhraman magazine since it launched in the early 1990s, Shibaji was always a travel enthusiast. His stint as a travel vlogger, though, is much more recent.
“I was a teacher for around 16 years, providing coaching on programming languages. I founded an institute called Future Tech, where I used to teach around 500 to 600 students for more than a decade. Those were exhaustive classes that kept me occupied from seven in the morning till nine or 10 at night. After that, I switched over to online teaching, uploading courses on Udemy that proved quite lucrative as my courses became instant hits. More than 30,000 students across the world availed my lessons,” recalls Shibaji.
So, what led him to stop teaching and turn to vlogging then?
“I got bored,” smiles Shibaji. “My teaching job was quite tedious, and I needed a change.” In 2014, Shibaji set up his YouTube channel, but it took more than five years for him to start making content actively.
“I had to learn the craft of shooting and editing first. I got a GoPro camera in 2018 and slowly began to feel more confident about vlogging. I knew that I’d hit the bullseye eventually,” says Shibaji, who began by uploading footage of family trips on his channel.
The turning point proved to be a video on Gangasagar in March 2020, released days before the first Covid-19 lockdown. “I think what gripped people about my video was that I showed how one could take a water bus (a semi-cruise ship) to Gangasagar. I don’t think many people in Bengal knew much about it before my video,” notes Shibaji.
Know your keywords and identify your niche
In an ever-swelling sea of content creators, going viral is hard. Holding on to virality is harder still.
“YouTube is basically a game. A game where you have to keep on playing. Even the most high-profile YouTubers can’t afford to have a lean spell, where they aren’t uploading content regularly,” believes Shibaji.
Shibaji at Yumthang Valley’s Zero Point, in Sikkim, at an elevation of 15,300 feetCourtesy: Shibaji Paul
What, apart from consistent uploads, should aspiring vloggers keep in mind?
“You need to look out for the keywords that are doing well and use them judiciously. In my case, I can tell you that keywords like ‘Andaman’ or ‘Bangladesh’ are trending nowadays, so any video on that would fetch a lot of views. But you also have to be clear in terms of identifying your niche. If you’re a lifestyle or a travel vlogger, you’re appealing to a much wider audience than, say, someone who reviews just books on YouTube.”
When travelling, Shibaji is frequently accompanied by his musician friend Prithwijit Dutta. The lively dynamic between the two makes for engaging conversations, the kind of friendly banter that Bengalis, in particular, gravitate towards.
But things are not always as seamless as they look on screen. “Given how I work and my limited resources, I mostly get to see a place once and shoot it in one go. Everything has to happen instantly. I don’t have the time to prepare a thorough script in advance,” admits Shibaji. The instantaneous nature of his work, though challenging in myriad ways, is a major part of what makes his videos vibrant and compelling.
“I know I have to keep improvising and innovating, otherwise people will get tired of me and my face,” chuckles Shibaji.
Among the newer formats he is looking to explore is the addition of a celebrity guest to join him on his explorations. “A few weeks ago, I was joined by actor Ashish Vidyarthi, which was a fantastic experience. We have plans of coming together again in rural Bengal. Apart from having celebrities travel with me, I’m also eager to collaborate with other YouTubers, especially local ones,” says Shibaji.
Why Shibaji couldn’t sleep in Nainital
While most of his content centres around Bengal, Shibaji has also taken his viewers to other states of India, from Odisha and Uttarakhand to Rajasthan, which is among his favourites till date.
During his extensive travels, has he ever come across a crisis that gave him sleepless nights?
“While going to Nainital last year, I lost my GoPro camera. That made me really anxious and I couldn’t sleep at night. Prithwijit kept reassuring me that I’d get it back, but I was worried. As it turned out, I had dropped the camera in the car we were travelling in. Thankfully, our driver managed to find it,” says Shibaji, the sense of relief still palpable in his voice.
How does Shibaji, who stays in Sodepur, spend his time when he isn’t on the move? Does he have artistes or athletes he looks up to?
“I watch a lot of documentaries on National Geographic. That’s where most of my time goes.”
A father of two, Shibaji is also a big fan of Cristiano Ronaldo. “I don’t adore him blindly, but I love his attitude. I feel everyone has some good and bad in them, so I don’t believe in admiring someone without being open to their flaws,” observes Shibaji, before correcting himself and adding, “There is an exception – and that’s Lata Mangeshkar!”
Bangladesh, Bali and beyond
In 2022, Shibaji has plans to travel farther and wider across India, covering Goa and Kerala and maybe even the north-east. He is also excited to go to Bangladesh whenever Covid restrictions ease.
“For overseas content, I have to be careful about the countries I choose. If I suddenly go to the United States or Europe, a lot of my viewers may not find it relatable. But I also want to let my viewers know that there are countries outside India that they can travel to by spending a fraction more than what they would when visiting Andaman or Kashmir. Indonesia’s Bali is one such example,” describes Shibaji.
In one of his latest videos, Shibaji tells the story of Notungram, a village in Burdwan where practically every family has the artistic tradition of crafting wooden dolls. Another video introduces us to a lifelong Amitabh Bachchan fan, who has written a book on the Bollywood legend and intends to go to Mumbai to get Big B’s autograph. With time, Shibaji wants to highlight more such stories, for “these are stories that are essentially about people. Not only are they economical to produce, but they are also vital in spreading awareness and curiosity about the talented individuals who we live among.”
A volatile landscape
While he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon, Shibaji is wary of the fact that the content creation landscape remains volatile. “I wouldn’t advise anybody to give up their career just to pursue vlogging, unless their channel has reached a certain following. Even with my followers, it will take me another year to break even. YouTube is unpredictable, and with platforms like these, you never know what will happen. TikTok got banned suddenly, who’s to say something like that can’t happen to YouTube?” worries Shibaji.
Success in vlogging has encouraged Shibaji to start a parallel business in travel and tourismCourtesy: Shibaji Paul
Has Shibaji, then, thought of diversifying?
“Honestly, in five years’ time, I can’t keep doing what I’m doing right now. It’s not sustainable. So, I’ve started a parallel business in travel and tourism. As part of our first group tour, we took 35 people to the Dooars and it was a great success. A lot of vloggers in Bangladesh have thrived in this business and I’d like to do the same. At some point in the future, I don’t just want to be showing places to people, I’d also want to take them there.”