Preetha’s face is bathed in candlelight as she raises her voice to a distant song from the 60’s. The heavy tropical air brings beads of perspiration around her mouth as she ends breathlessly: “……on such a winter’s dayeee…….on such a winter’s dayeee”, and one can barely hold back the tears for some unknown reason. Soon after, the fourth and final episode “What is written on the forehead” finishes and the audience is left with the lingering beauty of the children, the fragile resilience of the families, and the intense drama of the five girls living through what can be described as a daring social experiment. One cannot help but admire the resolute confidence of the founders in taking several hundred children from their homes and families to be brought up at Shanti Bhavan and groomed for a ‘better’ life, dramatically different from the one they were born into. Each child, it is believed, can change a thousand lives!
‘Daughters of Destiny’ is an emotional journey that raises as many questions as it attempts to answer. Five young girls are followed from their earliest days at Shanti Bhavan, a residential school in a rural area of Tamil Nadu. Shot over a period of seven years, the story progresses chronologically, and the young girls are filmed in conversation with the camera, at school, with friends, chatting with teachers and visitors, as well as with their families. Each child is also followed to their home, and the documentary candidly explores the trials of living parallel, very different lives. These worlds are straddled with the support of caring teachers and forceful leaders at the Foundation as the girls move annually between school and vacation time at home. The viewer is torn between the periodic loss of family life, longing for a mother’s embrace, time with sisters and brothers, food cooked by the mother; in other words life at home on the one side, and confident, friendly conversations, art work, poetry, study, public speaking and media exposure on the other. ‘Daughters of destiny’ should be on the must-watch list of everyone interested in children, and I want to thank Paula Cavada Hrepich for introducing the series to us.
The Foundation and its mission
Although this is a review of the series and not the school, some introduction to the Foundation is necessary to provide the background. Abraham George, the founder of Shanti Bhavan is dedicated to the cause of changing the lives of the underprivileged families, more specifically to bring them out of the framework of caste discrimination and poverty, a noble cause. A total of 24 children are enrolled each year at the preschool level, 12 boys and 12 girls. They stay with Shanti Bhavan till completion of school during which time all expenses for their health, education, nourishment and welfare are the responsibility of the Foundation. What they do after leaving school is also closely monitored and supported to make sure that they make full use of the opportunities available to them. The pressure to excel, earn and give back is palpable. During the school year, children return home to their families periodically for vacation as mentioned earlier. Presently, the school has around 300 students and there are plans to start another school for which fund-raising efforts are on. Only one child from a single family is admitted to spread the influence wider. It is believed that change will happen and families will progress with the chances given only to one child. Throughout their time at school, children are repeatedly informed about their special place in their family and society as a consequence of being part of the institution. Shanti Bhavan has a wide media presence attracting volunteers from over 20 different countries to work with the children and the school.
Home, Shanti, Home
In the series, the most awkward moments emerge in the interface between the family and school, when family members arrive to pick up or drop children. A similar discomfort arises when children return home. It is in these moments that one can fully confront the dilemma the children face by belonging to these two contrasting worlds. The film has successfully captured furtive glances and awkward movements of parents and siblings as they stand in awe of the school, hesitant and unspeaking. Embellished by intense discussions about identity, loss and transformation that are sprinkled through the episodes, one comes up close and personal with each child in her struggle to make sense of what is happening. On the one hand there is a loving family, siblings and grandparents, and on the other, a group of lively friends and well-wishers, albeit under different circumstances. Family life is hard and meagre in resources, but there is a clear sense of dedication to the cause of education and a bright future for which the present is seen as a sacrifice, while the school is abundantly stocked with resources for study, play and other activities. Young Thenmozhi’s declaration of her favourite food during her interview tugs at the heartstrings: “My mother’s cooking” she says. Yet, she also adds that she was chosen to be sent to school because she is loved.
Steered by the promise of success, these young girls openly discuss their ambitions about the future, the losses of moving away from family and the struggles of fulfilling expectations, of parents as well as of the Foundation. The camera work and the guidance of children’s voices is fabulous and it is because of this that one has access to conflicts that are faced, and the struggles of balancing between two lives.
The ethics of residential schooling
Residential schooling is common in many cultures. The prevalence of dormitories for young people among tribal groups in India like the Ghotul among the Gond and Muria tribes is well-known in anthropological literature. One important feature of this practice was the close connections that youth were encouraged to keep with their own families. Gurukuls too were residential facilities for teaching young boys, and we can still find some instances of ashrams that take on young children for educational purposes. Hostel life was also common among the British, where children were sent to boarding school to be educated to become leaders of the Raj. Elite Indian families followed suit, and several schools from that era still flourish. Mission schools were established around 16th Century by Christian missionaries for the purpose of moral upliftment and westernization of local populations. Most of them were residential. These institutions are clearly based on the principle that the family is not the best institution for the moral, social and educational training of children. There are many debates about this assumption that have passionate supporters on both sides of the argument. One possible consequence of residential schooling that is dramatically different from the home is the social, cultural and psychological distance that is created between home and school alongside learning and progress. These changes were much more evident when children lived in residential facilities. Those of us who have studied in mission schools would understand the point first-hand.
