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Learing in Auroville

Reflections of a student intern


University of Washington - USA

I just wanted to learn how to sew. My original objective for my service commitment in Auroville was fairly modest. No attempt to change the world or to expand human consciousness. Just a simple desire to work with my hands. In my life up to my departure for India, I had always made it a point to do some sort of work that exercised a part of me other than my brain. At various times, that's taken on the form of being a jeweler, a janitor, a back waiter, or a gardener. It was work that kept me humble, that fed my soul, that served as a constant reminder that the awards and honors listed on my resume didn't really amount to much if writing essays was all I knew how to do. So as I planned my time in India, I wanted a similar kind of experience, one atypical yet typical of Leanne.

I remember reading the service learning description for Upasana Design Studio and being mildly interested but mostly amused. The language was so ridiculous to my American eyes, so fully representative of what I had imagined to be the extreme new-age hippiness of Auroville. I'm fairly certain I shared the description with a friend, accompanied by rolling eyes and the remark “Can you believe this?” All about the One and the Supreme and a myriad of other seemingly unnecessarily capitalized nouns. I was intrigued by the concept of design for social development, but had no idea what it meant and no intention of actually working for Upasana. So I settled on sewing at Lively Boutique instead, nice, simple, wholesome work that I could be proud of. Nothing flashy or grand; just honest and real.

And as seems to be the case so often in my life, I didn't get what I wanted but instead, got what I wanted but hadn't even known I wanted. I couldn't have identified as my original objectives what I've taken from Upasana because I had no idea that something this grand was even possible. My service learning experience has been on a level that I couldn't have understood or even imagined back in Seattle.

Upasana Design Studio appeared on my radar only after my service learning coordinator suggested it. After visiting the studio and sitting over tea with Uma for thirty minutes, I was sold. Uma is the heart and soul of Upasana, its founder and its keeper. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that she is one of the most powerful woman I have ever met, terrifying and inspiring in the same sweep. I felt her energy, a pull to her vision and committed myself on the spot. On my first day, Uma showed me around the studio but refused to introduce me to anyone. She said that my relationships had to form organically. So she left me in the manufacturing room and told me to sit there and observe until I was ready to enter the space naturally. So I sat there awkwardly, trying to smile and make eye contact. Eventually, I made my way to the offices of the designers and pretty much never left.

My first few days were spent archiving textiles. The work was interesting enough but it didn't inspire my soul. I was ready to resign myself to such a fate, however, because I realized that to be daily surrounded by such rich and beautiful fabrics in India was a privilege and certainly nothing that I could ever experience in the same measure back at home. But then Uma approached me at the end of my first week -- after seeing that I had formed one or two organic relationships with the design team -- and told me she had a vision for me. I already knew all about Tsunamika, an enormously successful initiative to help hundreds of local fisherwomen devastated by the tsunami. But she said there was another project aimed at a completely different goal.

As I sat there watching the Small Steps PowerPoint presentation (one that I would eventually end up spending hours revising and re-envisioning), I could feel my heart beating with an intensity that made it difficult to breath. “This is it, this is it, this is exactly it,” I kept thinking. When it finished, Uma looked at me with expectant eyes and said, “I'd like for you to coordinate the communications for our Small Steps project.” I was in such disbelief at my enormous luck that I think I paused for a moment before I said, “Yes. Yes, yes. That's perfect.”

So began a beautiful seven weeks devoted to an even more beautiful cause. It wasn't perfect. There were moments when I was less than the model worker, tempted to check my email instead of diligently serving the One. But then there were other moments when I was in absolute flow. When the words just poured from me. Times when I couldn't be peeled away from the keyboard, instances when I'd be revising a Small Steps poster or brochure and not even be unable to stop for the bathroom or tea until each phrase was exactly right, each word reflecting a true meaning.

As Communications Coordinator (a title I happily granted myself), I was in charge of understanding and internalizing the Small Steps vision, and then channeling that into a language that most people could understand. That meant polishing the power point presentation, crafting the text for and launching the website that can be accessed from anywhere, and writing a comprehensive project proposal that will be used to help grow a tree out of what is now only a seed. I also researched potential partners, drafted letters to other organizations, and spoke with visitors about the project.

My original intention had been to give my brain a rest, to let my hands work as my intellect reposed. But what I got was exactly the opposite. I spent my weeks alternating between chance ten-minute meetings with the super-busy Uma, followed by hours in front of the computer thinking deeply about what this project meant and how I could express it. As I had hoped, I wasn't toiling away in the tropical sun. But I was being challenged enormously. And challenged creatively. Pushed to see and work for a vision beyond me.

I had thought I would enter that studio with much to learn and little to give beside my time and energy. I was even a little anxious about how I would fit in with designers, alien creatures to me. But somehow, my energy and my skills wove seamlessly into theirs. Uma sat down with me on my last day and thanked me for what I had given to the project, telling me that I had added a “beautiful dimension” to the initiative in my ability to finally and fully articulate what the team had all known and felt but had struggled to find the words for. In my bio on the Upasana website, I shared a discovery I made:

My pen is my needle, my instrument for self-expression, my way of creating, manifesting and reflecting on beauty. I don't know how to sew, I've never designed a garment, but in the world of words, written or spoken, I am at home.

I realized that maybe I'm not all that different from designers. It's just that I design with words.

To say a few words about the actual project, “Small Steps is an initiative to promote a more environmentally and socially just world. The project's first step is to promote a responsible alternative to throw-away plastic bags. The Upasana team has designed a Small Steps cloth bag that we hope to distribute without cost throughout India, but our main aim is to promote the use of re-usable bags, whether or not they are ours.” I have written this description so many times that it's become almost perfunctory. But its significance hasn't changed. I hesitate to say too much about the bags because the project isn't even about the bags. It's about cultivating a higher consciousness, recognizing the illogic of plastic bags and seeing our connection to a greater whole. If this sounds at all like anything we've been studying in class, it's because it is precisely what we've been studying in class.

So I guess my service learning experience in India ended up evolving into something fairly grand. It started out as a humble desire to learn to sew, and ended up as a fantastic attempt to change the world, to expand human consciousness, to ‘contemplate the Divine' (the Sanskrit definition of ‘upasana'). I suppose I succeeded at finding something that was unbelievably atypical and yet typical of Leanne. In other words, I got exactly what I wanted.

I end now with one more quote from myself. On my Upasana website bio, I was asked to articulate my design philosophy, an intimidating request but one I fulfilled with this:

As a perfectionist, the Upasana design motto resonates with me deeply, "Design for the Beloved." To act, work, and design always as if for those we love the most. I've never tried to articulate my own design philosophy, but if I had to, it would look very much like what I see happening here every day. Design as the channeling of a ceaseless love, creativity and energy.


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