Questions about Community

A world community can only exist with world communication, which means something more than extensive software facilities scattered about he globe. It means common understanding, a common tradition, common idea’s and common ideals.” ~ Robert M. Hutchins, American writer and educator

On a regular morning in Kuilapalayam you can find village women walking together, water barrels atop their heads, headed for the community water tap. Men stand close together, chatting, arguing, watching passersbys. The street is hurried and frantic, with rickshaws (and AUP graduate students riding worn scooters) dodging cows, goats, oncoming farm equipment, and large passenger buses. Young school girls, their hair in braided pigtails with ends that have been tucked back into colorful elastic bands, giggle together as they walk alongside the morning madness.  There is a buzz in the air, weighted by humidity, that is reminiscent of something known yet foreign.

Morning village life demonstrates a sense of community, a detached closeness that binds together beings existing together in a small space.  Community is ever-present here, in the daily rituals such as kolam drawing in the entryway of homes, as well as in the rituals surrounding death. .

However, community is slowly falling apart here, according to Balasundaram (Balu) Ponnusamy, 31, a founder of the Mohanam Cultural Centre in Sanjeevinagar village, outside of Auroville. Up until the last few decades, small Tamil communities were relatively protected from the outside and villagers relied on one another to learn basic skills and cultural traditions. “People looked up to their elders, they listened to their wisdom,” he said. “If a woman had a problem, such as domestic fight, the neighbors, hearing the quarrel, would intervene and stop by to see what was going on.” Balu told me, however, that today villagers are more likely to call the police, or perhaps just turn a blind eye. This change in behavior has been the most dramatic in the last decade, he noted.

Pondicherry Community

Balu, who grew up in the village, sees a direct correlation between economic development and the change to community life in the villages. As Western influences seep into village life, people grow more focused on their individual needs and desires. Today, he said, it is common to find villagers at home flipping between the more than 200 channels of satellite television available to them or sitting alone sending text messages to friends kilometers away. Not that globalization is all bad, he noted. Western investment and development efforts have helped to improve the education system as well as improve health standards in the communities.

However, influences from abroad have widely altered the way the villagers, especially the youth, view themselves in a global landscape. Balu added that as people begin to isolate themselves focus on their material needs, cultural traditions erode. Young people no longer look to the elders in their community for advice. Neighbors no longer take time to support one another through hard times. With the deterioration of community comes a weakening of common cultural knowledge, including the rituals and traditions that bind people together.

One could argue that this shift is the natural progression of things–teenagers rebelling and seeking freedom from their parents. Yet, Balu views the impact that globalization has on his community as more threatening. As India becomes a larger player in the world economy, he questions what will happen to the communities he knew as a child.

It is for this reason he created the Mohanam Cultural Centre, a non-profit organization devoted to inspiring creativity in village youth by teaching them traditional Tamil arts and crafts. Through this endeavor he aims to keep alive traditions and rituals that have held the local community for centuries. He also brings the children and teenagers on visits with the local elders, in an effort to share knowledge from one generation to another.

Mohanam Children

Yet, as a Western student considering work in development, I am reminded to consider what influences I bring to communities I want to help. Does my very individualistic, market-driven take on life help or hinder the people with whom I work? Can I instead learn something important about human connectedness and interdependence? And if we are going in the direction of a global community, where do we find balance between improving ourselves and looking out for others?

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