Spelling Bees in India: When Words Have the Power to Change Life

How do you spell success? For T.V. Ramakrishna, it’s spelled B-E-E. The retired civil engineer from Bangalore had the opportunity to attend college in the United States, where he settled and raised a family. He became familiar with spelling bees, in which students spell increasingly difficult words to win prizes like college scholarships. Those competitions inspired him to start a similar program in Bangalore, to give poor kids there a way to improve their English language skills and advance their educational opportunities.

Education opens doors

Ramakrishna was the youngest of seven kids, raised by a poor widow, who was lucky enough to have caring adults around him who helped him pursue an education.

Motivated by his teacher’s encouragement, he worked hard in school, won scholarships and went to college. Eventually, he came the United States, where he received his doctorate degree in civil engineering. He settled in West Virginia and had a successful professional and family life.

When he retired, he returned to Bangalore with his wife, Vijaya, and in 1998, founded the nonprofit Sahasra Deepika Foundation for Education.

Thousand lights of hope

Sahasra Deepika is a Sanskrit word that means 1,000 lights, explained Ramakrishna’s daughter, Sarva Rajendra. 

“My father looks at it as 1,000 lights of hope, love and compassion for children in need,” she added. “And he’s always believed that if each one of us would light the life of just one child in need, the world would change for the better.”

Rajendra, who serves as the foundation’s president, says her father’s goal is to help poor children in his hometown get a good education. In the past 20 years, Sahasra Deepika has helped hundreds of impoverished children, especially girls.

In 2009, the foundation expanded its programs to reach even more children in underserved government schools and help them improve their English language skills.

“Bangalore is a very cosmopolitan city, and if you don’t know English and you only know the native language of Kannada, you’re at a disadvantage to get a good job, even as a driver or anything like that,” Rajendra explained. “So, my father remembered seeing the National Spelling Bee in the U.S. so he kind of thought, why not use the words to reach more children in poor government schools. My Mom went to different schools and encouraged them to participate and this is how the program grew.”

​‘Bee the Future’

Last year, about 2,500 students from 25 schools took part in the competition. Winners get college scholarships and other prizes and opportunities offered by the sponsoring corporations.

“The scholarship to college is really, really an important prize for that child because they come from the lowest ranks of the society,” Rajendra explained. “To be able to get through and get the scholarship to the next stage is really a springboard for their future success.”

To celebrate the program’s 10th anniversary, Rajendra asked filmmaker Monika Samtani to produce a documentary about it. She traveled to Bangalore with a camera crew and a definite idea about how to craft the story.

“You can imagine what happens,” Samtani said. “Kids get on the stage, they spell a word. They win or lose. That’s not the approach we wanted to take. We wanted to hear the story, the journey of the children because that’s what makes it so special. We wanted to get their parents. We wanted to film their homes.”

So her film, Bee the Future, follows several students as they’re preparing for and going through the competition.

The students were chosen at random before the spelling bee took place, Samtani said.

“We wanted to see the process that they were going through, practicing at the school, practicing at home, early in the morning, late in the night, the intensity with which they practiced and also how important it was to their family,” she said. “So getting a sense of what this meant to them by going to their homes and schools.”

Turning points

One of those randomly selected kids, Priyanka Dodamani, won the competition.

Not only did she get a scholarship, she got an invitation to attend the U.S. National Spelling Bee in Washington.

“When we asked her, what is it that you want to do now?’” Samtani recalled, “She said, ‘I want to go right back to my village and have the opportunity to improve my village.’ It’s a turning point in her life. She wants to use her success to not only her advantage, but the greater community.”

Samtani, who was a reporter before starting her production company and becoming a filmmaker, says producing Bee the Future has also been a turning point for her in a way. She’s more determined than ever to keep creating documentaries that inspire and empower people, especially women, around the world.

As for the Sahasra Deepika Foundation, the success of the spelling bees has filled the program organizers with confidence that they can reach more children and inspire them to embark on the exciting journey that spells success for their future.

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