Monday, February 12, 2007

Auroville is a social experiment started in 1968

Home Morgalogue and the tales of Johnny Foreigner …Thu 8 Feb 2007 Croissants and Poppadoms Posted by Morg under India
This week I have been living in the strange, minature world of ‘French India’. I’m not entirely clear on the history, or why the Brits let them keep it at all, but the French clung on to a tiny capsule of territory around the city of Pondicherry until 1954. Unlike the British colonial sites however, the French don’t really seem to have left. Police still wear red kepis hats, people play boules, there are boulangeries galore, street names have largely resisted the re-ethnification process thats working its way through the country. And in a way that seems particulary French to me, French tourists flock to visit ‘the French part’ of the country and compalin about how crap the crepes are (no joke - I overheard a 10 minute moan about the flour used). We clearly have very a different relationship with our ex-colonies.
There’s not a huge amount to see in Pondicherry. Inland it’s India - shops, dust and chaos - though as you get closer to the beach the roads organise themselves into a neat grid around wide streets and (grubby) whitewashed French buildings. In the centre is a Parisian park complete with mini Arc de Triomphe. There’s obviously some money in town as it’s maintained to European standards with classy uplightling on the trees and statues. What really got me though, was how European everyone was behaving. Indians sitting still, few large groups, strolling, discoursing … promenading. After a while India started to look out of place in this French world. I sat in this park, opposite a traditional Dravidian sculpture that had been lit like an exhibit as if to say “Look, they have these in India. strange aren’t they ?”. I walked through a small fair with candyfloss and a rickety old ferris wheel and into an Indian classical music recital. Really disorientating. Part of me longed to pop up the coast and visit Rob in Hossegor, as if I’d stepped through some TGV wormhole. Anyway, I didn’t hang about. The real point of coming here was to visit the truly ‘out-there’ town of Auroville.
Auroville is a social experiment started in 1968 by a French woman known as ‘The Mother’ under the guidance of her partner/guru Sri Aurobindo. Putting my natural resistance towards cults and ’spiritual doctrines’ to one side, the project is inspiring. The town eventually plans to house 50 000 (at present 1700) living sustainably along lofty prinicples of their own making - an example alternative to the infectious Western model. To quote from their website ( “Today Auroville is recognised as the first and only internationally endorsed (by UNESCO and Govt. of India) ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with - and practically researching into - sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind.”
So what does that mean ? Well, on one level, as a traveller it can look like an eco-friendly holiday village in the forest with a beach. A boozeless, slightly French Glastonbury. Everyone zooms from yoga class to dance workshop to organic farm to party on scooters or motorbikes along little dirt tracks through the trees. Occasionally you find yourself in the middle of a Tamil village, all cows and chickens, who are more than used to the sight of you. Contemporary European gallery spaces, offices, dance studios and concert halls with communal cafes can be visited. Classes in everything from Vedic Mathematics (I almost went for you Brian) to meditiation can be attended. A film club show arty movies by Werner Herzog and the like can be discussed in a plush cinema. Guesthouses are among residential communities with wacky names like ‘Aspiration’, ‘Halcyon’ or ‘Revelation’ each with a slightly different social structure or ideology - communal eating, self-sufficiency, music etc. I’m in ‘Celebration’ (Waaa-hoo). Travellers come here, wax lyrical, do little and end up staying for months. It’s a cosy bubble.
While we may not be Aurovillians, the calibre of traveller attracted seems to be high. Generally older, experienced and keen to learn something new. My main chums are 40 year old Israeli who’s family have let him off for a month, a dour, Dutch music producer who is recording a vibrating stone instrument made locally and a bunch of retired market traders from around Bath and Bristol. The last lot make me laugh. I’ve met so many people from the West Country who really surprise me. What is it about that area ? Is it really any surprise Glastonbury ended up there ? They were some of the first wave of travellers who came out to Goa by bus in the 60’s with nothing but a few pages of photocopied maps. They rented old Portuguese mansions and stayed on and off for years looking around India. Adventurous times. They can talk, unpretentiously, about gurus and ahrams they’ve lived in, yoga and spiritual revelations and still with both feet on the ground, make a living trading anything from antiques to second hand clothes at markets and festivals all over England. And retire at 50. Canny is not even the word. Romany perhaps.
