In the southern parts of India, there is a long-standing tradition of temple grounds becoming the centre point for classical art forms to flourish.
While this practice has more or less fizzled out with the passage of time and the proliferation of dedicated dance schools, there still exist some institutions that continue to follow this custom.
One such example is that of a dancing institute in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh.
Located in the premises of the Lakshmi Saraswathy Gnana Mandiram temple in the city, the Betha Venkatarao Dance School has been teaching the ancient dance form of Kuchipudi to underprivileged children for the past five years.
But what makes this institute truly special is the students are not charged for the classes.
The dance school is the brainchild of Betha Nageswara Rao and his brother Betha Satyanarayana, and they have named it after their father.
Speaking to The Better India, Rao shared the reason why the brothers decided to open the school.
“Many children are passionate about traditional art forms, but their dreams remain unfulfilled because of financial limitations. While our love for Kuchipudi and preserving its legacy was the original motivator, we wanted to give such children a chance to hone their passion by taking dance to them,” he explains.
But running a dance institute is no mean feat.
“To begin with, the location should be able to accommodate all the students, so that the instructor can take the classes without worrying about the lack of space. Since we don’t have such landholdings to our name, we reached out to the temple authorities, who were more than happy to let us practise within its premises,” he says.
Close to 160 students are currently being taught at the institute, which is single-handedly managed by Rao, while Satyanarayana, a renowned Kuchipudi dancer, is the instructor.
Each child has been carefully screened by the brothers, keeping their keeping their socio-economic status in mind.
“We went around local schools with our idea and motivated the students to join our academy, and received a phenomenal response. The teachers were more than cooperative and even requested various other schools to participate in our vision. Because we were investing our time and resources with such commitment, it was important to have strict sieving process to zero in on students who were serious and wanted to dedicate their lives to the dance form,” Rao explains.
Initially, the brothers had to go in search of students, but things began to change with word of mouth. Today, according to Rao, approximately 300 students are on the wait list of the school, which is perhaps the largest institute in Andhra Pradesh that teaches classical dance for free.
Rao takes care of all the expenses, which includes supplies like identity cards, dance costumes, bags, notebooks and water bottles for all the students. He also pays his brother for taking classes.
So, how does he do it?
“Apart from the dance academy, I run a prawn farm and a small chit funds company in Kakinada. I also receive some assistance from my son, who is a police officer serving in Chhattisgarh, and my daughter and son-in-law who work in the IT sector,” shares the 52-year-old.
Because of this, Rao is thoroughly particular about not accepting donations from any individual or organisation and intends for it to remain that way.
The brothers have made arrangements for the kids in a way that there is no interference with their regular studies. With an equal focus on theory and practice, the classes are held only on weekends—from 6.30-9 pm on Saturdays and 9-11.30 am on Sundays.
The Andhra Pradesh government has plans to conduct professional examinations for Kuchipudi in the near future, and Rao hopes to see his students ace this exam and emerge victorious.
However, his ultimate dream is to help them master the dance form so that they become teachers themselves.
“Even if one of our students becomes a successful dance instructor in the future, he or she can take forward this beautiful dance form by teaching others and break free from their impoverished lives,” he says.
Whether it is their love for classical dances, upholding our cultural legacy or helping underprivileged children fulfil their dream of becoming classical dancers, the dedication and efforts of Betha brothers are truly commendable.
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We hope their efforts inspire others to follow such selfless pursuits that are not fuelled by monetary aspirations but just for the love of art.
To know more about the Betha Venkatarao Free Dance School, you can reach out to Nageswara Rao at 09490669259.
(With inputs from Kevin Ronith)
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)