Founder of SSMI

Kanuru (nee Nanduri) Varalakshmi Rao

20th November 1913 –27th February 1992

Lasting influences

Smt. Varalakshmi Rao was born on the 20th November, 1913 in Guntur. She was born to Shri Nanduri Suryanarayana Rao a medium level farmer, from a family of hereditary village officials (Karnams/ Patwaris) of Arugolanu a village in Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh. Her mother Smt. Shyamala Rao had earned the respect of the entire village for the courage and fortitude with which she, a house wife, managed the farm and the family after the untimely death of her husband just days before the harvest. Her maternal uncle Shri Ayyadevara Kaleshwara Rao a successful lawyer, in the nearby town Vijayawada, sacrificed his lucrative legal practice to fight for freedom from the British Rule.

When Varalakshmi was very young her father died and her uncle was her biggest influence. Under the uncle’s influence and on Gandhiji’s call to boycott foreign cloth, as a child, Varalakshmi participated in picketing shops selling imported cloth.

As was the tradition of the time every girl in a Brahmin family had to learn music. She was trained in playing the violin and in singing by the eminent musician Shri Balamurlikrishna’s father.

The social order in 1920s dictated that girls be married before they attain puberty, failing which the family would be ex-communicated. Inspite of the progressive influence of the freedom movement, the social and caste barriers were not to be breached. Varalakshmi was a child bride, married to a young man who had just graduated, as a civil engineer, from the Guindy Engineering College, Madras (now Chennai).

She joined her husband, and moved around various places in the then Madras Presidency. Poor medical facilities in the small towns and the unimportant position of her husband denied her the medical care that she needed to prevent repeated miscarriages.

The stoic determination inherited from her mother; the patriotic fervor of the freedom movement which saw her uncle going in and out of jail; the plight of a girl child having to succumb to the social and caste dictates; the lack of minimum medical care to pregnant women and love for fine arts were to shape Varalakshmi’s entire life and work.

Years of struggle

Her husband, Shri Kanuru Lakshman Rao (better known as K. L. Rao) was determined not only to further his knowledge but also to educate his wife. K.L.Rao was the first and only student to study towards a post graduate degree in engineering, while also tutoring his wife. He wanted to admit his wife to the Medical College but was dissuaded by the principal on the grounds that married women would either not complete the course or fail to practice after graduation. Meanwhile, his research proposal was accepted and he along with his wife left for England with very marginal resources that imposed a frugal life of struggle in an alien land.

Shortly, after their arrival in England the Second World War started. All links with the family were virtually cut off. Varalakshmi served in the war effort as an auxiliary nurse attending to the wounded soldiers. The training enabled her to nurse at home, her son suffering from Diphtheria a highly infectious disease, isolating him from four other siblings.

Even under the trying conditions of war she graduated in Social Work from the University of Birmingham, England

In the midst of the World War leaving behind two, under five daughters and a pregnant wife, her husband went to the United States of America to study the technology of design of Dams in order to design the Ramapadasagar Dam across the Godavari, in the then Madras presidency. Such was the fervor to learn technology in order to build a modern India. Equally remarkable was Varalaksmi’s courage and fortitude in remaining alone in an alien country under the most trying circumstances.

When the war was over the Raos returned to India and soon found themselves in the National Capital Delhi, where K.L. Rao designed most of the Dams built in the first three decades after independence and later for almost a decade preside over the Irrigation and Power sector as a Minister in the Govt. of India. It was home for the next four decades.

Institution Builder

One of the first institutions that Varalakshmi formulated and helped found was the Andhra Vanitha Mandali. Land was allotted at ITO (behind the Indian Medical Association). Under her influence a maternity ward and family planning clinic was established (to be dismantled when she was no longer in command). Most of the building construction women workers or wives of workers building the power house, revenue and newspaper offices and other structures around ITO safely delivered their children. Varalakshmi who had five children strongly believed that women should have both the right and control over reproductive choices. In the fifties, when family planning was not in vogue, she propagated birth control measures amongst women both in the urban and rural areas.

Along with her husband she played a role in various activities related to the welfare of the Telugu people who would come to Delhi for education or employment. Not only did the Raos help individuals in difficulty but helped build infrastructure like the Andhra School and Sri Venkateshwara College.

The Bharatiya Grameen Mahila Sangh (BGMS) and the Kitchen Garden Association were institutions that Varalakshmi, a farmer’s daughter, devoted herself to.

Upon the demise of her spiritual guru Swami Sivananda she decided to establish a memorial that would serve working class women and their children. In 1964, the Swami Sivananda Memorial Institute of Fine Arts and Crafts (SSMI) was registered as a society. In the garage of her house (9 Janpath, the official residence of her husband who was then a Minister) she started vocational training for women and dance classes for girls. Shri Kak taught cane work and Smt. Lalita Kamashatri taught Bharatnatyam.

In the village of Kuchipudi, not far from Varalakshmi’s village in the Krishna District, was an ancient dance form. Every Brahmin family would dedicate a son to devote himself to this divine art. Kuchupudi was a complete dance drama and men acted the role of women. Varalakshmi not only brought teachers from Kuchipudi and introduced the dance form to the national capital, but also lobbied with the authorities concerned to recognize it as a classical art form. Many eminent artists in Delhi, to mention a few names Smt. Swapna Sundari, the Raja Reddy couple, were beneficiaries of her endeavor.

Varalakshmi sited her memorial to her Guru in West Delhi, Punjabi Bagh, since that was in the midst of the Industrial belt . There, on almost four acres of land, she set up an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) for women, an aided school for children (both primary and secondary) and a Balwadi for Early Child Care and Education. The Institute, SSMI, adopted some of the villages in the nearby rural areas where she would spend hours educating women about women’s rights and to urge them to begin with stopping the practice of covering their faces with their Ghunghat (much like the Burkha).

Five decades later, SSMI is “Empowering Women and Children to realize their potential with dignity” through four centers – the Varalakshmi Center for Women Empowerment; the Sanjay Deepak Center for Education; the Nirmala Gopalakrishnan Center for Health and the Center for Research, Training and skill Development.

The spiritual quest

Varalakshmi’s quest for understanding and resolving spiritual questions lead her to Rishikesh where she became a disciple of Swami Sivananda. A few years before her death, she was ordained, by Swami Chidananda, as Swami Vishwarupananda.

She translated into Telugu the Dasa (ten) Upanishads written in English by Swami Sivananda. With the help of a translator, she researched the original Pali texts and wrote, in Telugu, the Dhamapada: teachings of Buddha.

Her compassion could be gauged from an example. A strict vegetarian Brahmin, she would cook meat for her children’s pet dog. She believed that one has no right to impose upon others their own belief systems even if they were animals incapable of protesting.

Varalakshmi died, as Swami Vishwarupananda, in Hyderabad on 27th February, 1992.