On the morning spiritual Kolam experience

BY SIMON MUSASIZI

The dawn before the sun rises is the sweetest time to enjoy sleep. For most people, it’s the toughest time to wake up. However, for the women in South India, this is the time to get up to express their feelings by creating beautifully-designed shapes around the entrances to their homesteads. This tradition, which spawns hundreds of years, is commonly known as the Kolam making. As early as 5am every day, women start painting the dark ground into bright and beautiful shapes as a way of bringing new energy and good vibration for the household, but also acting as a bridge between the inner and the outer world.

The process starts with cleaning with water the place where the kolam is to be drawn. The wet floor is then swept thoroughly to create an even surface. Kolams are generally drawn while the surface is still damp, so the design will hold better. Using chalk powder and white rock powder, it is amazing to watch how women trickle powder in a stream between their middle and index fingers, using their thumbs to guide the flow of the powder. The patterns range between geometric and mathematical line drawings around a matrix of dots to free form art work and closed shapes. It is reported that this used to be a matter of pride to be able to draw large complicated patterns without lifting the hand off the floor or standing up in between. The lines must be completed to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, which translates into shielding the home from evil spirits.

Previously, cow dung was preferred choice for laying the foundation for the kolam because it is believed to have antiseptic properties, hence, cleans and purifies the ground. Today, it isn’t commonly used partly because the cows have become few, but also, with urbanisation, many homes are located along tarmacked streets, and therefore, the kolams are drawn on the tarmac. However, previously, the cow dung provided the contrast with the white powder. Then, kolams were drawn using rice flour, as a way of beginning the day with an act of kindness by providing food for ants and other insects so they don’t have to walk too far and too long looking for a meal. The rice powder also invited the birds, thus welcoming other beings into one’s home and everyday life; a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence.

According to Ponnusamy Balasundaram, the founder of Mohanam Village Heritage Centre, kolam making evokes harmony, beauty and playfulness. You can call it the yoga of the woman. The patterns are determined by what is on the woman’s mind or heart. It averagely takes about 15-20min to accomplish one kolam, and once it is ready, it is an invitation or welcome of all into the home. Each creation is dedicated to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, prosperity, harmony and love. It is believed to protect the household from the evil eye. Through the day, the drawings get walked on, washed out in the rain, or blown by wind, new ones are made the next day.

To enjoy this special experience, Mohanam organises what it calls the ‘Morning village tour’, a sacred Mandala kolam ritual and village walk. The four hours’ walk gives you chance to participate in the kolam drawing as well as mingle and mix with the locals.

The tour gets you absorbed in traditional crafts such as stone carving, ceramics and terracotta work that the village artisans have kept alive despite commercial competition outside. You get to watch them demonstrate their craft.

During the tour, participants can feel, taste, hear and see the richness that this part of the Tamil culture holds. Visitors have the opportunity to listen to stories from the village to get an insight into the unwritten history, as well as experience much more talent among the villages that will give the visitors a memory for life. For example, the story of the village of Sanjeevinagar is a captivating one, getting to learn how it was born when Hanuman, the monkey god, dropped part of the medicine on Mountain Sanjeevi.

It is interesting to discover how Hindus, Muslims and Dalit live together amicably in this part of India. The climax is when you enter the Hindus temple and get chance to do Pooja.

The morning ends back at Mohanam with a delicious Tamil lunch, which is uniquely served on a banana leaf, as you watch children show off skills they have learnt at the centre.

This tour is one of the ways Mohanam tries to bridge the gap between Auroville and its surrounding community. If you are the kind who can’t walk, there is a bullock cart to give you a ride.

Every year, Mohanam also organises the Women’s Kolam Retreat and Pongal festival, a five-day experience that brings together local and global women to share the art of making kolams but also reflect on the culture of Tamil Nadu, which is under threat from globalisation.

 

Building a village cultural learning centre from scratch

BY SIMON MUSASIZI

Written on January 4, 2018

When Ponnusamy Balasundaram, first came to Auroville, a lot of things captured his eye. The village was dotted with foreign faces living in nice houses with an enthusiasm about Indian culture, which many youths in the other villages were abandoning.

