MODELLING himself on Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, Balasai Baba has been attracting huge crowds of followers, including overseas disciples. Hailing from a humble family that lived in a single-room house in the old town of Kurnool three decades ago, he today presides over a spiritual empire worth billions of rupees. He has opened a branch in Hyderabad and has plans to start some more at other locations.
Many recall that Balasai did odd jobs in the early 1980s, working as an assistant to a medical doctor and a dance master before donning the garb of a spiritual “guru”. Two of his friends also started similar spiritual centres at different places, but only Balasai was successful.
A student of the Nehru Memorial School in Kurnool, Balasai was known to be a quiet person. He was above average in academics. His classmates cannot recollect whether he pursued higher education after schooling. Yet he learnt to speak half a dozen languages fluently, including English, German, Japanese, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam apart from Telugu. His family is said to have migrated from Kerala.
In his childhood, he used to be a mimicry artist who yearned to perform on stage, reproducing the calls of animals and birds. He was exceptionally good at mimicking women too.
Balasai, who lived with his mother, uncle, two sisters and a brother in Saibaba Nagar, grew up in a “religious” atmosphere thanks to the proximity of his house to a Shirdi Sai Baba temple.
It all began in the early 1980s when a few of his friends extended support to him to become a guru. A small hut resembling a hermitage was constructed near an abandoned fort to start the activity. A group of traders from Dhone and a judicial officer’s family were among the first batch of followers.
According to his associates, Balasai had been nursing the idea of becoming a spiritual man for quiet some time and prepared himself for the role after careful practice. He accompanied his mother’s friend to Puttaparthi, where he stayed for three days. He was learnt to have keenly observed the routines of the ashram and the daily chores of Puttaparthi Sai Baba.
A teenage photograph of Puttaparthi Sai Baba attracted him a great deal as he too possessed a curly mane like him and already had “Sai” to his name. In costumes, make-up and hairstyle, he resembled Sai Baba Senior.
His early years of spiritualism were devoted to duplicating the conditions at Puttaparthi by engaging agents to send overseas devotees to Kurnool and enlisting the services of senior volunteers at Puttaparthi to render bhajans daily.
He mesmerised devotees by taking plantains, holy ash and rings out of thin air. After moderate success, he abandoned old supporters and created a new team of professionals, bank officers and auditors to organise the centre.
According to ashram sources, Balasai is a shrewd psychologist who reads the minds of people in seconds and communicates with them at the mental level. Give him a few minutes with an audience, and he takes them into a trance and makes them treat him as a family member. On occasion he speaks and behaves like a child to demonstrate his innocence. He exhorts devotees to spare a small portion of their incomes to support the activities of the ashram.
Controversies followed with the growth of assets and wealth. He was accused of encroaching on a land adjacent to a piece of land his trust had bought. He fought a protracted legal battle in a cheque-bounce case and landed himself in a controversy when the police seized Rs.7 crore in Hyderabad recently. The trust received the amount after forfeiting 30 per cent of it as tax.
Even though Balasai has never been involved in any personal controversies, his brother was accused of seduction and high-handedness.
Though it was started with local patronage, the ashram has kept its doors shut for the local people; it is a centre of spiritual tourism for foreigners. The centre is open to the local public only on his birthday, January 14, when a host of actors, politicians and bureaucrats appear on stage. A rigorous exercise is followed to enlist the service of VIPs at the birthday bash. Gifts are dished out to the poor on the occasion.
D. Sreenivasulu in Kurnool