Think of waitlisted admissions and small numbers in classes with alternative teaching methods and you’d think the principal of thie school has to have a waiting lounge, an ante room and must make you wait at least the Hyderabadi 15 minutes before inviting you into her chamber.

Snap out of it. You’re meeting Vidyaranya’s founding Principal, Mrs. Shanta Rameshwar Rao. The Fabindia-clad frail frame is home to one of the most determined educationists of Hyderabad. After my preliminary apologies of turning up late and being told (I still don’t know if it was sarcastic), “Pretty women are allowed to be late,” I was asked to be the silent spectator to a conversation between a volunteer parent, who conducts assembly for Classes 5 and 6, and Shantamma.

Without any pretensions of minding the flash of my camera or that an outsider was privy to a conversation about the school’s goings-on, Mrs. Rao displayed her many moods – amusement, concern, intent listening and approvals.

As we launch into the interview, one of the first things that comes to fore is Mrs. Rao’s devotion to education. That her ideas have arisen from the ideologies of Maria Montessori, MK Gandhi and J Krishnamurti is anybody’s guess, but to start one’s own school, is quite another ballgame. And a much bigger deal it must have been 50 years ago.

Vidyaranya is not the success story of one woman, but the will of one, definitely. What’s more, Shantamma is selfless about it. An atheist, the veteran educationist speaks plainly whenever confronted with ‘what after you?’ “It seems everyone wants me to die or is waiting for the eventuality! What after me? The school’s plumbing is managed by the plumbers and the teachers are doing their jobs. I think the school will go on even without me.”

“Even if it doesn’t work, what of it? At most they will turn it into a hospital – a children’s hospital, or even a hotel! We think too much about the future. We lose sight of the present.”

Shantamma is quick to dismiss the suggestion that her school is a women’s initiative. “It is just a co-incidence that most teachers are women – predominantly the mothers of students. But we are being supported more and more by male parents as well.”

Mrs. Rao comes across as a firm believer of gender equality. When quizzed about how she encourages the girl students at Vidyaranya High School for Boys and Girls, she allows one of her colleagues to respond. To them, having to especially encourage them would, in itself, be the first step towards proving them inferior. “Boys damage property sometimes,” she remarks, “There are just one or two in each class that cause a chain reaction. Girls are usually cooperative – we probably scold them for being talkative, but they’re never destructive,” says Shantamma.

"I trust you to return this book," (she's lent me a copy of 50 Years of Vidyaranya to look up basic factoids) she finishes, "I will sue you for 700 rupees."

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