Balu, as he’s commonly known, had been sent to bring food to his grandfather, who made a living working as a casual laborer at the construction site of Matrimandir where he supervised a team of 60-70 workers. The then 12-year-old, Balu recalls that Auroville was a beehive of activities, with construction work going on everywhere. The above environment in Auroville inspired Balu; he knew this was the place he wanted to live. That explains why every day after school, the seventh-grade student would gladly avail himself to take food to his grandfather, uncles, and cousins at the construction site and would use this chance to link up with classmates to chat. Following the death of his father at young age, Balu grew up with his grandfather in Sanjeevinagar, a village surrounding Auroville.

The dramatic loss had an impact on his upbringing and resulted in him being always among the last people in class. Yet, he always had a dream of working together with friends to have a positive contribution to his society. His teacher noticed this attribute and always encouraged him: “Education isn’t working, but you have the energy and passion for doing something.” This encouraged him to pursue his vision. He came up with an idea to start cleaning up Auroville, which at the time had bushy roads, with poor drainage. When he proposed it to his friends, some liked it, others ridiculed it –because as young and ambitious teenagers, they would not imagine lowering themselves to being street cleaners. But Balu, who dropped out of school while doing a diploma in electrical engineering, had the backing of two Aurovilians: Bavana of Auroville Village Action Trust, and Aurelio with whom he later started Svaram Music Centre. These two believed in his idea and he would always run to them for advice.

In 2001, what started as street talk began to materialize when Balu and his friends secured a house for rent in Sanjeevinagar.

“We needed a place where we can conveniently meet because we always met at the bus stop where we would talk casually,” he recalls.

They went house-to-house to try and raise money for rent. With Bavana and Aurelio’s support, they were able to have the house, hence, Mohanam Village Heritage Centre was born in one of the last traditional houses of Sanjeevinagar.

The vision now expanded to create a heritage centre that would act as a bridge between the traditional and modern, the old and the young, and between what is happening in Auroville and its surrounding villages. This is because when Balu arrived in Auroville, there were many curious minds that wanted to know more about his culture. They would bombard him with so many questions, which inspired him to share the knowledge. Many young people who had settled in Auroville with their parents would tell him, ‘We want the real Indian experience; where do we get it?’ And he would reply to them, “But you’re in India’. They would then say, “In Auroville, we meet the same people we left in Paris, Germany, Holland. We want to meet Indian people.” This curiosity of the Aurovilians inspired him to think bigger to create a centre that would bridge the gap between Auroville and its surrounding villages.

The cultural centre therefore started tours that provided opportunity for the visitors to interact with the locals and get a taste of their culture. That way, it also began to reenergize the locals to believe more in their culture. Mohanam thereafter spread its wings into livelihood programs. In 2006, Mohanam Women’s Group was founded as a way of empowering women and making them less dependent on men. Based at Mohanam Malargal House, the women are trained in skills such as tailoring, embroidery and fabric painting. For children, there are various projects, one being the Mohanam Kindergarten with strong emphasis on creative and child-centered approach, with the foundational experience of modern child psychology and new pedagogical methods.

For local youth, Mohanam offers classes in folk dance, Carnatic singing, arts and crafts, yoga, martial arts, and theatre.  The organization keeps the youth active and stimulated as well as ensuring they have a good knowledge of cultural practice, helping them to find identity and connection to their own original culture.

There is ongoing and collaborative work regarding community welfare and development in Sanjeevinagar and Alankuppam villages, where the Mohanam team, the village elders and the youths join hands to work towards a sustainable environment.

Today, Mohanam has become the Auroville bioregion arts and cultural historical knowledge hub. “We want to be more dynamic. It is a place where people can explore the local cultural values. The dream is that every village should have a cultural centre; it is critical for future generations, to have a place where they can get in touch with their tradition and local knowledge. This is what I feel is missing. We need to create space for the next generation to understand the value of nature, to bring harmony, and peace for community building,” says Balu.

“You can be modern, but you do not have to forget where you are coming from. It is very important that we keep the connection from where we came from and find our roots. This brings community together and fosters unity.”

