My Infinite Gratitude
Sometime in my pre-teens, I remember my grandmother, Manikuntala Chowdhury, telling me that I had first met the Mother on the day I had turned one. My grandmother had carried me to the Ashram Tennis Ground by the sea where the Mother played tennis in the afternoons, and had requested her to give me a name. It seems that the Mother had looked into my eyes for some time and then given me the name Joy.
Being devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, my grandparents lived in the Ashram and my grandmother had the wish that at least a few of her grandchildren should have the privilege of joining the Ashram school. As there were no boarding facilities back then, she herself offered to look after me and my cousin brother. The two of us were the eldest children of her two sons. We were indeed privileged, but being perhaps too young then to be separated from my parents, I developed a health problem and had to return to Kolkata. But the seed had been sown, and I came back after a year’s treatment.
At that point my parents thought that it was maybe too much for my grandmother to look after two children on top of her daily service to the Ashram and her time for personal sadhana. It somehow happened that my former teacher of Class One, Anima-di, offered to keep me. Perhaps she had developed an affection for me. When I think back on this, I find it quite extraordinary. Anima-di was a single woman, a teacher in the morning and secretary to Nolini-da (Nolini Kanta Gupta) in the afternoon, with no prior experience in looking after children. But still she mananged to look after me for two years. During those two blessed years with Anima-di, I had the good fortune to wander around in the main Ashram compound in the afternoons, walking into Nolini-da’s living quarters and those of elder sadhaks Amrita-da, Purani-ji and Pujalal-ji. I remember them as being warm, kind and playful with me.
From 1963 on, I stayed at the Ashram, and like many others, saw the Mother on every Darshan day, on my birthdays, and on a few other special occasions too. It is difficult to describe in retrospect the atmosphere of the Ashram as experienced by a child. The only vivid memories are of course of the Mother’s all-pervading presence, the dense and luminous peace around Sri Aurobindo’s Samadhi, and the serene joy created by the sadhaks’ dedication and self-giving to the Mother, and how we children were constantly surrounded by their benevolence and watchful care. However great was the age difference between the Ashram residents and we students, we addressed most of them as elder brothers or sisters by suffixing their names with “da/di, bhai/ben”. You see, we were part of a very special family: we were the Mother’s children, of all ages. Still today, this is how I feel and remember those years. I wonder, would that rapport with the Mother be the reason why one continues to feel young inside? And share that complicit and happy smile whenever we meet?
After that I stayed in different boardings. This time I was able to live without my parents (though I missed them), without falling sick. I believe that the Mother, who took care of everyone in the Ashram, was also protecting my health. Some children lived at home with their families whereas many children lived in boardings under the supervision of Ashramites whom the Mother had entrusted with that work. In those days parents surrendered their children into the Mother’s care with full trust and did not interfere in their education or development. There are several beautiful interviews of people who had to jump to the task without prior experience and how the Mother guided and encouraged them into becoming a boarding-in-charge and who, many years later were remembered with love and gratitude by the boarders. Whenever I read these interviews in “The Golden Chain”, the Alumni Journal of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, I can’t but be deeply moved. Behind the stories and anecdotes, whether humorous or nostalgic, what one perceives, on the one hand, is the Mother’s presence, love and minute guidance, and on the other, the total faith and dedication of the sadhaks.
On approaching my teens, it had become clear that I was not academically inclined. I responded rather to any form of art. Later on, my inclination became more marked towards performing arts.
The Ashram school gave me the possibility to develop my natural talents to the extent of my capacity, with the help and guidance of wonderful teachers, who were also sadhaks. That is how from a young age I began taking singing lessons with Shobha-di and other teachers, in my teens was introduced to classical ballet with Monique, a French Ashramite, and also began participating in plays in Bengali directed by Debranjan-da, and in French and English classics directed by Srimayi.
Then the end of 1973 was painful, when the Mother left her body and my own mother fell ill and passed away. The solid and loving fold of the Ashram helped us to cope with these losses.
Next there was the time when Ashramite Cristof started writing and staging plays in French. His plays pulsated with so much beauty and humour that I was completely taken by them. They were fresh, light and bubbling. It was in one of those plays that I first noticed an Ashram School teacher, Jean Legrand, who became my partner now of 45 years. Soon I participated in a few plays by Cristof, and in one of them, I was cast alongside Jean and that’s when the chemistry happened between us. I think this was in 1976. I had graduated from the Higher Course and was already working in the Housing Maintenance Service and the Ashram Press during the probationary period before having to decide whether or not to become an Ashramite.
Cristof’s play was set during the Hundred Years war between France and England. A prophetic play in some ways because soon after that play, some of the actors began moving to Auroville. Interestingly, many of them had been on the French side in Cristof’s play!
