Storytelling in Sanjeevi Nagar

By André Lavergne

Sanjeevi Nagar is a village of roughly 1000 homes located in the cyclone-affected area of southeast India, just a few kilometers northwest of Auroville. When we arrived there to start work less than a week after the storm hit, the village was still without electriciy and so we found its residents far less busy than they care to be. While neighbouring villages were still clearing roads, the fallen trees of Sanjeevi Nagar had already been arranged in piles by the side of the road. While it’s true that the village held up to the winds better than many others, good fortune is only part of the story. That short work was made of the clean up here, is no surprise to the residents themselves. With or without electricity, Sanjeevi Nagar prides itself on its work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit and skilled craftsmen.

The village is the birthplace of Balu, perhaps one of the most entrepreneurial people we’ve met in Auroville. He heads not one, but two of the non-governmental organizations with which AUP is working. As director of the Mohanam Cultural Center, he has helped provide programs which engage local youth in the cultural vitality of Sanjeevi Nagar and make it possible to share its art, music, dance and cuisine with the outside world. Balu has more ideas than he has time to implement, including some very big plans for his home town. This is where we come in.

Katie and I have undertaken the first step in a longer term village branding project aimed at communicating Sanjeevi Nagar’s culture, knowledge and values. Phase one focuses heavily on listening and storytelling, and will result in the creation of an ongoing participatory online compendium of stories from the village. This morning marked the first of a series of loosely scheduled village walks. The plan is to meet with as many villagers as we can while we are here, in order to gather their impressions and stories of life in Sanjeevi Nagar. Accompanying us are Murugan, Madhu and Raja, three twenty-something alumni of the Mohanam Cultural Center’s youth programs. Their involvement from the start is crucial both as contributors with their own stories to tell and as the keepers of this living online resource. Fortunately for us, they are exceptionally qualified for the job. Murugan is a trusted member of Balu’s Bamboo Research Center team. And Madhu and Raja are both students in Visual Communication at Achariya Arts and Science College.

Our first village walk this morning introduced us to husband and wife entrepreneurs and a team of ten artisans, all working in terra cotta, with over thirty years of experience between them. Tomorrow, we will meet stone carvers, the day after that, leather workers, and this weekend, a local healer and expert in traditional medicine. Of the countless stories these streets could tell, we will likely only be able to experience a handful. But our hope is that the pieces will be in place for the storytelling to go on, long after we’ve gone.

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