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December 2003

The arts of Auroville

- by Charudutta

Notwithstanding a notable increase in the artistic activities, the support for the arts from the community is still insufficient


In February 1999, Auroville Today observed: “Today, there is a tremendous increase of cultural activities in Auroville. Serious research is going on in all fields…How can we create funds and support systems to encourage research and development of innovative art projects? What could we do to reduce the “artistic deficit” so that our artistic concerns become an economic priority? How can we keep in touch with artistic developments elsewhere?”

Auroville has had an impulse for art right from the beginning. YetArt at the entrance of Last school building the ‘tremendous increase in the cultural activities' is a phenomenon of a little more than the last fifteen years or so. Auroville's growth has been consistent but uneven. The impact of economic changes has closely influenced the development of the arts of the city. Perhaps, off-setting the last 15 years against the earlier times may give us a fair picture of things.


Glimpses of the early days

In the early days, the Ashram–Auroville relations being convivial, the interaction between the two was beneficial to both. Ashram artists came to Auroville to work together with Auroville artists. In those days there was no auditorium or space ‘good enough' for a performance. Artists performed in the canyons or in places where general meetings were held. In 1970, Deborah and Bob performed a play in the canyons around the Forecomers community. Auroville musicians, individually or in groups–for example, Narad brought Aurovilians together to form a choir in Auroville which performed wherever a suitable place could be found. (That choir disbanded after a few years. The present day Auroville choir evolved, under Nuria's care, out of the one started by Holger and Pushkar with ten children in the year '91. Forty Aurovilians sing in the choir today.)

In the 70s, after the Last School amphitheatre was built, Aspiration and Last School became art venues. This was a time when the artist could ‘devote himself totally' to his art because the community provided the basic needs. About that time (late 70s-mid 80s) Croquette started a theatre group called ‘Theâtre d'Expression d'Auroville'.

Kanchana and Grace performing

The group performed French plays in Auroville, Pondichérry and abroad. In the early 80s, the arrival of Brazilian dancers Aryamani, Ila and Paulo gave Auroville's dancers a shot in the arm. The Auroville Dance Laboratory produced some commendable work with ‘something new' in its language, perhaps because it fused various dance idioms from Indian classical with modern dance forms. Dance perked up also when the auditorium at Bharat Nivas (later named the Sri Aurobindo Auditorium) became accessible for performances in the 1980's. The privately funded Pitanga hall opened for public performance in February 1991. Yet, “as late as 1988, Auroville was still regarded by some as a cultural desert.” (Auroville Today/June/July 2001/no.149-150

Wire sculptures by Pierre LegrandThe economy has played a significant role in the development of Auroville's arts. After the Mother's mahasamadhi, the supply of basic necessities to Auroville gradually stopped. The ‘prosperity' system made way for, first the ‘envelopes' and later the more individualised system of ‘maintenance'. All these factors directly influenced the arts in Auroville. Because of economic constraints, the freedom of the artist to devote himself ‘totally' to his art was curbed to a large degree. The artist had to take up a job in order to meet everyday expenses, which meant that time and energy had to be divided between art and earning a livelihood.

Painting by Monique PatenaudeRemembering the early times, Monique Patenaude, who came to Auroville in 1977 says, “In those days art was a part of the ‘work' we did for Auroville. We cooked art, ate art and were totally committed to art. But today, things have become compartmentalised as ‘useful' and ‘useless.'” Most Auroville artists resonate with Mayaura's observation that “an artist is considered inconsequential to the community today. It is very frustrating”. On top of that, artists are requested to donate their works to Auroville to raise funds for the land.

The notion that artists would be sustained from grants for the arts from the Government of India was not acceptable to all artists because, besides being inadequate, the grant would oblige them to be accountable to an authority. Some artists quit Auroville with a sense of drifting away from the ‘Auroville ideal'. Others made a ‘temporary' shift by diverting into crafts. But some artists refused to let outer changes hamper their artistic growth, “Because of Auroville's ideals”, says Mayaura. But these artists are the fortunate few who do not need to depend on the community for their maintenance. They have their own resources.

Ireno's Exhibition


The art scene today

At present, in a community of roughly two thousand people, there is a steady stream of arts activity. There is ample progress the theatre arts. In the year 2002, five plays were performed. and were largely appreciated by the theatre going public. Some performances had to be repeated even after well attended shows because of public demand. Music too, is abundant in Auroville. Musicians perform frequently at many different places in the city. The choir performs regularly at Pitanga and the Sri Aurobindo Auditorium. Salle Auropax is Heinrich and Shanthal's contribution to Auroville in the context of Western Chamber music. The Visitors' Centre and other open spaces stage jazz and rock concerts. In Petite Ferme, Michelle and Moricette have created a quiet space for Indian classical music soirées. Communities like Svedam, Bliss, Vérité, Félicity, Ravena, and Ami frequently organize music sessions by guests and newcomers. Workshops are held whenever an opportunity arises. Unlike before, today music and art are taught in Auroville schools.

