Mohanam Cultural Center by Shandiin Vandervere

Launched in 2001, this community cultural center was designed to serve as a needed connection between Auroville and its surrounding Tamil villages. While the majority of Aurovillian residents hail from international origins, the communities in the surrounding bioregion are mostly Tamil. While each are connected in their appreciation of spiritual and environmental protection, Mohanam Cultural Center adds another layer of protecting the art, music, and literature indigenous to Auroville’s chosen setting. It focuses on preserving and showcasingthe traditional and cultural heritage of Tamil Nadu’s people, self-described as a, “hub for bio-region art, culture, education. 

Balasundaram, the Founder and Creative Director, has led the center and its experimental bamboo farm for its full two decades of existence and has experienced each success and hardship in tandem. Mohanam began in the oldest building in Sanjeevinagar, after being restored by the initiating group. The current five-acre campus of the new Heritage Center and Activity Hall plans to celebrate their official inauguration in February 2023 after undergoing final infrastructure renovations.

The center itself hosts an impressive array of events, both educational and engaging,that invite all in the area to learn more about the culture they are surrounded by. Mohanam works to educate youth on local, traditional history through activities like yoga, folk dances, class trips, art therapy, and many more. Because of the challenge felt by increasing globalization, many traditional customs are more vulnerable and subject to loss. In direct resistance of this possibility, the center chooses to focus on preserving, “the beauty, traditions, innovations and the continuing evolution of South Indian arts and culture.” 

They also organize a night school, summer art camps, and a heritage kindergarten to help foster education of many different generations. They have held Village Heritage Festivals, offering traditional Tamil games, craft markets, and performances with the help of the Puducherry tourism department.

A strong focus of the center is also water conservation education, headed by women in the community. This water project has been in place for over 20 years and reinforces the shared responsibility of clean water stewardship. Our group was taught the strong cultural link to water in Auroville’s bioregion, specifically with lakes being used as sites for weddings, ceremonies, and other sacred gatherings. The project also serves as part-time livelihood for the women, providing both income and a safe environment to share. This unique blend of environmental sustainability and inner development is truly emblematic of Mohanam’s guiding values.

Our French program visited the center within the large array of Aurovillian NGOs and non-profits to learn more about their unique position striving to serve as a bridge between different crafts, cultures, and generations. Specifically attempting to bridge the gap between Auroville residents, who often come from other countries, and the Tamil speaking communities that surround the eco-city has been a difficult task. Balasundara shared some of the innate obstacles that come with trying to realize their mission, for instance becoming a scapegoat for many issues or facing stagnancy from governments when discussing environmental protection.

This governmental hesitation comes from, again, a unique obstacle faced by many environmental sustainability NGOs in the region. Because of the preceding colonial French territories, Puducherry is made of geographically disconnected areas within Tamil Nadu. This makes any project aiming to help protect or revitalize the environment difficult to pass through two separate bureaucratic approvals. 

But the split between Tamil communities and Auroville was among the most interesting dynamics our group learned through our visit. Many within Auroville’s core leadership team that hail from the overarching government have been advocating for the city’s expansion of both infrastructure and population. A proposed numerical goal of 50,000 within the next 10 years has failed to include the surrounding Tamil villages as part of the existing community. These numbers plan to bring more residents from outside countries instead of incorporating these communities that are already in place. To hear from this community center about these issues was very illuminating and could serve as a case study for others to learn more about techniques used to connect different cultures in a united cause while being cognizant of its unique history.

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