Currently, Mohanam is building its future campus, having received support from the Pondicherry government department of tourism and the French government. The new campus spans about five acres with a lake, which will be developed as an ecological project for the community.

Yet not everything has been achieved on a silver plate. The hardest year for the organization was 2008 when there was no funding at all. This demoralized workers and some of Balu’s friends, who quit for profit-making ventures.

Fortunately, in 2009 came support from the Lion’s Club of Holland. There was also funding from the Rose Foundation, a women’s organisation in Japan, and many other organizations have since then supported Mohanam.

Humans of Auroville

By Stephanie Alex
Written on Jan. 8

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“My name is Madhu. I’m 27 years old.  I am from Tamil Nadu, India. I work doing graphic design and social media at Village Action Group. I create music, I do theater and I’m a dancer. I am also working with kids, teaching them what I’ve learned.  What I like the most is to be on stage, do different dances and performances with my friends. Every-time I am on stage it reminds me that I can do anything. When I was growing up I was way too shy to even dance, I remember the first time I went on stage and I did a performance, I was so happy by the end of it. I really believed that dancing and music were not for me, that I could never do that. But once I did start practicing and continued preforming, it gave me the confidence to believe that I could do anything. From all the people that I’ve learned to all the challenges that I faced, I know growing up in Auroville had a big influence in becoming who I am today.”

“I’ve noticed how every-time I go to my own village I feel like an outsider, I feel that in there everyone is the same. Every-time I visit my mum in the village, she tells me Madhu you cannot do this, you need to cut your long hair, you can’t wear earnings, you should do this and you should do that. But the main thing that I’ve learned in Auroville is that I can do what I love to do and be who I want to be.”

“I remember growing up being six or seven years old, when my father was a construction worker. I remember being on my school holiday and my father took me to work with him that day. I was playing with the sand while he was building houses in Auroville, when I saw for the first time a family of white people (jiggles) can I say that? I remember the voices in my head asking why are they white? what are they doing in here? The father of a family that was there that day invited me to play with his kids. I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me, but we played the whole day. That day Auroville started for me.”

 

 

 

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This moment is so unreal I’m not even sure how to perceive it. I’m lying on a thin cloth blanket draped over the hard tile floor. A small pillow rest behind my head and this pen on paper is the only thing I can think to do, as I’m not sure sleeping is an option.

There is a transgender woman lying beside me. The room is filled with smoke from the prayer ritual she performed earlier this evening. The fan is on full blast, so strong that I’m really not sure I can sleep through the noise. Her daughter is asleep on the cold floor in the next room, but the lights are still on as I, their guest, is not yet ready for bed. I’m on the far-left corner of the room and she is on the far right. A pillow lays vacant it between us until dawn when the third woman returns from a night of prostitution.

I have been invited into the home of three transgender women. The youngest is a mere 17 years and spends her days begging on the streets. She is young and juvenile. She plays the role of the daughter entirely, cleaning up after her parents, making coffee and tea, fetching a drink or cigarette at their beck and call. Her guardians are not much older; one is 21 and the other 28. Together they live in an apartment smaller than my bedroom. They have their own unique family dynamic that is no different than any other. They support each other financially and emotionally as best they can.

In my quick glimpse into the lives of seven transgender women, I learn the ins and outs of their lifestyle. It was a party they told me, just for me. All the women get together and we enjoy an evening of food and laughter until it is time to go to work. Each of the girls took out their makeup bags, showing me all the products they use as they proudly put on their face. Each woman one by one applies her makeup and changes her clothes for the night to come. I joined them in the ritual and apply some of my own, as I realize they stopped what they were doing to watch and learn from me. They begin to comment on my complexion, hair color, and eyes in a way that I had never experienced before. They kept asking me if I wear lenses and of course my answer was yes because I can’t see without them, but by the time the night rolled around and I lay here writing about the days experience I realized they weren’t asking me if I wore lenses to see, but they didn’t believe that my blue eyes were real. One of the women asked me how I get my complexion so fair. Do you use cream she asked? What can I do to look like you? I’m not sure how to respond, so I returned the quasi complement by telling her how beautiful she looked and that she shouldn’t change a thing. Although in my head, I knew she honestly wanted an answer of how to whiten her skin and get blue contact lenses to look more beautiful.

