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Monday, December 19, 2011

In Conversation with Amala Akkineni: Towards the Shared Vision of a Vegan World

It is that time of the year again – a time to reflect on the outgoing year and a time to scrawl out new resolutions. Earlier this month, a Harris Interactive® poll revealed that about 7.5 million Americans have embraced the vegan lifestyle, a number that is said to have doubled since 2009. This is heartwarming news. Although there is no study of that sort been done in India yet, we can see that change is clearly, slowly, steadily happening. This year we find significant awareness of the word, “vegan” among metro dwellers. "Awareness" is the first step to change. The year has seen a good sprinkling of vegan-related news features in mainstream media and some of them are documented in the N E W S – India page of this blog. The challenge for the coming year is to ensure that the V-word is understood and celebrated in the spirit it is intended. The challenge is also to facilitate this understanding in creative and harmonious ways. No effort made is irrelevant; all have a purpose. Afterall, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Today we feel privileged and excited to have amid us a celebrity Indian vegan who breathes the essence of veganism and is leading an extraordinary life. She has graciously consented to share some pages from her vegan journey in our year end post series. She provides insights and tips to shop, eat, and live vegan. She is none other than Amala Akkineni, former actor and Indian Classical dancer, an ardent human- and- animal rights activist, and a vegan of four years. We hope that her experience will inspire the new vegans and the vegan aspirants among us. Here is a short biography of the illustrious, multi-faceted Amala Akkineni before you read the interview.

Amala Akkineni: A Biography

Amala Akkineni is the co-founder of Blue Cross of Hyderabad, a registered non-profit animal welfare organization working for the welfare of animals in Hyderabad and extending support to other groups in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

A graduate of Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts, she completed her education in Chennai and toured extensively with the renowned Kalakshetra Dance Troupe both in India and abroad before joining films.

Her career in Indian cinema (1985 – 1992) had her complete 50 films as leading lady in five Indian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Hindi) after which she married co-star and leading Telugu Film Actor, Nagarjuna.

Amala has worked for the last 18 years in South India through various non-governmental and governmental organizations in animal welfare, wildlife protection, child welfare, rural women’s empowerment, HIV awareness, and for the protection of the environment. Amala has trained as a presenter with Mr. Al Gore and The Climate Project India on climate change issues and has reached out to thousands of people in Andhra Pradesh regarding sustainable lifestyles through her presentations. 

As a film personality, she constantly brings into focus social and environmental issues through media interactions, speaking at public gatherings in both rural and urban communities, at educational institutions, and on popular television shows, to increase understanding and motivate social change.

Amala is a practitioner of Yoga and Vipassana and believes the key to social change is through education and a commitment to sustainable lifestyles: physically, environmentally, and spiritually.

In Conversation with Amala Akkineni
A Pretty Picture: Amala and Baby Cow
Photograph courtesy: WOW Hyderabad Staff Photographer

Vegan India!: Amala, thank you so much for taking out time to share your perspectives, a few pages from your journey with us. We shall start with the question that comes foremost to the mind. Most of us have had an epiphany moment when we have decided we want to go vegan. Please tell us when and why you decided to embrace the vegan lifestyle. 

Amala: I turned vegan four years ago when a number of truths dawned on me. I was a vegetarian since the age of 11, but recently for a few years since 2005, I had been having stomach problems. I thought it was just a stomach bug at first and later a sensitive stomach, so I avoided spicy food. The doctors would say, “you work with animals it must be something you get from them”, and they would give medication. It would always come back. I was eating well but did not feel energetic. It’s terrible to be constantly low on energy. And it’s not any fun eating boiled food all the time thinking one has to be careful. No one suggested I could be lactose intolerant and it didn’t strike me either.

Then in October 2007, I was asked to inspect a slaughterhouse for Animal Welfare Board of India, which turned out to be an eye opener. All the animals at the slaughterhouse were female buffaloes from the dairy industry. There were 500 of them waiting their turn for slaughter. Every day hundreds of them are sent from the dairy for slaughter when their milk production drops. This is a sad and harsh reality all vegetarians need to accept. These creatures were enormous, healthy and young, but they were not considered economically viable to keep alive when milk production drops after birthing a number of calves.

That day looking at their terrified expressions, it dawned on me that despite being vegetarian, my consumption of milk products was a direct cause for the commercial breeding and slaughter of these beautiful creatures. I experienced being part of the cycle and I knew I had to step away. I became vegan.

That’s when I signed up for *Dr. Nandita Shah’s workshop “Peas v/s Pills”. The workshop helped me make a smooth and easy transition into the new lifestyle.

