Building a village cultural learning centre from scratch


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.

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