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Disease, Discrimination & Poverty: This Leprosy-Afflicted Teacher Fought Them All For His Students


The life of 75-year-old design expert, Singanapalli Balaram, has been an inspiring example to many designers, but like many before him, it has been a potpourri of good and bad.

Reflecting on his own words–‘no life, no thing, or no person is without a good story!’ S Balaram, to share the story of his beloved teacher, to whom he owes his life.

Born in a village, Gunnathota Valasa, in Andhra Pradesh, in 1944, Balaram was one of the few lucky ones, to not only get an education but also live their dream, all thanks to his teacher, Varahagiri Veni Madhavarao.

If not for Madhavrao, Balaram would have turned out like most youth in the village–without education and tied to life in the fields.

But his teacher inspired him to push further, and today, he is one of the top designers in the country, a TEDx speaker, an author and an educationist.

But, what stands out is Madhavrao’s struggle, who was a teacher with the best intentions but was pushed towards poverty due to leprosy.

Although he was cured, the scars of his affliction often drove people away. Many even considered him untouchable and unfit to teach because of the stigma.

Living in a princely town of Bobbili, with a family of eight to feed, he was grappling with poverty despite being educated, when he found that Gunnathota Valasa village which was only 4 kilometres away, had no school.

The sense of purpose then drove him to appeal to the Maharaja of Bobbili to allocate a small piece of land in the village to start a primary school, called Sri Gayathri Aided Elementary School.

Luckily, he was granted the permission and began working towards it.

“After my father passed away, mother and I lived with our Uncle’s family, who were against letting me go to school in the beginning. The common perspective was to let the children grow up in the fields and eventually join the family occupation of farming. I did not want that, and sir was my ray of hope. With persistence, he managed to get me as well as 20-odd students to his new school!” shares Balaram.

He adds that Madhavrao’s approach to education inspired him in his career.

“Whenever we were taught something, he would make sure that we would connect with it. Under his guidance, education was more of an experience. For instance, when teaching history, he managed to procure rare coins and trinkets and help us see and feel the piece of history. It was because of this that I realised how every object, animate or inanimate, has a story behind it, just waiting to be told in the right manner!”

Eventually, after the completion of school, he pushed students to go to college and university.

Recollecting one such incident, Balaram adds, “I never liked to work on the fields or take care of the cows. That was not the life I wanted for myself, because my world was in books. So, when the time came, sir stood by me against my uncle who was against higher studies. Sir helped me to get a scholarship at Government Polytechnic, Visakhapatnam, and pursue a career in design at the National Institute of Design.”

S Balaram eventually went to lead the institute as its chairman.

At a time when leprosy and the taboo around it, was prevalent, Balaram’s teacher had the courage and conviction to stand up, holding a beacon of hope for the next generation. We salute this unsung hero!

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