A collaboration between the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and Research Library and the Auroville Archives, this book of photographs, woven together by a simple historical narrative, traces the growth of Auroville during the Mother’s lifetime.
Based on an exhibition presented in February 2018 to commemorate Auroville’s fiftieth anniversary, it covers the conception and initial planning of Auroville, the preparation for and description of the inauguration day, 28 February 1968, and then the construction of the Matrimandir through 17 November 1973.
Included are some of her messages on the aims and ideals of Auroville and a few then-and-now photographs of the centre of Auroville that portray the transformation of that landscape.
The following review is from June 2019 by Julian Lines, the President of Matagiri Sri Aurobindo Center in Mount Tremper, New York, USA, and who also serves on the Board of Auroville International USA.
Looking back fifty-plus years on the inspiration and manifestation of Auroville yields its own special delight, to remind us what the first years were like when Mother was alive and having frequent contact with the various managers and architects and “pioneers” coming from all over the world to live on this barren plateau in South India. One is reminded of this terrific outpouring of energy and effort, and that when she blesses the project in 1964, Mother is eighty-six. The inauguration ceremony was held shortly after her ninetieth birthday.
The complexity of getting local, state, national, and international parties on board, when even long-distance phone calls were rare and difficult in Pondicherry, is testimony to the extraordinary efforts and the perseverance and good will of all involved. Navajata, Shyamsunder, Roger, Nolini, Udar, and Gene Maslow appear in many of these photographs.
Many favorite stories are included, like Udar Pinto’s effort to overcome the USSR’s objections to the presence of the word “Divine” in the Auroville Charter. And this is a pivotal moment because once Moscow agreed to send delegates to the inauguration, the entire Soviet bloc followed suit, and participated in the ceremony.
On the land itself, there is so very little. Just the Banyan at the center with a few palmyras here and there. One could see all the way to the sea, there were so few trees. And then there were the canyons, cutting deep scars through a barren moonscape.
So there are stories of the superhuman efforts needed. Nata has to lead a team, working day and night to prepare the amphitheater and grandstands for the inauguration ceremony:
The work went on 24 hours, with 8-hour shifts. The work involved the construction of an Amphitheatre with a diameter of 150 metres and, around it, space for 10,000 persons sitting on mats, on the ground, and stands and steps for 2,000 persons.Towards the south-east of the centre of the Amphitheatre rose a mound on which was an Urn which would contain the earth from all the Indian States and the countries of the world. And there had to be adequate sanitary arrangements as well as provision for drinking water. On the 25th of February, 3 days before the scheduled date of the ceremony, everything was ready, including 8 kilometres of road, 1.5 kilometres of water pipes, and parking space for 300 cars.
And then there is the anecdote regarding Vincenzo, who, within the span of only two weeks, had the responsibility for cladding the urn with more than 2000 small marble chips. The urn was designed to hold the soil from all the nations, and was to be the focus of the entire inauguration ceremony:
A controversy arose because while Vincenzo was working, he was smoking and drinking coffee, and this led to complaints by the Ashram’s more austere sadhaks, who wrote to the Mother: “Mother, Vincenzo is smoking in the Ashram… Mother, Vincenzo is drinking coffee in the Ashram…,” to which Mother replied, “Leave Vincenzo alone.”
Hundreds of dignitaries and representatives from the 124 countries invited are put up in the homes of Ashramites, so literally there was a cast of thousands called to act in this dramatic moment.
The second half of the book is focused on the Matrimandir. Photos of early designs and plans document the evolution of the building which is a collaboration between architects Roger Anger and Paolo Tommasi, with Piero Cicionesi overseeing the actual construction. Udar’s early drawings of the inner chamber are also included.
In 1970, Mother gives her first message: “The Matrimandir wants to be the symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection. Union with the Divine manifesting in a progressive human unity.”
A number of the famous early photos by Dominique Darr are included, but one should also see her Matrimandir: Hymn to the Builders of the Future for a complete chronicle. Fortunately, a couple of Fred Cebron’s stunning drone shots of the completed Matrimandir bring us to the present. The book ends with a series of remarkable then-and-now photographs showing the same locations in Auroville fifty years ago and today.
The Appendix contains photos of representatives of each Indian state and all the countries putting soil into the urn. In some cases, Ashram children stood in for those countries who did not send a representative. And interestingly, both Nationalist China and Communist China are included as well as Tibet. Canada is represented, as is, separately, the province of Quebec, so the ceremony reflects a mélange of background stories showing the crosscurrents of the time.
In all, this collaboration between the Ashram and Auroville Archives is very well designed, tracing a flow of beauty, imagination and the power of manifestation coming from so many different directions. One does miss photos of the first Aurovilian settlers though—the early pioneers out on the land in the heat and sun planting the saplings and protecting them from the goats with thorn fences, for those trees are now part of an amazing forest, creating new microclimates and repopulating flora and fauna back on the land.
Perhaps this book could be considered part of a trilogy, including Auroville, the First Six Years by Savitra and the subsequent Dawning of Auroville by William (B) Sullivan, both of which chronicle the early years, but without the color photographs and drawings which provide so much beauty and elegance in this retrospective.