Vegan India!: You have recounted a distressing reality of commercial milk production about which all of us must educate ourselves. Please tell us how this “new lifestyle” or of living vegan has benefitted you personally? 

Amala: One week into being vegan, all my stomach problems cleared up. I had been lactose intolerant without knowing it. The vegan diet healed my stomach and brought my energy back, the relief was tremendous. My inner strength grew. It has helped me become more detached about everything, more conscious, more responsible. Now I never take things for granted or expect to be served or fed – I always plan and feed myself. It has certainly made me more responsible, respectful about food.

Vegan India!: So wonderful, do tell us what has been the reaction of your family, friends, fans, and the society at large to your choice to live vegan and how did you/do you deal with it? 

Amala: Everyone admires my ability to do what I want, believe in, make up my mind about. They are very respectful and supportive. My dear friends and close family always plan a vegan item on their menu for me if I am eating at their homes. They understand the benefits from my good health and try it out sometimes for themselves, though they do find it difficult. My sister tried being vegan for a whole month when I visited her. Now she says the vegan diet suits her much better than a dairy-based one. As we age, our bodies have different needs. If we understand these needs and address them, our health can be so much better.

I deal with the subject of food with respect. Having been a non-vegetarian by birth and giving it up by choice, I know that the time comes to us in a sequence of life-changing events. When I know a person has arrived at a life-changing event and makes a pro choice that will save the lives of thousands of animals, I acknowledge it with ceremonious gratitude. But I am careful not to offend the choices of others. There are good people in this world doing their bit and yet not vegan or vegetarian. Who are we to judge?

Amala with Good Boy, a young differently-abled horse rescued and adopted by NGO, Samabhava
Photograph courtesy: Samabhava

Vegan India!: We are eager to know who/who all has/have been your inspiration and why?  

Amala: I have read Mrs. Maneka Gandhi’s pieces on the suffering of dairy animals many times and it struck a chord. But what finally drove the point home and made me change was to see it for myself. The animals inspired me to give it up. Dr. Nandita helped me do it without any fear or stress. Changing one’s lifestyle, diet, can be stressful especially when you have been accustomed to something all your life. The body carves for what it has been used to, so knowing how to handle that stage is helpful.

Vegan India!: Dr. Nandita and her team have guided the intent of so many people in the most creative and positive ways, thank you for sharing this. Amala, according to you, how easy or difficult has it been for you to find vegan parallels to food, clothing, footwear, accessories, cosmetics, jewelry, and other articles of daily use?

Amala: I don’t find it difficult, because I am not fanatical. I love being vegan and do my best to find vegan options, so is easy. Family and friends also shop for me on my birthday – I get vegan bags, shoes, jewelry, energy bars, biscuits – anything they get excited to find that is vegan. I have quite a stash!

Vegan India!: Could you please share some tips on how to shop vegan, especially for the new vegans and the vegan aspirants among us? 

Amala: Well, firstly it helps to not want everything one sees! When you want to buy something, look at the label, if it’s not vegan, put it down. In fashion, there is always cotton, linen, or synthetic fabrics to choose from, even in shoes. For food, you can’t want dessert all the time and then demand vegan as most desserts have dairy. It’s easier to give up dessert and be happy with a date or piece of fruit. Actually, vegan can be the most simple and environmentally sustaining lifestyle on this planet. My advice when shopping is, don’t be fanatical and don’t be greedy; be patient and persistent and you will always find what you need.

Vegan India!: You are so right, shopping vegan can actually be fun and we end up making all sorts of discoveries about the market, about ourselves if we go with an open mind. Amala, how do you see the vegan movement shape up in India? 

Amala: I dread armchair activists or critics and avoid people who sit in judgment of others. There are vegans with these attitudes who I believe do more damage and harm than inspire others. As of now, I stay far away from movements as I don’t think people who are moralistic or judgmental are better human beings just because they are vegan. Change needs inspiration, inner awareness, and a whole lot of purpose. To reach there takes time and life gives us opportunities for this. Each to his/her own, at their own pace. I hope the vegan movement in India takes a proactive, welfare involved approach that inspires others. I don’t see the difference between a dog, a cow or a buffalo, they are all wonderful creatures to me and deserve a better life.

Vegan India!: Definitely! You have been associated with animal rights activism even before you embraced the vegan lifestyle. Please tell us what motivated you to found Blue Cross of Hyderabad and what is the organization’s goal? 