The real Auroville, the world of the slightly distant Aurovillans, is a big subject that no doubt takes time to pin down. It’s not a wild and crazy place but neither does it seem to be a refuge for burnt-out hippies. There’s alot of systems to master on arrival which I guess are testament to a functionally different society. I keep being drawn towards the economics of the place as a test of it’s ‘realness’. Where does all the money come from ? Is it really self-sufficient ? One of th biggest underlying concepts of the place is the concept that all property belongs to Auroville, which in turn belongs to no-one. They are also aiming to become as close to ‘cashless’ as possible. Everyone is expected to work 5 hours a day doing something meaningful for the community (of your own choice) and a large prcentage of profits from any commercial activities also go to Auroville. Each person is then looked after with ‘maintenance money’ and the vast array of services and facilities. Their aim is to de-link work from income, the idea being that if you do good work that you enjoy, it’s good for the soul and the community at large.
This is where all the spiritual side comes in. In the centre is a giant golden golfball set amongst gardens and an ampitheatre. Inside is a huge marble meditation chamber. A shaft of light is channelled through a beachball proportioned crystal in the middle. This is the ’soul’ of the city. Most people are ’spiritual’ in some way though they don’t seem to bang on about it too much. It’s all very much about YOU. ‘Inner work’ is respected by the community. I suppose Ghandi had a similar vision of the perfect society - if people can elevate themselves then the rest is really a case of logistics.
The marriage of Sri Aurobindo and ‘The Mother’ it is said, repesents the East-West spirit of the place. It’s certainly true from what I’ve seen so far, that India (and the East) has historically always been fascinated with the idea of spiritual perfection wheras the West has been obsessed with a perfectly organised society. It does seem to be the case that we now have cities without souls and they have no town planning !
I’m not sure what I make of it. I’m glad somone is trying to prove there is a better way to live and demonstrating it is the only way. But all societies I’ve lived in where everyone ‘thinks the same way’ suffocate me after a while. Chamonix and endless snowboard chat for one. I like places that are contradictory and dysfunctional. And why does creative freedom often produce the shittest art ? Some of the avant-garde nonsense I’ve seen here would have you in stitches. Photos to come. That said … as a place to disappear for a year and work on a idea (Rob, Brian, Andy …) let me remind you of the major plus point: It’s beautiful, relaxed, cheap as chips and provided your work serves humanity, they will support you to do it. Hmmmmm ….. I’ll get back to you on that. I’m off for an organic lunch. 8 Responses to “Croissants and Poppadoms”
Sarah Says: February 8th, 2007 at 4:30 pm You almost sound like a convert. I’m sure they could make good use of your skills. I love the way that people from the West Country don’t feel the same pressure to be “successful” as the rest of us. There is nothing wrong with working in a coffee shop at 30, as long as you can pay your weed tab. Did you hear about this place before you left or on your travels?
Aryadeep Says: February 9th, 2007 at 4:09 pm Pleasure to read your notes on Auroville.If you could put the words “the marriage” between inverted commas, it would better convey the meaning. For then it would mean“collaboration” or “association” , but not marriage as generally understood.
Having lived in Auroville for 15 years, may I offer an observation? Auroville is people’s movement!People… the overwhelming majority touched by the vision and yoga of new evolution expounded by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, and as its consequence, a new creation upon earth, came here to buid a new ciy as a starting point. It was a higly eroded area then. So when these early settlers came, each took up what s/he thought needed to be done or ccould do. Some took up land reclamation, some village development, some education, some initiated small manufacturing units and developed them over the decades, some looked into services for the functioning community, some got involved in community administration, some focused on what you called “giant golden golfball”. There never was a central body or managing director asking people what they should do. And secondly, there never was a big donor or a big funding agency or the government offering huge sums of money to build the place. And this situation continues even today after 39 years. That’s why I call Auroville people’s movement. That to build such “a giant golden golfball” which many regard as the one of the most outstading gifts of the post-independent India to the world, and to reclaim a vast barren plateu, to secure goodwill and cooperation of majority of surrounding population, and to found in seed form the activites of a universal township in course of a single generation without any major source of funding is astonishes even to me who lives here and works to secure the remaining land for the emergence of this township.