Pushkar (piano) and Marcello rehearsing for a concert

Although Auroville does not have a well-equipped art gallery, places like Savitri Bhavan, Pitanga, the Tibetan Pavilion and recently launched Aurelec cafeteria have realised that their walls are eminently suitable for graphic art displays. Some of them are booked up months in advance.

Two recording studios and a film school - the latter more in name than in content as yet - are in place. Aurovilians can see films and video shows regularly. The setting up of bodies like the ‘Kalakhoj', ‘Kalamitra', and A.I.R.,(the artist in residence programme in which outside artists live and work in the studios provided for them on the condition that they interact with Auroville), helps Auroville to get abreast of the rest of the world in the arts. ‘Kalabhoomi'- the land of the Arts, is a community built exclusively for artists. ‘Celestial Arts', an organisation started by Celestine, endeavours to create a more intimate space and opportunities for artists from Auroville and outside to show their talents.These are some of Auroville's achievements in the arts field so far.

However, as late as June/July 2001, Auroville Today reports: “The subtler aspects of community life, like art and cultural activities, are rarely, if ever, topics of community discussion. Neither are the arts in Auroville seen by many as a community priority, nor is there a support system to help artists sell their work. Resident artists often complain about the almost complete lack of community support. “Auroville treats an artist as a commodity. There is no equal attention given to the development of the arts and the other fields. Sooner or later, Auroville will have to realise that art is as important as environment”, the musician Aurelio cautions.


A true ‘Auroville' art?

Ferrocement channels turned into art by CornelisAlthough the road has been long and arduous, Auroville's artscape looks promising today, despite the financial constrictions. But, is Auroville growing like any other city fortunate to fall within the boom zone of a mega polis like Chennai? Or is it growing on its own lines? Has Auroville developed an ‘idiom', a language, or even, a ‘style' of its own? To what extent do its arts reflect its ethos?

Many artists hold that three decades are inadequate to answer these larger questions convincingly. “A culture is slowly evolving, but it's too early. Something is trying to manifest. There are some hints which I sense but cannot define,” says Mayaura. In the early 90s, an Auroville artist exhibited 60 paintings by various Aurovilians in Germany . What was the impact of Auroville art on the German viewers? “The impact”, he says, “was that the paintings stood out because of the aspiration but also because of the light and brightness in colour.” Aurelio, thinks that “Auroville offers an ideal playground for artistic experimentation, the more so as in Auroville we do not cater to commercialism. We can develop art that is ‘meaningful', art that ‘emerges from inside'. Here we can truly explore deeper.” Another musician, Holger, has a similar view: “It is a blessing to be in an environment like Auroville because the subconscious suggestion for utility is considerably less. Besides, art is a way for one's sadhana .” However, Holger thinks that “a population of two thousand odd people can hardly have that level of interaction within the artistic community and function on a similar wave-length of creativity, which is vital for any significant language or style to develop”. He gives as an example how in Buenos Aires , within less than three decades, one of the world's most sensual art expressions sprang up - the tango - because, as he says, “the need for art was raised to the level of the need for food.” Is that need missing in Auroville? “I am disappointed in the community,” says another painter. “Also the artists in Auroville are shy. They don't dare to do anything. Perhaps Auroville is not ready for the manifestation of its aesthetic being.” Is this another way of saying that the receptivity of Aurovilians to art is still in its embryonic stages? For Mayaura, it definitely is. “The artists are there, the Auroville culture exists, but the community as a whole is only beginning to relate to it.”she feels.


Research in the arts

There is quite a lot of ongoing research in the arts. Aurelio organises group ‘intuitive' singing. He explains: “It is meditation in ‘pure' sound, without text or structure. It is the sound before mental associations. These ‘pure sounds' help us to experience deeper states of consciousness.” Aurelio also has a project for research in musical instruments. He sees possibilities of designing musical instruments which will enable everybody to play music. “Everyone has a musician in him,” he says. In the plastic arts, for a long time Pierre Legrand has been doing research on something deeper which “captures the being on a cellular level”. His installation work “Light-Matter”, exhibited in Auroville in February '99 is the culmination of “a decisive experience triggered 15 years ago”. Artists who depend on maintainance though, feel that the reality is not rosy. An artist cannot do research as much as s/he would like to because of a low, or even, no maintenance. (Although there is a scheme in the SAIIER programme for artists, they are not ‘maintained' by Auroville,.)

