Sunday, June 1–We had the honor of attending the graduation ceremony at Shanti Bhavan Residential School in the countryside east of Bangalore. The protagonists of this day were the kids, raised since age 3 inside the caring campus founded by Abraham George, who also founded the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media.
Shanti Bhavan offers free education and housing to kids of poor families, transforming them into members of the business community in Bangalore and other parts of the world.
The ceremony went well, with performances and speeches, followed by a delicious lunch. After hours of celebrating what seemed like the epitome of a good philanthropic cause, however, our team came to a realization: The music, sarees and smiles had been overshadowing our journalistic curiosity.
Therefore, as the good journalists we are, we began to ask questions about this fascinating and unknown place. We talked to students, to volunteers and to Ajit George, the school’s director of operations and the son of its founder (who declined to talk to us). We learned that the students see this place as their primary home, even over the household of their birth. They are raised as brothers and sisters with a strong sense of community. Once Shanti Bhavan students graduate from the 12th grade, they go on to an undergraduate education that the school also pays for. —Diana Lopez
The caste system portrayed in Western textbooks is not what I saw at Shanti Bhavan. The dalit, or “untouchable,” children at this school look no different from children of other castes. They were all dressed beautifully. The young women who were graduating wore richly decorated sarees, and the young men wore dark pants and elegant white shirts. Each of us was shown the grounds by current Shanti Bhavan students and alumni, who were all well-spoken, intelligent, caring and helpful. The graduation ceremony itself was wonderful. It was great to see what these children, who came from basically nothing, had accomplished.–Alicia Bermudez
Shanti Bhavan was unlike any other school we’d seen either in India or America, and we were stunned by the warm welcome we received from the time we entered the wrought iron gates.
Students of all grades greeted us and ushered us onto the school grounds, introducing themselves and getting acquainted with us as though we were long-lost friends.
As graduates, family and friends assembled for the graduation ceremony, a choir sang Hindu religious songs. Two batches of young adults were celebrated, the college batch who were moving on to higher education, and university graduates moving on to jobs in large companies such as Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobile.
The desperately poor families of these children, we were told, sent them to the school seeking a better future for them. The trade off: cutting off contact with their youngsters except for twice a year when their children could return home for a week or two for vacations.
The school provides all resources: clothes, food, shelter, love. Shanti Bhavan is like a home away from home for all of the students, and the students seemed to feel they lacked nothing. The ceremony celebrated the accomplishments of the graduates and recognized their strength and perseverance. It was hard not to feel a deeply personal connection to every one of them.
One story that particularly touched me was that of Thanuja Ramesh, 15. When she was 3, she told me, her parents dropped her at Shanti Bhavan with no warning and no formal goodbye. She never saw or heard from them again for quite some time, and it wasn’t until she grew older that she understood their sacrifice.—Vandana Rambaran
The graduation ceremony at Shanti Bhavan was not unlike your typical June graduation in the United States—long and hot.
The central area where the ceremony took place was open to the sky, except for netting to keep birds out. The sun beat down, and for a break from filming the event, I dipped into an art classroom on the first floor. Paintings hung on a string to dry, and drawings of fantastical creatures lay across the single-seat desks. The artwork mimicked a Western aesthetic, with little apparent inspiration from the Indian styles I had seen around Bangalore. I came across mixed-media pieces that used cutouts of the glamorous female models found in everyday American magazines.
The second-floor library featured two dozen metal-framed shelves bursting with books of all kinds, from famous American novels to Indian history. I was surprised to find the room unlocked and unattended, but a Shanti Bhavan student told me that guarding was unnecessary. The students have no reason to steal a book. In fact, if a book went missing, it would remain within the confines of Shanti Bhavan’s isolated, rural campus. Outside of a couple of weeks per year when they visit their families, the students never leave the walls of this place—and neither do the books.—Peter Dorr
All the students I met at Shanti Bhavan were extremely polite, well-spoken and confident. The moment we arrived, I met Hannah, a 16-year-old wearing a bright yellow top and blue pants, who used the word “awesome” just like I do.
Hannah led me down a path lined with coconut trees and green space, pointing out the dorms and other school buildings on our way to the graduation site.
Hannah stopped at the base of stone steps flanked by two snarling stone lions. When she was younger, she recalled, students were told the lions would eat them if they did not behave.–Kelly Zegers
Everyone seemed grateful. The tour guides who proudly showed us around, the students and former students we spoke to, all seemed truly to believe in the program. What I wished I had noticed more of was the dynamic between administrators and the parents. Given the clear differences between them, it would have been interesting to observe how one treats the other and vice versa.– Marvin Fuentes
Shanti Bhavan seemed almost too good to be true. In fact, when I was interviewing the woman who handles public relations for the school, even she said that people say that. But according to her, it is all true.
The school is something really amazing for these children, but to me, it seems a bit extreme. One of the 11th-grade girls told me they never leave the campus. They do not go out to dinner, they do not go to the mall. While this school is a really great experience for these children, I cannot help but think that they are missing out on other essential parts of life.
The weirdest thing is that they all seem very okay with it. I did not hear one complaint. —Krysten Massa
During the graduation ceremony, my job was to sit cross-legged with the school’s younger students and take pictures. I was in the back corner of the group, trying to shoot pictures of the speakers without getting the students’ heads in the frame. Occasionally, I got some audience reactions. The moment the ceremony ended, I got up and on numb legs hurried to the stage to take a few last pictures of the audience before it dispersed. It was good practice for shooting at different ranges and with changing lighting, but I would have liked to have been in a chair.–Kevin Matyi