The documentary cleverly captures these dynamics during self-disclosures of the young girls and interviews with the founders. There are also moments when one wonders about the ethics of the experiment of keeping children away from their families, and moments when the transformation seems miraculous. It remains difficult to decide whether it has been worthwhile in the end, and we would like you to make your own conclusions. One wonders why the children were separated from their families and especially from their siblings. Perhaps this is being done to prevent the shadow of poverty from clouding the lives of these children. Yet, isn’t that inevitable since their loved ones still live in those circumstances? One can witness conflicts that arise between the siblings as a consequence. There is a clear sense of superiority when they return home, and other children and adults are in awe of them. Yet they return with the promise of a better life, both for themselves and their family. The film demonstrates repeatedly that relationships with siblings are the hardest hit in this experiment.
Somewhere along the line, Abraham George comes across as omniscient for the children. Their minds are infused with his ideology and his expectations from them. There are moments when his relationship with the children appears powerful and positive, but sometimes, one is left with a lingering sense of concern.
Shanti Bhavan has a robust media presence and the request for donations abound on the internet. Reports of visiting volunteers from universities abroad are filled with happy pictures of smiling children, and one is impressed by the outreach and attention Shanti Bhavan has received. One cannot help thinking about what their lives would have been like without the school, there is no doubt that the changes have been dramatic. There is a clear expectation to give back to the school and to stay in constant touch with Shanti Bhavan. This sometimes begins to sound like a burden on the young shoulders, but mostly, it seems like a homecoming. Perhaps this is seen as payback time for the Foundation that has invested so heavily in these children. However, it is hard to make an estimate of the costs against the benefits for the children, such calculations in human situations are impossible to make.
While discussing her sister, one of the girls says:
“My sister is four years younger to me and she is studying in the village school. And at times my sister is very open about …. showing her………….I don’t think its hatred …… but there’s some sort of ……. I don’t know what to call it…………. but she’s like ……. her resentment towards me, her resentment towards me she expresses it openly.”
As mentioned earlier, some of the hardest scenes appear when the girls return home, seeming awkward with their own siblings, dominating the attention at home, finding that they have perhaps changed beyond recognition, speaking in fluent English, eating food that their loved ones could never afford, doing different things. This must come at an emotional cost. The documentary comes up front with the challenges these girls face, and as one reviewer remarks “’Daughters of Destiny’ can and will be used as a promotional tool for the Shanti Bhavan project, but it’s to Ms. Roth’s credit that it sometimes feels like the opposite.”
A review in The Guardian provides unambiguous praise for the founder, ending with the comment that: “The actions of one man have undoubtedly transformed the lives of hundreds of seriously disadvantaged children and their families. If that isn’t worth celebrating in this glorious fashion, then I don’t know what is.”
Life after Shanti Bhavan
Conversations with the children reveals a strong sense of guilt that the young girls face sometimes. For instance, “In my new life at Shanti Bhavan, as years passed, I often found myself feeling somewhat guilt-stricken at how I came to have plenty compared to the mere nothing for my family and the villagers back home. I found it hard to deal with these thoughts just as much as it had suddenly become difficult to live in my two worlds at the same time. What seemed right in one seemed unacceptable in the other. I felt unfit in both and did not know which one I really belonged to.” Somewhere, conflicts about identity have arisen and are beautifully addressed in the narrative. This is not uncommon for children of this age, but their conflicts seem closely related to the social distance between home and school.
Manjula confronts her peers at college with confidence, although she has a distinct feeling of being unique on account of her experiences, “In college I just stand out as odd one out. You’re not this you’re not that. You are just a unique person. So I have made my identity as a unique girl who has different ideas. Actually, they’re not ready to believe I was from a background such as mine, and that I come from this of school and all. They’re like does this school really exist? It’s like magic. So I was like yes it does, and I am from Shanti Bhavan”.
We found the documentary to be very impressive. The skills of the filmmaker to come so close to the lives of the young girls are undeniable. Regarding Shanti Bhavan, one cannot help but wonder about the lives of these young girls and whether some of what they could have achieved may have been possible without separating the children from their families. Although the outcomes may not have been that dramatic, it is possible that the young girls would have had a better integrated sense of who they are and what their purpose in life is. Sibling relationships would certainly have been better. This is a social experiment, and there is no doubt that Abraham George is very sure of himself and his purpose. The successes of the social experiment cannot be fully examined without also looking at emotional load and social consequences of their lives and the conflicts they face. It is hard not to be moved when young Thenmozhi speaks into the camera thus: “I am excited to go to Shanti Bhavan…..because I can see my friends and I can chat. But sometimes I feel sad because I miss Mommy.”
The George Foundation has announced a new initiative for which they are gathering funds. A second school is on the horizon and the young girls from the documentary will travel to New York for the fundraiser. I imagine that Preetha will travel too, where she may sing again, this time to a largely foreign audience “All the leaves are brown……………..and the sky is grey……………I’ve been for a walk…..” and like us, surely some of them will have tears in their eyes when she does without really knowing why.