Then in 1977, I decided to join Auroville about half a year after Jean Legrand and a few others had moved there. This was in the middle of the conflict between the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS) and the Aurovilians. From the cocooned and protected environment of the Ashram, I decided to jump into an apparently uncertain future and very challenging times in Auroville. But then I guess the time to “leap before you look” is during your Twenties!
How could I make that leap? Because one evening in Aspiration where I had come to visit Jean, a page simply turned inside me and it became clear that the next phase of my life and artistic development was going to unfold in Auroville. Neither the concerns of the Ashram elders nor my family’s nor well-wishers’ cautionary words could make me change my mind. Of course much of what they feared for me was in some ways justified: I went off to live with a Frenchman without getting married, there was no guarantee of what the morrow would bring, and even whether we would have anything to eat, as the SAS had stopped financing Auroville!
But the collective spirit in some parts of Auroville, formed during the conflict with the Sri Aurobindo Society, was something I had never experienced and had the strong attraction of the unknown and the controversial. More so, as having grown up at the Ashram, many SAS members and their family were known to me as friends or teachers, and finding myself in the opposite camp to theirs seemed strange, new and even thrilling. I recalled years later that for almost six years at the beginning I hardly expressed what I thought, so busy was I trying to understand what was going on.
Needless to say that the times were very interesting and eventful then. Materially hard, at times socially, too. Of course the fact that Jean was by my side helped a lot.
The next phase of my artistic development had to wait for almost eight years. I realise in hindsight that my vital being needed to expand and strengthen, I had to explore other aspects of life, enrich myself with new experiences – put my hands in the mud and my nose into matter. Over the first seven or eight years, the only thing which still connected me to the Mother was the singing sessions with Pascal through something familiar and essential in their vibration.
We used to sing his songs in a group, often impromptu, with residents from Aspiration, Douceur and Auromodele. His songs were poetic, full of aspiration and with beautiful melodies. We often sang his composition based on the Mother’s mantra “Om Namo Bhagavate” whenever there was a crisis with the SAS, but also on other occasions.
Then in 1978, twelve of us from Aspiration, including three young children, began a new community called Djaima – “Victory to the Mother” – on a barren Auroville land with only one palmyra tree standing by the roadside.
Djaima began with the idea of developing into an alternative energy farm alongside some productive activities. We began slowly with a small windmill to pump water (but of course we had to have the option of a diesel pump in case the winds failed) and a small experimental bio-gas plant that could fuel one lamp and a stove for our community kitchen. This kitchen was the first capsule to which low mud walls were added at the ground level. Soon capsules were built in different locations of Djaima for others to move in – Pierre Legrand, Divya Karun, Jean Pougault, Diane and their three daughters, Goupi, Divya Karun, Subir, Thierry, Guy Dinet, Tom, Gilbert, Ulli Hauser and later Gilles Guigan with his family. Jean Legrand and I stayed on the platform above the kitchen.
One of the initial tasks was to grow seedlings of thorny bushes for two or three kilometers of fencing to keep out the village cows. Projects of aquaculture, chlorella production and fish ponds were initiated; a vegetable garden and a nursery of fruit trees to provide for us and the larger community was begun.
Divya and myself were mostly linked to the kitchen, preparing tea and cooking for our hardworking colleagues. We tried to make the best of what we received in our Pour Tous basket and sometimes supplemented it with whatever vegetables grew and were left after distribution to the larger community. This is the time when I learnt to cook and look after the community children. There was at the time this feeling of solidarity with all Aurovilians who worked the land and accepted pretty basic living conditions quite happily.
Then one day Anandamayi, our daughter was born.
The kitchen by then had moved into another hut so our family could use the lower part as well. We’d had to give up on the idea of any sort of normal comfort, but it now felt like we were living in a mansion! Then the final “pukka” community kitchen was built and a big wonderful keet guest house too.
It was all good fun, full of experimentations and hands-on learning for people who had never done anything of the sort before. We had a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It was a lot of work too, a very big project with not enough people to carry it really.
But what kept us going for some years was the idea of building a model community that would produce for itself and the larger community, and be self-reliant by developing alternative energy systems. Here’s the now-famous shot of a windmill joyously being moved to Djaima from Sharnga.
It was also a very intense community life, with many beautiful, loving and laughter-filled moments that I still remember. But there were also frictions naturally. A strong bond remains between us to this day, years after the original Djaima residents moved away to other communities or other parts of the world.
This was also the time when the Auroville Foundation was being created. The larger community of Auroville was starting to get re-organised. After a long gap, a school was started closer to the Center area.
Then it was time for us to move out of Djaima and experience another quality and rhythm of life, with fewer tensions of community living. The presence of an infant in our lives connected us back through the heart to something more essential and sweet. I realised then how much I had missed it.
