Greetings from Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India! My name is Madelaine VanDerHeyden and I am a candidate for a Master’s of Arts in Global Communications for International Development. This practicum in India marks my first opportunity to observe and understand development work in the field and to connect classroom ideas with real-world practice. On our second day in Auroville we started touring NGOs in the Tamil Nadu area. After visiting the Auroville Village Action Group, we arrived at Yatra Arts Foundation. Yatra has been serving the Tamil Nadu region with a mission to encourage positive social change through creativity.
Yatra focuses on using art, dance, and media to educate communities on health, social, and cultural issues. It has specialized programs for children but seeks to include all community members in its outreach efforts in order to foster positive social change among generations. In Sanskrit, yatra means pilgrimage, a meaning that guides the foundation’s vision in seeing culture and development as journeys. Many people we have met in Tamil Nadu have expressed concern over Tamil culture being lost in the midst of India’s industrialization and growth. As a result, groups like Yatra are passionate about keeping traditions alive through engaging with the local communities, especially youth.
Upon arriving we were offered a ceremonious pottu, a red dot placed in the forehead between the eyes. In the Hindu religion, this spot is the most important pressure point that houses energy and concentration, the Ajna chakra, It’s more commonly known as a bindi in Hindi, but pottu is the term here in Tamil Nadu.
Yatra’s founder, Yatra Srinivassan, welcomed us and was clearly very proud to show us his foundation’s work. To demonstrate the types of cultural expressions Yatra upholds, his daughters performed two songs played on a veena, an Indian instrument common in traditional Tamil music, and three bharatanatyam dances. Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance that originated in Tamil Nadu more than 2,000 years ago. I couldn’t help but smile during the performances: The moves, facial expressions, clothing, and music were so beautiful and captivating. Dance has always been personally a particularly moving art to watch and this experience was no different.
A more personal note: In watching these performances, I unexpectedly found myself experiencing a deep sense of loss and a strong desire for belonging. Growing up in the United States, I never felt connected to any of my ancestral cultures. My family hails from northern Europe and we have practiced some traditions, though only during the holiday season and without real intention. We’ve set out our shoes in anticipation for the arrival of Sinterklaas (Holland’s Santa Claus) and served traditional British meals for Christmas dinner. But I’ve never mastered the languages/dialects, dances, cuisines, or histories of my family. For that reason I have felt extremely disconnected from the idea of “culture” that is so honored here in India. It’s a disconnect I’ve had to reckon with in my studies by recognizing the integral role culture has in the success and sustainability of development projects. It’s been a challenge to my own identity, which I see as grounded in change rather than tradition. Seeing the pride for one’s heritage here in India has really changed my perspective on tradition’s relationship with modernity. It’s clear the two are not mutually exclusive; it is possible for both to exist and to thrive in different ways.
We saw this possibility most clearly in several of Yatra’s films, which we would classify as “edutainment” in development jargon. Edutainment concerns educational materials that are produced in the form of films, television programs, games, theatre, etc. — basically anything that makes learning more fun. Srini’s background is in filmmaking so the films were exceptionally made. They’re can be a mix of comedies, dramas, or more artistic, but they each had a central message that was meant to practically inform the viewer and touch them personally. Srini and the Yatra theater group also holds street theatre performances in local communities and there are opportunities for the local people to participate and improvise. Below are a few examples of Yatra’s films and outreach work:
Yatra prides itself on providing community members with opportunities to develop integral social skills, cultural connections, networks outside their homes (many of which are low-income), and artistic interests. Its films are poignant, clever, and carry deep meaning. It’s clear that the communities value Yatra’s work and the culture it honors, which has translated into creating a vibrant, sustainable Tamil Nadu.