Amala: Aha! That’s a long story. But it started with me rescuing animals as a student and taking them to Blue Cross of India in Chennai. Later when I moved to Hyderabad, I found animals lying on the road after accidents or sick, and no organized rescue or shelter to take them to. My home became a shelter and soon my husband suggested I start something more permanent. He gifted me an ambulance and that’s how Blue Cross of Hyderabad began. Dr. Chinny Krishna (*BCI) guided me and I trained with *AWBI.

Amala at a press meet to prevent dog killing and support ABC/ARV for street dogs in Bangalore
Photograph courtesy: The Voice of Stray Dogs

Vegan India!: Everybody who has met you has described you as a person who exudes peace that comes from deep within you. Please tell us how you retain the peace within and achieve so much for the rights of animals while at same time deal with animal cruelty perpetrated by thoughtless human behavior. 

Amala: Thank you, but I was not always like that. After a year of doing animal rescues, I fell apart. Helping animals in thousands just made me feel worse as I realized it was just a drop in the ocean. Facing suffering day in and out drained me of hope. I became bitter and angry like many working for animal welfare that I see around me. So of course, I started the universal search for a way out of suffering. I learnt to meditate Vipassana as Buddha taught it. I learnt about the impermanence of life, joy, and suffering. I learnt detachment from suffering itself, from my own beliefs and judgments. It was all very liberating.

I continue to mediate every day and I go on a retreat every year. If things get to me, I step aside and meditate for a while. Buddha says, “If you take praise, you must learn to take blame”. Those are very wise words for all of us. People lift you up and throw you down on a whim. If it weren’t for the animals, I wouldn’t be in animal welfare, so I must find my peace and carry it wherever I go.

Vegan India!: Amala, if you had to send out one prayer for animals to the Universe on this New Year, what would it be? 

Amala: Rukmini Devi, my teacher at Kalakshetra who was like a mother to me used to say that humans can liberate themselves from suffering, but animals require the help of humans. That is why as humans we must help them. But I strongly feel that the Universe does watch over all irrespective of species, and if we play any role to channel this positive support, we feel one with the Universe. My prayer will be that of the Buddha, “May all living beings be happy! May all be liberated from their suffering!”, please join me in this prayer.

Thank you Amala! We hope these prayer flags will carry the message really far and wide!

Dear Readers, the blog wishes you a very happy New Year. Thank you for your mails containing words of encouragement that inspire us to continually create content for the benefit of the shared vision of a vegan world. May the purpose triumph! May veganism triumph! Amen!

We wish to express our deepest gratitude to Sandesh Raju, Co-founder & Managing Trustee of  Samabhava, an organization for the rights of working animals. Sandesh helped us connect with Amala Akkineni, thereby making this interview possible. Thank you, Sandesh!

*AWBI: Animal Welfare Board of India
*BCI: Blue Cross of India
*Dr. Nandita Shah: Reputed medical doctor in the field of “preventive medicine” whose workshops, seminars, talks, and so on have helped many people reverse life-threatening diseases, look at “nutrition” and “health” with a holistic perspective, implement the learning into their lives, and reap enormous benefits for themselves and consequently for everybody else inhabiting the Planet. Anybody who seeks details can please check Dr. Nandita’s website by clicking this link.

For more interviews featured in this blog, you can click this link.


  1. That was a wondeful and insightful interview. If celebrities embrace veganism, it gets a greater weight due to their influence on the society. The interview unravelled several interesting facets of Amala Akkineni's personality especially with regard to her animal welfare activities. Kudos to her and your team for bringing out such a thoughtful matetial in your blog.

  2. I really loved reading the interview. Very apt and relevant questions and Amala has spoken straight from her heart with no apprehension at all. Its heartening to see her views about the vegan movement btw which I completely agree. Congratulations on a wonderful interview.

  3. What an inspiring and intelligent person is Amala! AW is one of the hardest works, and Amala has provided a very helpful suggestion for those working with animals. Her interview has taught me humility. Thank you, vegan india for the supurb interview!

  4. Thank you K V Rangan, Sharath, and Arun! Thanks to everybody else who has "like"d the interview and to all those of you who have sent mails of appreciation. We are happy to share with you that Amala's interview has received the highest ever page views for any post in this blog so far! And, the views continue. In that, we completely agree with K V Rangan that it really helps when celebrities uphold a cause simply because of the influence they exercise on society. Thanks, All!

  5. A beautiful person inside too! I enjoyed reading the interview because the answers are motivating and spiritual. I wish we had more people like her amongst celebs! They really can make a change!

    Harini of Tongue Ticklers


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