Of all the stages in a person’s life, childhood is easily the most carefree, joy-filled and memorable period. The dependence of infancy is behind one, and youth and adulthood to come many years later.

I recollect my own fun years of childhood with great fondness and a sense of sweet nostalgia. In the first few years, there was Balanandam at Chennai (then Madras), and also the movies in which I acted. Later on, in Hyderabad, games and sports came and went with the season.

They were tops for sometimes during the year, then marbles, succeeded by “gilli danda”, and the month of January, coinciding with the “Sankranti” festival, flying of kites. All these were apart from the normal games and sports in which children participated those days such as tennikoit, table tennis, swimming, football, hockey and, of course, cricket. Then there were the usual children’s games such as “I spy” and “follow the leader” etc. And there were other things to learn such as drawing or painting at school, and for girls, classical music or even dancing.

And now? Children do, of course, play the occasional game of cricket, football or hockey in schools or at home. But most of the time one finds them glued to either a desktop or a smartphone, playing video games and moving their head from side to side as if they were watching a tennis match in progress!

Apart from the obvious damage staring at an electronic screen must be doing to their eyes, it is indeed a pity that the freshness of the outdoors and the exhilarating feeling of vigorous physical exercise seem to have gone out of children’s lives altogether.

Since neither school nor home appear to be equal to facing this challenging deprivation that is happening to children in their most important years, organisations that are dedicated to the cause of encouraging children to remain physically fit, mentally alert and give vent to their talent for the fine arts, should be promoted and encouraged.

Andhra Balananda Sangham (ABS), started in Chennai in the 1940s, was the brainchild of Nyapathi Raghava Rao, and his wife Kameswari. Its birth was the culmination of a long-cherished desire of that couple, to take to the logical conclusion their interest in children’s activities and institutionalising them.

They were popularly known as Annayya garu and Akkayya garu. The organisation was most well-known for the weekly programmes conducted for the children on (the then) All India radio. There used to be two programmes every week, ‘Balanandam’ for the younger children and ‘Aatavidupu’ for the older ones, on Saturdays and Sundays respectively.

ABS also started publishing a magazine ‘Bala’ for children. It became the inspiration for successful subsequent publications such as ‘Chandamama’ and ‘Bala Mitra’. The Central Social Welfare Board also encouraged them by extending financial assistance to ABS.

Until I left Chennai, I always went only for the Saturday programme. The programme normally comprised a variety of entertaining items such as songs, plays and the occasional quiz. A van would come home precisely at 7 am. Once the programme was over, we were given cool drinks and snacks.

It was a wonderful experience which combined entertainment and personality building. Participating in the various events was a wholesome and innocent experience, and one learnt the art of speaking and acting in public, thus gaining in self-confidence. The plays, which, were based on historical and mythological events, were instructive and educating. Discipline, application and hard work were the buzzwords in preparing for the programmes.

Not the slightest mistake was tolerated. I remember how, once, sitting on Akkayya garu’s lap, I started stuttering and stammering a dialogue of a play, and received a good pinch on my thigh as the punishment! And Annayya garu was a one-man orchestra all by himself! Apart from playing the piano, he made oral sounds that substituted for various musical instruments including drums.

ABS in 1952 organised the first children’s conference of its kind in South India in (the then) Madras.

After the formation of the Andhra State with Kurnool as capital, ABS organised the second children’s conference in 1954. The third children’s conference was held in Guntur in 1956.

Soon after the formation of the new State of Andhra Pradesh, Telugu Children’s Conference was organised with the assistance of the government.

Once in a while, we were also taken on a tour to places such as Narsapuram in West Godavari district. On one occasion, an excursion was arranged to a place called Tonakela near Chennai, where a number of facilities were available for sports and games including swimming. There was also a very good exhibition of posters and pictures that spoke of principles and morals.

In the 1950s, a Telugu movie was produced called ‘Balanandam’, comprising picturised versions of three plays normally enacted by ABS. The plays where ‘Boorela Mookudu’, ‘Konte Kishtaiah’ and ‘Rajayogam’. Somehow, I ended up playing the role of an astrologer in the last play.

I remember how the author of the script of the movie, ‘Aarudra’ narrated the story to me and asked me to suggest a name for the third play. He suggested two names, ‘Rajayogam’ and ‘Marana Dandana’. I chose the former and that finally became the name of that portion of the movie.

Shortly before the formation of Andhra Pradesh State, the Hyderabad branch of ABS was inaugurated by Durgabai Deshmukh. A building in Narayanguda area of the city was allotted to the organisation, on a hire purchase basis to run its office and activities. In 1965, Annayya garu and Akkayya garu were invited by the government to prepare a blueprint for a recreational centre for children. The present Jawahar Bal Bhavan and the Public Gardens are the outcome of those plans.

In 1966, the decennial celebrations of ABS were celebrated and a souvenir, “10 years of Balanandam at Hyderabad” was brought out. The government, pleased with the work of ABS, provided financial assistance to it to acquire the building and its occupation. ABS, has, since then, become the living centre for cultural activities for children in the twin cities.

In accordance with the wishes of Annayya garu, as expressed in his will, my wife Usha served as Secretary of ABS from 1984 to 1996.

The centenary celebrations of Annayya took place during the year 2004 to 2005. They covered a variety of events including the release of Annayya garu’s biography, musical programmes and theatre workshops, apart from a conference of writers of children’s literature.

The centenary celebrations of Akkayya garu were conducted from February 2008 to December that year. During that period, an event “Ananda Bazar” was organised. Children donated money to support orphanage, a story writing competition was organised and CDs and children’s story books were released, apart from organising a workshop for children on illustrating of stories.

A special souvenir was also brought out highlighting the achievements of Akkayya garu. The celebrations also took place in places abroad such as Melbourne. The concluding event was held on Christmas Day at Ravindra Bharati in Hyderabad, attended by people from many parts of the country as well as the world.

A Trust called the Balanandam Trust now manages all the activities and assets of ABS. How one wishes that visionary persons such as Annayya garu and Akkayya garu were there today to inculcate in children, in their growing years, the spirit of adventure, the pleasure of learning the fine arts with all their grace and beauty and the joy of competing innocently and freely with others of their age in games and sports! And, therefore, laying the foundation for them only to become productive and progressive citizens of tomorrow.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

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