May I end with a quote with which the Mother ended an article written decaded before the conception of Auroville? : “…a new creation beginning with a model town and ending with a perfect world.”
Morg Says: February 9th, 2007 at 10:48 pm Well, you heard it here readers.
I can’t say your pedantry has upped my estimation of the place Aryadeep. This blog has a readership of approximately 20 of my close friends and family. I don’t know how you found it - given that I posted this yesterday I assume you are screening the internet for this sort of thing … which is a little creepy. Maybe I’m over-reacting but it feels a bit Orwellian.
I know it’s the web … and you are fully entitled to correct me on those points. But I repeat what I said at the end of my post - in my perfect town, people are allowed to THINK what they want.
I’m just baffled that you took the time to do this. Is this Auroville policy ?
Aryadeep Says: February 10th, 2007 at 4:18 pm On reading your blog on Auroville, I just felt like sharing some of my latest views and thinkings on Auroville, Morg. No intention to up your perception. But I am definately interested in the development of his place. And when i came across your article, I read it with interest and found it worthwhile to spare time.
How I came across your e-diary? Just by chance. Once a while in a month, I peep into one of those Google Alerts on Auroville while checking emails and yours came up unexpectedly.
“in my perfect town, people are allowed to THINK what they want.” -
Decades ago, a visitor from the west, seeing the Mother’s pictures everywhere in the Pondichery Ashram and her authority, asked her, “Is this not dictatorship?’ She noded and said, “Benevolent dictatorship.” You are not forced to live or think in a particular way but you willingly choose to illuminate your thinking in a certain light. The emphasis is on going beyond “thinking” to a place within oneself where even most contradicatory thinkings and opinions and views find their rightful place and synthesis, a beautiful synthesis at that, I would add. I can quote several words of the Mother, including the Charter of Auroville in suppor to this (and in the process, make you gruble further!). But instead, I am choosing to post here an interview of an oldtimer with many skills. It is from Auroville Today, October 06 issue. Perhaps you might enjoy it, as I understand from the earlier commentor that you’re a man with many skills.
With a smile and friendly feelings!
My main pretext is to have fun”- as told to Joanna
Johnny is unique. Playwright, actor, carpenter, singer, architect, builder, teacher, tree-planter, farmer, odd-job man, since coming to Auroville in the early 1970s he seems to have done it all. Recently Auroville Today asked him to share his thoughts on a wide range of topics.
“I initially came to visit my runaway family. Jan, my first wife, left Sydney for Auroville with our child, when he was three because I was such a hopeless case. Almost as soon as I arrived in Auroville I fell in with a group of young Tamil men building bamboo houses. In every village you’d have a group of men, or several groups of men, who were house-builders. There was one particular Tamil guy, whose name was Ramu, who was roughly the same age as me. He felt like a Tamil version of me. He had a really good comprehension of geometry, which is actually unusual in a village.
At that time there were about hundred and fifty people in Auroville, many of them trying to build houses without really any experience. I had experience with building things with my hands. So I suddenly found that I was fully employed as exactly the sort of architect I enjoyed being, which was a bamboo-and-rope architect.
Fertile was the first reforestation camp in Auroville. The idea was that you would have a camp and you would plant in the area you could reach and water from a single well, and than you would move on, leaving a watchman, and set up another camp. But that didn’t happen, because Auroville wasn’t purchasing land fast enough. Moreover, we suddenly had four children and other children were attracted to our children, and we suddenly had a kid’s community here. There used to be a huge, three-storey bamboo house here stock full of children!When we first came we had really no knowledge of afforestation, and all we wanted was shade. And so we planted any possible tree we could find. We didn’t know what to plant. As you can imagine, a lot of them died. Paul Blanchflower, who lived here for ten years, brought the know-how. He has a degree in tropical forestry or re-forestry. So he and a group of really qualified botanists that Auroville now contains put together the current planting policy – to replant the initial tropical evergreen forest that existed here when we came. But if you look at Fertile forest as it stands now, it is just higgledy-piggledy, the exotic and indigenous mixed together. You wouldn’t consider it to be very good reforestation, whereas the quality of reforestation that goes on now in other parts of Auroville is, I think, among the highest quality in the world.