Anandamayi’s presence prompted us to be at our maximum self-awareness through the daily routines of physical needs and those of bringing up a child. It was challenging though beautiful.
Anandamayi was three and a half years-old when we moved to Transformation where Samata and a few mothers started the first Creche, propelled by the new need coming from about twelve children born within a year.
After a couple of years we had to find a Kindergarten space for them as by then new children needed the Creche. The Kindergarten we started was in the Centre Field, again mostly run by mothers who were also the teachers.
One may remember that Auroville was a cultural desert at the time. Apart from Pascal’s singing and Croquette’s dynamic French theater group, not much was happening. When people wanted a cultural event, they had to create it themselves. And almost everyone came to these events.
It was during this time I was inspired to write plays for children. The children were my inspiration but somehow adults also enjoyed the plays. So while Anandamayi was in the Kindergarten, I was mainly doing drama with the children and some free painting sessions. I also made up songs and taught Shlokas and short songs in Sanskrit.
The Mother wanted Auroville children to learn four languages: English, French, Tamil and Sanskrit. As we know, for small children learning a new language is best done through songs so that was the idea behind teaching the Sanskrit songs I either remembered or collected from Chinmayi-di from the Ashram.
Later on we made several recordings of songs based on the Mother’s wish for the four languages to be taught in Auroville schools. It was like sowing seeds for the future. Born to various cultures, their young ears and minds could open to absorb the sounds of new languages.
Here we are singing songs in four langages at Udavi School:
In the 1980s, a group of Brazilians settled in Transformation and began offering dance classes and even putting up performances. They used to be part of a Sri Aurobindo Centre in Bahia. Their approach to dance was contemporary and very different from classical ballet. By the fact that the methodology was influenced by the teachings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, it differed even from other contemporary dance forms. One of the aspects of this methodology was to follow the thread “from within to without”.
I discovered self-expression through dance improvisations to finely selected music. This helped me to reach within and touch unknown areas of my being through total participation. It was greatly fulfilling.
Then came the period of working with Anu. She is a writer and a poet, and her dream was to also choreograph. She created her own movement vocabulary based on Bharata Natyam, but slowly incorporated movement vocabularies from other physical disciplines. As I was already into dance she approached me to work with her in her choreographies for two. Soon she found other dancers to join us and she could finally leap into full-fledged choreographies to original music by Aurovilians. She created some solid, inspired and inspiring work for two of them with which we toured several Indian cities. Jean created and performed the lights for these shows. Anandamayi was still in her teens and sometimes accompanied us on these tours.
Participating in “A Greater Dawn” in 1992, a theater production directed by Veenapani Chawla in Mumbai, was a turning point in my artistic life. To chant daily the verses of Savitri, Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem, while doing Tai chi or Chhau movements in slow motion to the drone of Tibetan bowls and feeling high in the environment of a mega city was quite something. Never to be forgotten ! I am immensely grateful to the Mother for having given me once again an opportunity to grow. Then some twenty years ago, Aryamani staged four of Sri Aurobindo’s plays at the Sri Aurobindo Auditorium in Bharat Nivas, in three of which I took part.
It was so wonderful to repeat and listen to Sri Aurobindo’s inspiring poetic verses, to the beautiful and powerful portrayals of the characters …
… and sometimes be surprised by the kind of humour they expressed.
Anandamayi, by then a young woman, often played the heroine’s rôle – here as Andromeda is “Perseus the Deliverer” – and Jean enhanced the plays with magical stage lighting.
Be they artists from Auroville, India or other parts of the world, Jean designed and performed lights for most events at the Sri Aurobindo Auditorium, for more than twenty five years. Here’s Jean working the stage with Srimoyi, as Athena, checking her costume.
Then Aryamani took up theater projects on “Savitri” that she presented at the Matrimandir’s mini-amphitheater. The meeting of the vibration of the Matrimandir gardens and the verses from “Savitri” created an experience that is difficult to put into words.
All I can say is that they were privileged collective experiences and we were really fortunate to take part in them.
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother inspired and provided me with incredible opportunities to touch something of Beauty and Truth through the sincere aspiration and hard work of those who I had the great good fortune to collaborate with and learn from, encouraging me to keep growing.
Looking back today, I feel that all along the Mother was holding me by the hand, even when the times seemed fallow and the road rough.
Looking ahead, my prayer is:
May They continue to light my path,
May we increasingly feel Them guiding our lives,
May we all become more and more receptive to the Mother’s will today for
the manifestation of Auroville !
My infinite gratitude to Them,
Dana, February 2023
With my warmest thanks to all the photographers who shared their photos of Auroville life over the
decades, Ireno Guerci and Edoardo Grassi for their photos of Auroville productions of Sri
Aurobindo’s plays, and Ashwin E. for the opening photo.