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December 2006


Thamarai, a new flowering of village relations?

- From an interview by Alan

On 12th November, in a beautiful old Tamil house in Edaiyanchavadi village, the Thamarai project was inaugurated. Auroville Today spoke to Kathy, one of the initiators of the project, about its origins and aims


“In January this year we were having a lot of difficulties in Adventure. There were labour issues with one of our workers who comes from Edayanchavadi, the village right next to us, and we were regularly being confronted with mobs of angry men from the village. It got to the point where I was in utter despair – how, I wondered, could Auroville ever exist next to villages where there is such a consciousness divide? But then something came to me, like a message: ‘Work with the women, do something for the women'.”

Next morning Kathy talked to a few friends about the idea. They were enthusiastic. Kathy's first idea was to put up a hut by the village sports ground and offer programmes for the villagers there. But someone suggested it would be better to use a house in the village itself, as the Mohanam Cultural Centre does in Kottakarai.

Chitra, who was staying in Adventure and who comes from Edaiyanchavadi, knew of an old house near the centre of the village. They contacted the owner in Puducherry and within a week they had been offered a five year lease on the building.

“It's a beautiful old house with plenty of space,” says Kathy. “However, the speed at which everything was happening was a bit scary. But then we thought that as it would take time to raise money for renovations (US$ 9,000 – 11,000 was the estimate), in the interim we would build connections with the village.”

A few weeks later, Helga Breuninger of the Breuninger Foundation visited Auroville. She heard about the idea and went to see the house for herself. Remembers Kathy, “I was in yet another crisis meeting concerning the village when suddenly I got this call from Helga saying she wanted to see me. When I met her she hugged me and said, ‘Kathy, I love your project. I'll give you the money for the renovations and two years' rent.'

So it felt like a force for manifestation, something really wanted to happen, it was not we that were driving it.”

Meanwhile a team was forming. Chitra and Raji are from Edaiyanchavadi. Thulasi is from Sri Lanka and is fluent in Tamil, and Bridget is another member of Adventure community.

“For me the team is one of the most interesting and dynamic aspects of this project,” says Kathy. “I've never been part of a group which is so co-creative and harmonious.”

So what exactly is this project which Helga loved so much? Kathy laughs. “At that time, it wasn't a project at all. We just had a few basic ideas. We wanted to work with village women, to create a space for cooperation rather than rivalry (which we felt was one of the destructive dynamics of village life) and introduce them to joyful learning and sharing. And, of course, we want to empower them.”

The team recognised, however, that their first task was to build connections and trust and to find out what the villagers wanted. Learning that there were already 22 self-help savings groups in the village (sangams) involving about 400 women, the team began by contacting them.

Concentration exercise during one of the women’s workshops. Phot by Kathy
This led to a number of exploratory workshops where, among other things, the women were invited to talk about their lives and their needs.

“Certainly income-generation is a big issue for them,” says Kathy, “and many of them are concerned about their children getting a good education.” But some of the findings were less predictable. For example, the women really appreciated the periods of silence which had been designed into the workshops. “They said that for those few minutes they could escape their worries,” says Kathy, “because it soon emerged that they are burdened by many family issues, like the threat of violence and husbands who drink a lot.

“What was also very revealing is that the sense of identity seems to be related to the traditional roles they fulfil. And this is why Thamarai, which means ‘lotus' in Tamil, became such an important symbol for the project. Because it brings in this belief there is an essential being in each of us which, given safe conditions and support, can become the acting centre of our lives. The lotus, which symbolises beauty emerging from inauspicious origins, was our way of expressing what we wanted to do – to allow the beauty, the essence, of each woman to flower into her daily life.”

Did the women understand this? “Yes, I think they really got it. In fact, some of them said how much they like the name.”

On the basis of the feedback, the Thamarai team have drawn up a list of programmes they would like to provide. It includes a daily playgroup for pre-school children, a children's activities day, and weekly health education and yoga programmes for the women. There will also be a library and a quiet room where the women can enjoy being in a peaceful space.

However, the Thamarai team soon realized that another group is clearly in need – the young village men. “A number of them approached us. They were hungry to learn, to develop skills in computing etc. But it was nice that some of them also wanted to offer something – to teach, for example. So now we want to create spaces for youth activities. There will be a night school where children can come after school and be helped in their studies by some of the young men, as well as by international volunteers.

“Thamarai offers a great opportunity for volunteers from other nations to interact with the villagers and vice versa,” explains Kathy. “This is the local and the global aspect of the project.

“The other thing I'd like to do is a village-mapping exercise, a way of helping the youth and women to understand how their village functions, how decisions are made etc. I don't want to turn all the villagers into politicians, but what underlies this is the question of what ethical leadership in the villages would look like. Because I think that part of the present tension between Auroville and the villages is that the governance systems are so different.”

What do the male village leaders think of the Thamarai initiative? Raji says, “They are very happy that we are coming to the village. There are no obstacles on that side so far.”

Kathy cautions, however, that Edaiyan-chavadi has a very particular history. Some years ago, the Ashram-run Auroshikha incense business, which was located in the village and employed many local people, closed down suddenly. It caused great hardship in many households and a lingering distrust of such initiatives. Some of the villagers also feel that Auroville has neglected their village in comparison with what it has done for villages like Kuyilapalayam. “We know about this underlying feeling,” says Kathy, “so the other basic idea of this project is to build a bridge between Edaiyanchavadi and Auroville. We see this as a long-term project for change. And I'm sure the women will be a key force in achieving this.”

And what about Kathy herself? Has the Thamarai project changed her attitude to Edaiyanchavadi? “Although none of our activities are running as yet, I already feel much more at peace with the situation. I'd reached a point where I thought that if I'm going to continue living in Adventure, this project has to work; I can't live next to a village that I hate. That feeling has completely transformed. It's a joy to go through the village now, to recognize some of ‘our' women and children and be recognized by them. It feels like we are entering a deeper relationship.”

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