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Game changer or father’s little girl?

Daggubati Purandeswari a kuchipudi dancer, a gemologist and sometime actor. Can this new minister’s varied CV help power an Indian education revolution? Kumkum Chadha examines.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2009 00:49 IST
Kumkum Chadha

Daggubati Purandeswari grew up seeing people prostrate before her father. “Why do they worship him?” she would often ask her brother: “He is a normal Dad, like any other.” Actually he wasn’t.

Her father was NT Rama Rao, Telugu filmdom’s star-god. His fans worshipped him.The lucky ones were able to reach his feet.

It took some years for Purandeswari to realise her father was a demi-god of sorts. Popular as NTR, he scrupulously kept his children, 11 of them, away from acting. Had it not been for her grandfather, Purandeswari would never have bagged a role in a film.

She was a trained Kuchipudi dancer, and she featured in a song. Her grandfather died before the film could be released, and NTR to quote Purandeswari, used the “parental scissor” to chop the scene from the film. When she went to watch it, she sat through it wondering when she would appear. She never did, of course. “Canned forever,” as her friends later joked.

FACT-o-meter

Daggubati Purandeswari (50)
Minister of State for Human Resources
Inspiration: Her father, NT Rama Rao
Fear factor: Losing my mother
Ambition: To rise above being a wife or daughter
Our take: Bright and articulate. The Prime Minister says she’s “an asset to the Cabinet”. Her former boss, Arjun Singh, said the “entire HRD ministry depended on her”. Given his abysmal track record, that’s not a comment to keep on your resume. Education is India’s greatest challenge, but she now has an ambitious, can-do boss, Kapil Sibal. Her test is now.

Those who worked closely with NTR vouch that Purandeswari was NTR’s “favourite”. What they regret is that she went against him and left him a troubled man in his last days. Yes, it was what Purandeswari calls the “coup of 1995” when her husband Daggubati Venkateswara Rao and brother in law Chandra Babu Naidu, split the Telugu Desam Party and unseated NTR as Chief Minister.

Later, her husband also fell out with Naidu. “Clearly a family feud... difficult to say who hurt whom,” TDP MP, Modugula Venugopala Reddy told HT. “Better not to comment.”

Purandeswari bears the cross of being her father’s daughter. Having snapped links with the TDP, the party which her father created and Naidu split, she is an outsider there. The Congress rank and file fault her for carrying her lineage on her sleeve. Their complaint: She flaunts the fact she is NTR’s daughter, even as a Congress minister.

Purandeswari sees this as a positive. As an MP, she was nominated on several delegations to articulate India’s point of view. She was also invited by the US administration to address a seminar in the White House. Her performance led Opposition MP D. Raja (CPI) to say: “Her level of preparedness got her applause cutting across party lines.”

Apart from her lineage, Purandeswari began her career with a diploma in gemology. She taught the subject in an institute set up by her in her home state. Till then, she loved wearing jewellery. But once she learnt to judge the colour, carat, clarity she could not buy anything. “The best was too expensive and for anything second grade,” she said, “I would not pay.”

Living in Mumbai taught her being alone was tough. If it were not for motherly pride, she would have quit the course midway and returned home. “What would I tell my daughter? That I couldn’t cope?”

Purandeswari, however, wears a blue sapphire on the middle finger of the right hand: where the astrologers say it should be. This she attributes to a gift from “a friend”. For the superstitious, blue sapphire can either destroy your fortunes or make them. Purandeswari wore hers in 2004 after which she was elected to Parliament and two years later made a minister.

As minister of state under Arjun Singh, Purandeswari was in her elements. He trusted her implicitly and is on record to say that the “entire HRD ministry depended on her”.

But given his questionable record, Singh’s praise isn’t an asset. With a high profile minister like Kapil Sibal now her boss, can she help change India’s sagging education system? Will she even have enough work?

Watch this space.