When we first came we had a lot of trouble keeping what we planted from being cut and traded off as firewood. Many times I had to wrestle with a guy with a sharp axe in his hands over trees. And they are tough guys. It’s totally the other way round now. We don’t cut green timber at all but we are constantly cutting this Australian acacia, the Work tree, that grows rampantly all through Auroville. We cut them in the forest and we leave the branches lying, and sometimes the villagers won’t even take them away!
The Tamil people
I live here with this young Tamil guy, Elumalai, who’s a Tamil Aurovilian. He first came here when he was fifteen. When he married, his wife didn’t want to come to live here. I mean, when you look at the situation in a village and the situation in Auroville, you can see that Auroville is very encouraging for men, with motorcycles and volleyball and nice jeans and cell phones. But the women aren’t interested in that. What the women like is the support of other women that you have in a village, especially when you have children. Of course, you do have Tamil families living in Auroville and Tamil women happy here, but it takes a particular type of a Tamil women that likes to live in Auroville because it requires a sense of social adventure.
Elumalai doesn’t actually sleep in Fertile but he’s here at six o’clock in the morning and only goes at six o’clock in the evening. I can leave Fertile for up to four months at a time and when I come back not only is everything correct and in place but everything’s improved. He’s a special guy with a very special skill. I couldn’t do without a guy like that. And it’s the same with all these guys really. Once you get to know them, and get to work with them, you realize that.
Because the thing about the Tamils is that they have a sort of ethics: if they enjoy what you give them to do, then they do it really well and they don’t really care how much you pay them. But if you ask them to do something they don’t enjoy doing, they won’t do it very well and they want a lot of money for it.
India is very much a culture built on people doing what they like to do, even if it’s living on the street. I know that people decry poverty in India but the irony of poverty is that it contains a lot of very simple pleasures that a lot of people miss out on by living on the twenty fourth storey of a skyscraper somewhere, with a flat screen television.
Organic architecture
I was originally schooled in what was called organic architecture in the 60s and 70s. The understanding then was that you acted in a way that was invisible in nature. Even in an urban context it never drew attention to itself, it always tried to fit in with the environment.When I came here we tried to make a low impact on nature. We had no right to take electricity or food or services from India . My personal feeling is that it’s possible to be autonomous, which means as much as possible you generate your own needs and also deal with your own waste. All our toilets are composting and we have a motorcycle but we try to only use it for bringing building materials; mostly we travel by bicycle or bullock cart. I also like to use low-key building materials, because it employs villagers. People don’t realize, when they are putting up a concrete house, the impact of cement on the Indian environment.
The village as a model for Auroville
I think a village is a wonderful institution. We have this Western arrogance, we come to India with a solution to all their problems, when in reality they have a solution to our problems because they know how to live together. Actually in many villages they deal with their own problems, they don’t involve the police, the government at all. Like in our local village, Mathur, they never go to the police. Every dark moon they have a meeting in a temple, I’ve been to it several times, where they deal with any sort of social unrest in the village, theft, adultery, violence etc.
Politics in Auroville
What would I change in Auroville? There’s no point in having any idea about change if you aren’t prepared in some way to facilitate it yourself. Each of us has limited energy anyhow, and by the time you are my age you know what you can and can’t do. And you know what you enjoy doing and what you don’t enjoy doing. My general philosophy, and this is what I’m constantly preaching to the kids, is that you fix as your horizon the world as you want it to be.
And the world I want to live in is one where people make a much lighter imprint on the planet than huge concrete buildings and exploitative situations. So everything I do is in that direction. I’m not trying to change people at all, I’m simply trying to build a world I enjoy being in. And my main pretext is to have fun. It sounds very self-centered but I think if enjoyment is the prime concern in your personal life, a shared enjoyment with your children and other children and people in a community, it’s going to help make a joyful community. If people are constantly dealing with stressful problems and regulations, than you’re definitely going to end up with a lot of worried people and a slightly paranoid community.
Politics, frankly, I look upon as a form of theatre. And I think theatre is essential not only as an entertainment but as a form of dealing with collective psychology. I do respect the skill of somebody who can deal with complex problems and who is able to comprehend a problem and somehow calm people down. That’s not a definition of a Western politician, but it’s sort of a definition of an Auroville politician. Because Auroville’s politics is functional. It’s a group of people who are honestly and earnestly trying to solve problems in the community.