I stop what I’m doing as I’ve have enough in the spotlight and each of them go back to their own process. Through a strong language barrier, I learn that four of the seven girls around me have graduated from University with degrees in engineering. They explain to me their studies and how some of their hobbies are computer programming and design. I listen to their stories and realize the complexity of what they are telling me versus what I am seeing. These women are educated, they have the ability to live successful lives and be financially stable—only if they were men. The reality of it is that they can brag about their college degrees to me only as they are preparing for a night of prostitution because it is their only possibility of bringing income to their families. They shift from the subject of university to prostitution as if it’s no big deal. They act as if they have accepted their line of work, as there are very few other ways to live their lives openly as trans women. The only woman who doesn’t do sex work anymore lives upstairs and was able get out of it once she married. Her husband, a transgender man, is the moneymaker. She told me a little bit about her active sex life and the other girls giggled to themselves exclaiming, “They have sex every day!”. Their intention was to say that this wasn’t so normal and I’m still not sure why they feel this way. Is her active sex life strange because the rest of them are paid for sex? Is a love relationship so foreign within Indian culture?

Once the girls are dressed and ready for the night we say our goodbyes as I won’t see them until I wake the next morning. The woman laying beside me playing on her phone as I write in my notebook is missing a night’s worth of income just stay behind and chaperone me. As I pause to stare up at the turquoise walls chipping and fading away, I wonder how many others have looked up at the same four walls. The women who live in the apartment told me earlier that they had only lived there for three months. She explained that they have to move often because neighbors have problems living with transgender’s.

I finally get tired, as I think the exhaustion from the overwhelming day finally sinks in…

A call for action

By Dorothea Mursch-Edlmayr, written on 03.01.2018

The sustainable fashion brand Upasana stands for “design for change” with a socially responsible approach that goes beyond the product. It stands for the farmers, the weavers, the dyers and the whole production chain, with the mission to bring out India’s identity through textiles. Fashion Designer and founder of Upasana, Uma Prajapati set her principles on ethics and integrity. Over the last 20 years, Upasana has started many projects to support various local communities and to raise awareness for different social issues circling around fashion. In 2017 Upasana launched a new project “The Conscious Fashion Hub”. “Looking at our journey with all the social projects and actions and processes, we’ve realized it’s time to share that, to give a collective space to share and exchange. And since there was none we’ve decided to create one,” explains Uma Prajapati.

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“The Conscious Fashion Hub” is a platform to share knowledge and start discussions about social issues such as farmer suicides in India, plastic pollution, fashion waste production, women empowerment and employment, craft empowerment and many more. The platform is initiated by Upasana and is based on principles of ethical business, slow fashion, fashion revolution, fair-trade and community empowerment. Karthik Subramanian is part of the communications team of Upasana and explains the intention of the project as the next step for the brand following its actions and ideologies. He says “the idea is to be louder, to make noise and to make people curious about the noise through sharing knowledge and information about an issue they interact with everyday in their life.” The project aims to bring together textile and fashion enthusiasts, students, artists, designers, social workers, farmers, businessmen, environmentalists and everyone with an interest in the country’s future to discuss, brainstorm and practice sustainability in fashion towards more consciousness. The first event was “The Desi cotton workshop” that took place in June 2017. Speakers and workshops gave the audience the chance to gain knowledge about the history of cotton in India, the lives of the people working with cotton, the dramatic consequences of a non-conscious interaction with our garments. The workshop allowed for a space to ponder, learn and encourage the participants to get involved in the processes of upcycling, natural dyeing and conscious styling.

The first event was dedicated to the topic of cotton because farmer’s suicide in India is the most sensitive issue. It is connected with one of the greatest resources in South India that lost its relation with the tradition and heritage of the country because of exploitation of people and the environment.

Priyadarshini Ravichandran, the photographer for Upasana was very touched by the Desi cotton workshop; “People need to know that there is a history behind textiles especially in India where it’s so closely connected to every region. It’s intertwined with the geography of the region, the arts, the aesthetics – we need to respect the history and art of this beautiful medium called fashion.”

