Panneer, the man responsible for fixing and removing the discs
“Just a moment, please.” He walks over to the pictures of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, reverently places some Aspiration flowers in the small vase in front of them and concentrates. It is 7.30 in the morning; the Matrimandir site is still fresh and undisturbed.
“I came to Auroville to do my service for The Mother,” says Panneer by way of introduction.
He is 29 years old, comes from a village nearby Sanjeevinagar and is one of those Tamil Aurovilians who prefer to work instead of attending meetings. As a consequence, he is not ‘well-known.’ But perhaps he should be. For this is the man responsible for fixing all the golden discs on the Matrimandir – and since the primer for the waterproofing ‘Kemperol’ failed, also for taking them all down again. And when the new primer and the new Kemperol have been applied, it is again Panneer who will fix the discs back in place – all 1410 of them.
A complicated job? “It is very confusing!” says Panneer. “Each disc is fixed at a distance of about half a meter from the Matrimandir by means of three struts of 10 mm steel. These struts are screwed onto the Matrimandir skin at three points. These points form a triangle, but none of these triangles are of the same size. When I start to fix a disc, I first take precise measurements. Then I weld the rods roughly, and we test if the disc fits. If there is no gap between the struts and the Matrimandir skin, and if the foot of the strut follows the curve of the skin, I do the final welding. And then, when the disc is mounted, we check if it is accurately in line with the other discs in the same row and around it. It is a slow and precise work. And we were moving along quite nicely fixing the discs when it was decided to take all of them down so that the Kemperol could be replaced. This means that I have to keep very careful and detailed notes of the position of each disc and of each set of struts.” He shows the storeroom where many struts are waiting to be re-installed, each set neatly tagged.
Panneer arrived in Auroville in 1992, when he was only 17 years old. At the time he was working for the Auroville construction unit Atmarati as a metal worker. When Atmarati started working for Matrimandir, Panneer came along. “I was not aware of Sri Aurobindo or The Mother. I was looking at all those foreigners and wondered what they were doing here. It touched my heart to see how dedicated they were doing the work at the Matrimandir and it raised my curiosity about The Mother.” In 1995, he moved into Auroville and started living in Kottakarai farm. “I began reading some words of The Mother, which I liked very much. And I became Aurovilian. When the Matrimandir no longer needed Atmarati, I stayed behind. I decided to give my life for the work of The Mother. Earlier, I had been thinking of opening a workshop; now my life became dedicated to manifesting the Matrimandir.”
Panneer’s decision wasn’t understood by his family. He had to completely break-off contact, a drastic decision in Indian social life. “Even when one of my sisters married, I did not go. Now I only go to the Matrimandir, starting at 8 in the morning, leaving at 4.30. I have been doing that now for the last five years, without one day’s break. A friend asked me to come visit him in England. But first my job here has to be finished.” Asked if he intends to marry he smiles, “I told myself that first all the discs have to be fixed.” And with a grin, “It is actually the fault of the Kemperol primer that my marriage will have to be postponed.”
Panneer lovingly demonstrating the latest tool, a Gas Tungsten Arc Welding machine. “It is incredibly precise, and much faster than the conventional arc welding.” Panneer is still improving his skills to be able to handle it. Every evening he cycles to the nearby Mettupalayam Industrial Estate of Pondicherry to visit a company that manufactures machine tools for export. “The factory manager gave me permission to see how they their chief welder, a man from Gujarat, does the work. I look at what he is doing.” His self-imposed learning benefits the Matrimandir. Even a layman can see the difference between the welds done with the old machine and the new one.
When we walk to the site, Panneer shows how the replacement of the Kemperol proceeds in a phased manner. “We don’t want a ‘naked’ Matrimandir, so we do it quarter by quarter. I remove a section of the discs, they remove the layer of old Kemperol, sandblast the skin, fix the new primer and Kemperol, and then I reinstall the discs.” Work is underway at the Matrimandir’s lower hemisphere. “I will also soon start installing discs underneath the Matrimandir. But the removal of discs from the top part will only start when the new permanent crane on top of the Matrimandir is in place.” Will it be ready soon? “That is a question I have been asked many times,” answers Panneer. “I am very interested to finish Matrimandir and was really happy when I heard people speaking about Matrimandir being ready in 2 years. But the problem is that this is not possible. To remove all the discs, replace the Kemperol and reinstall the discs will in my estimate take more than two years. And I am speaking from experience.”
The time is 8.15 and work has started. Panneer says goodbye, and on turning begins an animated discussion with a member of his team about removing the next row of discs. ‘I love this work,’ he had said. A greater dedication is hardly possible.