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Auroville Adventure

December '02

Top-class dental lab becomes independent

- by Priya Sundaravalli

The Auroville dental laboratory has moved into new premises and takes up work all over India


October 31st 2002 was a special day for a small team of Aurovilians - Nicola, Pierre, Grazi, Marc and Namgyal. It was the day that the Auroville Dental Laboratory officially opened its doors as an independent unit in its new home at the Aurelec premises. Besides the rain gods who enthusiastically showered their blessings that day, a smattering of Aurovilians braved the torrential downpours to participate in celebrating its renewed beginnings. I met Nicola a few days later for the complete story.

Nicola beams at me as I arrive punctually that afternoon. We enter a large room painted white. It is airy and full of light. The quietness of the space strikes me when I notice two people intently at work. They are Pierre and Namgyal.

From left to right: Namgyal, Nicola and Pierre

The place looks like an unusual mix of an art studio and a chemistry lab. Posters of crowns and bridges, perfect specimens from the prosthetic world are prominently displayed. Workbenches with all kinds of gadgets and tools, a pigeon-hole cupboard holding dental casts with name tags identifying the mouths they belong to, a baking oven, a furnace, mortars and pestles, glass tubes, and so much more - my eyes can hardly take it all in.

Nicola is a dental technician who was trained in Italy, and moved to Auroville 12 years ago. He was responsible for the creation of the Auroville Dental Laboratory in 1990. "I was visiting Auroville on a holiday from Italy. By chance I got to meet a dentist here. He expressed a need in the community for a dental technician. It was an exciting proposition; I immediately moved my set-up from Italy, and I made my home here." Nicola became an Aurovilian in 1994, and lives in Aspiration. "Soon after, Pierre joined me from France and the two of us have been working together since then. Over the years, three others have joined our team.

"In the early days, the dental laboratory was associated with the Auroville Health Centre," Nicola explains. "Later it became part of the Auroville Dental Centre. There we were working with Jacques and Suryagandhi. Now we have created a dental lab unit that is separate from the Auroville Dental Centre."

What was the reason for this shift? "We have been feeling the need to focus more intently on our profession which is very different from that of the dentist's," Nicola explains. "A place was available at Aurelec very close to the Auroville Dental Centre. The conditions were just right. Jacques supported our decision to move, and gave us all the equipment that was part of the Auroville Dental Centre. Now we have the opportunity to change the set-up as well as the space as optimally as we envision. This will bring a new energy to the unit."

Did this move prove expensive? "To install a dental lab, a lot of investment is needed," agrees Nicola. "This is because it is technology intensive. We have been helped by a loan from the Central Fund that we have to pay back monthly. Our ultimate aim is to be self-sustainable.

Namgyal works painstakingly on a set of dentures Nicola displaying a palette of different teeth colours

"A lot of equipment is needed, and we have to keep up with the latest technology to provide the best possible services that we can. While our primary customers will be Aurovilians and the villagers who are patients of the AV Dental Centre, we will also be opening our services to the outside market." Nicola shows me some of the equipment that has been bought recently for the laboratory. "Here is a micromotor from Austria. It is cutting-edge technology used for sculpting and grinding ceramic surfaces." Nicola hands me a device that is about 15 cms long. The handle is ergonomically designed, and the grip feels very comfortable. He turns on the machine and the tip whirs silently. I can hardly feel any vibrations. He turns it off and puts it back gently. "It costs approximately two motorbikes." I gasp. "We have four such devices," he adds.

I gingerly ask about the costs of dental work at their unit, and how affordable it is. Nicola nods as if he expected that question, "When Aurovilians go to the dental centre, they get charged. If they are not able to pay by themselves, they are supported by the Central Fund, which has a budget for this."

Since 1998, Nicola has been a consultant to certain Italian and German companies in India. They have been sponsoring him to attend dental conferences within India, and also provided opportunities for offering workshops to the dental community. This has provided him with valuable people contacts, and given him a unique perspective and an edge over his peers.

Nicola has a vision of providing the products and services of the Auroville dental lab to middle and higher range dentists in big cities like Chennai and Mumbai. "These days, there are more and more patients who are willing to pay for quality work. Since we can confidently say that we are amongst the top dental laboratories in Southern India, I am certain that we will find dentists with whom we can work..

"In India, the market is generally not concerned with quality but is focused on being cheap and quick. Our approach is different. We propose a certain quality on par with the standards set in the west. We import almost all of our material, including new generation composites with which we make ceramic crowns and bridges." Nicola pauses to show me what he is talking about. He opens a cupboard that is full of small plastic vials arranged neatly in rows. Each vial contains different shades of bio-compatible ceramic material in powder form that approximate the variations in teeth colour. They form the raw material for building crowns.

Nicola is called over by Namgyal who is sculpting a ceramic tooth filling. I watch them exchanging ideas intensely; then Nicola takes the hand tool and demonstrates how the filling has to be surfaced. I am curious about how long it will last. "Teeth which have received dental care can last for many years, even up to 15-20 years. Much depends on how it is taken care of by the customer. Tooth work can never be guaranteed. But at our unit, we are ready to correct any problem that may develop within 1 year.

What future visions do Nicola and his team have for the unit? Our first concern is to establish a high repute for our laboratory. We also see this lab as a state-of-the-art training centre in dental technology, both for technicians and dentists. One of my personal dreams is to train an Aurovilian in this work. Is anyone listening?

One has to remember that this work is both an art form as well as a science. Many of us at the lab visit Paris annually to get exposed to the latest developments in the field. We do feel that we should share this knowledge with the dental community in India so that everyone can benefit, especially the customers. We plan to move in this direction in the future, and this of course will mean additional work.

We are trying to do our work with a lot of care and with professional integrity. This is often not often recognised by Aurovilians. Even now it is hard to make people understand what is implied by our work and the effort behind it. He pauses as if he needs to clearly express what he feels inside. Going only for cheap things is not a good idea, especially when something really has a lot of importance to your health and figures prominently in your body.

If there is one message I absolutely want to share, it would be this: Look, there are people here who can do this kind of work in a certain way. So let us support them, and not go to Pondy anymore. Our doors are open for any Aurovilian to visit us at any time. We would love to have Aurovilians stop by, understand the environment we work in, examine our products, and see what we are doing, invites Nicola heartily.

Of course our best advertisement is our patients who are happy, who can bite easily and have the most perfect of smiles!

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