Uma Prajapati’s entry point of conscious fashion is the farmer’s community since day one, to make a change for the people who contribute the base for almost every garment we are wearing. “Conscious fashion is about the story of what you wear and about the garment itself,” explains head of communications Madhumita Chandra. So we need to start to value the whole supply chain and the work and effort of every single person involved in order to understand the long way from the seed to the garment. Conscious fashion means responsible fashion and the understanding that every action has a reaction and each one of us can choose who and what we support with every single purchase. In order to start a conscious way of thinking towards fashion, people need to gain knowledge, people need to ask questions and people need to make the effort of getting involved.

“The Conscious Fashion Hub” is the platform for exchange and reforming perspectives towards a more conscious approach to fashion and it’s real price and value giving the people who plant the seeds, who weave and dye the fabric, who cut, stitch, sew and embroider the textiles a space to tell their stories and be heard. “The platform is a space of collaboration to endorse and acknowledge each other”, states Upasana’s founder Uma Prajapati. We all are involved in fashion in our daily life contributing and supporting consciously or non-consciously – exploitation, unethical treatment, overuse and waste of resources and overall violation of human rights because of a lack of knowledge and awareness. But this excuse of not knowing is not acceptable. Consciousness means making an effort that can result in a change in the bigger picture trying to make the world a better place. And in order to achieve this goal, we need to start a movement of conscious fashion that leads into a conscious lifestyle. Upasana and “The Conscious Fashion Hub” will continue to raise awareness for the issues to help people reconnect with their garments and India’s heritage and tradition with textiles. We need an ethical, sustainable and conscious way with a socially responsible interaction with the whole fashion community.

Read the article on Upasana’s blog as well and don’t forget to follow the Social Media Channels of The Conscious Fashion Hub. Join the movement for more consciousness.

http://www.upasana.in/2018/01/03/call-action-conscious-fashion-hub/

https://www.facebook.com/theconsciousfashionhub/

https://www.instagram.com/theconsciousfashionhub/

 

I’m Wiped Out: An Auroville Experience

By Katie McGarr
Written on Jan. 6

I have been in India for twenty-five days. Twenty-five days, and going to the bathroom is still a trivial matter, and I would even go as far as to say my biggest challenge.  Most toilets in India are very different from the ones in Western culture — I like to call them squatty potties.  They are exactly as they sound, you go into a stall and squat over a hole.  Admittedly, this is not the most difficult part.  It is the post-excretion ritual that gives me the struggle. But wouldn’t someone of Indian culture find themselves struggling to adapt to the Western bathroom ritual?

Did you know that Indians generally find the Western wipe to be unsanitary? Westerners wipe, using paper, usually with their dominant hand.  That toilet paper either ends up in the septic system, which makes it harder for bacteria to break down the matter, or it ends up in the garbage where it becomes part of a land fill or ends up in the dump thus adding to the already unsanitary conditions.  In Indian culture there is no paper waste, allowing for the bacteria to properly break down waste and thus makes Indian toilets more environmentally friendly and sustainable.  In Southern India, one uses a bucket of water, or a hose in rare cases, and they use their left hand to clean themselves. As a result, the left hand is considered “impure” and you will never see an Indian eating their food with that hand as a result.  Indians cannot fathom why someone would the same hand they eat with, to wipe themselves after going to the bathroom. This leaves the major question—which method is actually more sanitary?

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Sanitary is relative, and the answer may surprise you, as it did me.  During our week of NGO visits, we had a special lecture from Dr. Lucas, a man who has devoted his life to poop.  He would argue that the Indian toilet culture is more sustainable and better for the environment.  You may ask, but using paper creates a buffer between your and the waste, decreasing the chances of fecal matter getting on your hands and spreading illness. Most fecal –oral infections do not come from mishandled food but rather, eutrophic bodies of water, hypoxic seashores and nutrient-poor soil— a problem that conventional methods of sanitation causes.  Septic systems in India are more sustainable, as mentioned before, and in less time than conventional septic systems, the waste turns into highly nutritious soil that can be used as fertilizer.