For many years all the politics in Auroville was completely voluntary. And so you had to want to do it. Now if you are part of a group that meets regularly and tries to deal with problems that aren’t yours personally, you receive a maintenance. And so you take it a bit more seriously, you say “We’d better make some serious decisions here”. And it can often reach a point when people take themselves much too seriously…
Auroville doesn’t really work by force. It’s like a river, it follows the easiest course. Despite the fact that there are very adamant and militant people here, everyone respects each other to some extent. There is a lot of hot air about authoritarianism, what you should do and shouldn’t do, but it gets down to live and let live.
I can have a major conflict with somebody over some issue. But then I can sit down with them and say ‘ok, ok, let’s agree that at least what we are after is this. You do it your way, I do it in my way, but let’s at least agree that we are heading in the same direction’. Of course, it might take a bit of talking to get to that point…
If you have a centralized authority it disenfranchises the individual. And so if you have somebody who takes it upon him to tell you what you have to do with your land, or your house, or your field, or your whatever, than he’s taking away your rights as an individual to think intelligently about your situation or to think collectively about your situation. This is important because as a community we’ve reached a critical point. We’re around 1800 people now, and that’s an interesting number which requires a certain technology to resolve problems. What we are trying to do now is to develop a slightly more complex management system in Auroville. And it’s quite fascinating watching all these different groups trying different approaches. The encouraging thing for me really is that no matter what’s happening, the awareness of what’s happening is growing.
Of course, when you’ve got a small community of people whose main goals are self-sufficiency and solar panels, then you are going to have a harmonious and autonomous community. But as soon as you start to get to the next level, when you start crochet workshops, carpentry workshops and get computer manufacturing, then you are going to have very different sets of demands and criteria. But they are all just a part of a growing society. It’s like a broad mind. A broad mind, for me, is one that can accommodate major contradictions. What you don’t want is a totally fanatical mind that says: “I’m only this and I won’t even think of being anything else!”
The broader we become socially, the more successful I consider we are because we should accommodate more and more diverse people.
It’s not something I think about very often. But I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of finding yourself. For example, my only way of dealing with somebody who is mentally deranged is to relate to the being inside that I know, the part which I would consider to be the spiritual soul of that person. In a community like Auroville – because you have access to time and space, and you do have absolutely freedom to do what you like, money is not a constraint, really – you have a freedom here to become whoever you want to become. And I think the natural tendency is to become who you are. The thing that you see in children and the thing I like in working with children is that they know who they are. They might not be likable, but they are who they are.
I don’t really see spiritual growth as a separate thing. I believe it has very much to do with your personal development of who you are. Auroville is a terrific opportunity not just for spiritual growth on an individual level but spiritual growth in terms of consideration and cooperation and relating to the rest of the community.
In Sri Aurobindo’s writings, there is a volume of work which is mostly about The Life Divine, which is actually a guide for the spiritual sadhak. That’s information that you don’t approach simply out of curiosity. If I am having some sort of spiritual difficulty, I suddenly find that that sort of literature speaks directly to me, to my need for spiritual sustenance. I have been in situations when I felt like on the borderline of sanity, and then I found that if you reach into these spiritual teachings, they are an incredibly powerful food.
Everyday life in Fertile
I don’t think I’ve done the same thing two days running. At the moment I’m doing theatre with the children, I’m building playgrounds outside Auroville, and this is all just voluntary work. The only regular thing in my day is a good cup of tea, ten o’clock, and a good solid breakfast based on grains we grow – I like the old traditional fermented grain breakfast that the villagers like called kuzhu.
I enjoy all the different aspects of this life. It’s enjoyable to farm, to plough, to harvest, to thresh, to deal with grains, every stage of this process is totally enjoyable. It’s such a land of opportunity. As soon as one thing finishes there’s the next one waiting, it’s like a chain effect, things just keep coming. At the moment we have taken on three other children in the community, who are having problems fitting in, so I do some schooling with these children until 10 o’clock in the morning. Then I do some woodcarving for a few hours. At the moment there’s also some plumbing to be done. The minute it starts to rain we’ll start planting trees again, we’ve got an idea to plant a whole field behind Jana’s house with trees that attract different sorts of butterflies. This is her dream. She knows every butterfly that is specific to a different tree.