‘Research' in theatre activity has been minimal. Last year, a French play written by Aurovilian Pavitra called “les Roses du Ciel” was staged and in 1997, a play called ‘The Legend of Kaliveli Siddha', enacting an ancient Tamil legend about a yogi who had actually predicted the genesis of Auroville, was put together by Jill and others. But such productions of original art, inspired by the nascent ethos of Auroville, are rare. One notable exception is the cabaret of The Academy Genius Brothers, but this is not theatre. Its popularity with the younger generation notwithstanding, not everybody would agree that this skit is ‘theatre art'in the strict sense.

Parthna and Muthu perform in Is there a tendency then, to react strongly to experimental art expressions in Auroville? It seems there is, though the responses are nearly always based on what Aurovilians consider to be the level of inspiration of the art expression. For instance the Japanese Butoh dance performed a few years back by a Japanese guest artist received a strong disapproval because it was seen as an expression ‘from the lower vital'. Pavitra's “les Roses du Ciel” was considered ‘too dark.' Beckett's ‘Endgame' staged by Jill in March 1986 was strongly deprecated for its ‘harsh, existential' overtones. Preoccupation with death and hopelessness is reluctantly accepted in Auroville, but a new message, hope and ‘lived happily ever after' endings are welcomed. Could this be a trace of Auroville's spiritual aspiration for physical immortality, or is it mere indulgence in fairy tale endings?

Apropos of theatre today, generally English plays are a norm, and very rarely a French play is enacted. It should be mentioned that Aurovilians have attempted staging of plays in none of the Indian, nor any European languages. Tamil theatre is curiously missing in spite of a very strong tradition within the state. The only Tamil theatre that Auroville has witnessed over the years is what the children do in Tamil schools or an occasional performance by Pondichérry University students of performing arts. Years back, in the mid 90s, Parathasarathi's “Iruthy Attam” (an adaptation of Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest') was performed in Bharat Nivas. More recently a street play was performed in Edayanchavady by theatre activists from Pondicherry .

Vocal quartet, from left: Eliane, Martin, Tina, Gundolf and Holger



Interactions between Auroville and the outside world are better today than in the past, thanks to The Artist In Residence programme started by Emily and Dimitri, and the efforts of Tapas Bhatt through Kala Khoj and Kalamitra, to invite artists from outside to perform in Auroville. It is an indication that Auroville is now on the world cultural map. Kalamitra (Friends of the Arts) was formed by a group of Aurovilians to stimulate Auroville's cultural life. It promotes theatre and dance, music, literature, painting, sculpture and cinema. It also tries to support upcoming artists in Auroville. Kala Khoj (a search for art) is an offshoot of Kalamitra. It aims at helping the development of an international network of exchange programmes involving artists from India , Auroville and the rest of the world wishing to deepen their research in the arts. In support of this aim Kala Khoj has become an affiliate member of the international 'Res Artis' network. Represented in over one hundred and twenty countries, it is currently the designated centre for the coordination and development of the Res Artis programmes in South East Asia . Although in its infancy, Kala Khoj has started receiving requests from foreign artists wanting to work in the residency programme. Over the years many top-ranking artists, Indian and foreign, have come to Auroville to perform. Not long ago an Austrian dance group came all the way to India to perform in just 3 places - Delhi , Chennai ( Madras ) and Auroville. It is an honour when artists consider it a special place that offers a truly international audience to perform before, but also its special status in the world, as a place that belongs to humanity as a whole. Many famous artists from India , particularly dancers and musicians, have had the Auroville experience and some have conducted workshops here. In the recent past, Sonal Mansingh has performed a number of times, and so have Chandralekha and her group. Pandit Kelucharan Mahapatra has staged a spectacular Odissi dance recital. A modern dancer like Astad Deboo's solo performances have fascinated the Auroville audience. A couple of years back, his troupe of dancers with impaired hearing and speech stunned the Auroville audience into a respectful silence with their breathtaking co-ordination of movement and rhythm, despite their handicap. Many reputed names in Indian classical music have performed in Auroville - Uday Bhavalkar, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Rashid Khan, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Samjukta Panigrahi, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Ustad Zakir Hussein – to name just a few. Jazz saxophonist Ned Rothenburg has been here, Bauls and other traditional performers, as well as Altérités, an organisation based in France which blends different cultures and music, have enthralled the Auroville audience with their magic. Western painters Jérôme Mesnager and Jean-Louis Dulaar, who are street artists, have left their mark in Auroville.

But there are disadvantages too. A large portion of the money allocated for the development of Auroville's art activities gets spent on organising performances of celebrities such as mentioned above, although most of them ask only for the travel and lodging expenses. That leaves Auroville artists with much less money for their own productions. On the other hand, Auroville artists have started showing their work in Indian cities more than before, says Tapas.

Years ago when the Mother was asked how Auroville would be known to the world, she is reported to have said, “Through her arts.” Definitely a start has been made.


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