It is uncommon for Indians to have a bathroom located inside of their house.  This is not a totally foreign concept, but in today’s Western society it is seen as outdated.  The mindset is, why would one go to the bathroom in close space and proximity to the kitchen? Many Western living quarters admittedly do have bathroom and kitchens located right next to each other.  This is related to the Indian concept of “in” and “out”. Indian’s believe that the “in” which is your space–be it your body, living quarters, etc—should be pure and clean. Anything that is dirty, is placed “out”, which is why anything associated with waste is usually placed outside (garbage, toilets, etc.).

So while convinced the Indian ways of going to the bathroom are hygienic and more sustainable for the environment, having toilet paper is still a necessity. Can a middle ground exist, where all cultures meet in harmony, in one single gesture? My trip to India made me think very hard about the idea of poop. Maybe Dr. Lucas found the solution that not only provides harmonious, sustainable comfort in the bathroom, maybe that solution still remains to be invented. In any case, I stick to my toilet paper, thank you very much.

A Day With Disposable Cameras

By: Beatriz Salgado

 

My day started out with the usual morning breakfast at Morgan’s, scrambled eggs with toast and milk coffee. Then, I went to the Matrimandir for the first time, one of the most intriguing experiences yet, but I’ll leave that for another blog entry.

I’ve had an idea for my personal project before I even left for India. Working with children in Brazil and establishing a genuine relationship was always something I felt passionate about. So, my idea was basically to get children to walk around Auroville and take photos of something, I hadn’t really thought about what that something was until I started volunteering at Wasteless. I mentioned my idea with Rihbu, the organization’s founder, and thought he could help. He really liked the idea and thought it could be great if the project complemented Wasteless’ new educational program kNOw PLASTICS. Together we decided the kids would take pictures of plastics. They were to think about where they got their plastics? How did they use plastics? And where they threw their plastics away?

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I had already been to Aikiyam School the day before to observe the pilot testing for Wasteless’ new educational program, so I had met the principal of the school, Shankar and he said I could meet with the kids on Saturday afternoon. The next day, I got all my gear, which included three disposable cameras, a laptop, water bottle, my journal, and a charger and headed for Kulapalyum Road. While I waited for Shankar to confirm, I had a delicious lunch at Frites with my classmate Imani and later coffee and brownie at Marc’s café, an indispensable place to drink coffee while in Auroville.

Finally, I heard from Shankar and walked to Aikiyam School under the hot afternoon sun, not to mention it was winter. I went to the science room where the teacher and students were doing extracurricular work and waiting for my arrival. They usually have some activities during the weekends to keep the students busy. Before heading out for our photography exploration, I decided to talk to some of the students and interview them about plastics. Though they were a bit shy in the beginning, I was surprised by how much they knew about the issue.

To start our photography hunt, I divided them in groups, two girls, Deepa (13 years old), Roshini (13 years old) and two boys, Chandru (14 years old) and Chander (13 years old). Later, we met up with two other students, Arjun (13 years old) and Thiru (13 years old) who decided to join our expedition. I gave each group one disposable camera and explained to them the objective of taking the pictures.

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The purpose of the assignment was to take photographs of plastics in their point of view by keeping in mind the three questions mentioned above. As soon as we stepped out of the school, they immediately started taking pictures of the waste they found right outside the school: plastic bottles, bags and even a CD! We walked along the main road and headed towards Kulapalyum village where the kids lived. As we strolled around, the students entered different shops and interacted with people explaining to them what they were doing and why they were taking photos of plastics. Then, we started heading to each of their homes. What was interesting to observe were the different perspectives they had on what was clean and dirty. One of the questions was if they thought where they lived was a little, medium or a lot dirty. Most of them answered little or medium and that it’s sometimes clean and sometimes dirty. I remember thinking, ok, so they live someplace decent. I was wrong though, what was surprising was their notion of somewhere clean turned out to be a completely different conception from my reality.

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During the interview, they all answered that they threw their trash and plastics in dustbins in their homes and that they don’t throw waste on the streets. One student even said they separated organics from non-organics at his house and that after it was separated, the “people that do the duty comes to pick it up” (Arjun).

The small comfort that I did have, despite seeing those kids’ environment and their reality, was that they were still being kids and had so much fun taking photos with a simple disposable camera.

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