At full moon we used to take a group of children and climb a hill somewhere around Gingee. Or we’d go to the beach.
On weekends I do have something of a routine. On Saturday I always make this dosai, idly mix. On Sundays I bake all day – biscuits and bread and cheesecake and whatever we can put together. Because Sunday is an open day when people come, it’s always totally different depending on who turns up.
I haven’t been to Australia in four, five years, my feeling is that it’s much more productive for my children to come here than for me to go there. When they come here they are relaxed and they can view life from a little bit of a distance, whereas when I meet them in Sydney, I get five minutes between coffee and telephone and their work: it’s just a major distraction what goes on in a modern society. I had a laptop for a while, but I gave it away, it became too much of an imposition on my life. We used to have a small television set and watch Tamil movies sometimes at night, but I gave up on that also. Frankly, by the time you get through a normal day here, it will be nine o’clock at night and you are exhausted and it’s enough to sit around a fire and talk with whoever might come by.And that’s my definition of a pleasant lifestyle.
Aryadeep Says: February 10th, 2007 at 4:33 pm
“a bit Orwellian”?
Stay here for a year or two, take active part/interest in some work/activity, try to understand the vision and the views behind the project, and, in all probability, you will change your opinion. Let me quote just one: A question was put to the Mother “What are the rules and regulations for life in Auroville?” She replied,”Thank god, there are none. So long as there are none, there is hope.”
Were is Orwellian here?
Scrimbobalicious Says: February 10th, 2007 at 7:12 pm
Hey Morg,
It’s saturday afternoon. Football focus has just finished. Scotland play Wales at Murrayfield in a couple of hours. That twat Jeremy Guscot’s on tv spouting guff on how great England are. There’s snow melting around the daffodil buds in the garden. It’s proper parky outside. I’d planned on sorting suff out around the house. Perhaps I still will, but I thought I’d procastinate with a random meander around the web, then thought to check here, to see how it’s gaun.
Sounds like you’re having a real eye opening experience, but then you’ve always gone into stuff with in the right frame of mind to allow that. I was expecting to read about temples, urchins, fatigue and food poisoning, some of which is mentioned above, but it’s great to read about things with more depth. It’s so Morg and I love it.
Amazing that Aryadeep has entered this blog. It strikes me that if Auroville has 1700 inhabitants and he/she has lives there now, and you are still there……you’ve got a good chance of meeting…or is that to be avoided….? That’s what’s a little bizarre about web culture particularly forum culture (which this isn’t but you know..). The inference is that everybody is physically distant on the net, and can only come together in an anonymous virtual space. But you (not You - one) could be sat in a net cafe tapping away to somebody in the same room without ever knowing….
You and Aryadeep have probably passed in the street! Sheesh, don’t mean to spook you!
keep up the good work.
Guy Says: February 11th, 2007 at 6:13 am
Just keep writing Morg, I, for one, am loving it.
PS: Spoke to Bill today - he may even have web access soon, never mind his own toilet.
morg Says: February 11th, 2007 at 9:31 pm
My apologies Aryadeep, if I was still in Auroville I would have been really interested to have met you. Next time maybe.
I was just surprised to see a comment from someone I didn’t know, and now I re-read it, misread the tone of your post. I took your ’suggestions’ to be ‘corrections’ and thought you were doing a PR job on my blog. Hence my Orwell ‘thought police’ references.
Of course I don’t find Auroville itself Orwellian … As I hope I’ve been able to convey, regardless of how Auroville may or may not suit me, I think it’s a great thing that you are all doing. I wish you the best of luck with it.
I guess I just don’t want to have to defend my observations to the wider world (too much). I’m not a journalist, I’m just a guy on holiday and this is my dispatch home to people who know that I’m far from perfect. I do my best to keep it interesting for them, I also can’t really afford to spend any more time pondering over it … so most of the time I have to accept that it’s going to be rash, optinionated and misinformed info at best. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Anyway, maybe I should write some kind of disclaimer to this effect for the future.
Well, I really enjoyed your article. Sounds like Iain did too, so that’s good. Thanks for that.
Sarah … when’s the big day ?Guy … So my Dad is going to make an appearance. Watch out ! Hope you’re well mate. Take care all.

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