Auroville Education 1966-1980
From an interview with Shraddhavan, 2010
Before Aspiration School opened in December 1970, the few children of Western parents already living in Auroville used to go to the =1 school – if not regularly, at least off and on. Although this school was located in Pondicherry, it was connected with Auroville and was probably run under the umbrella of the Sri Aurobindo Society, like the journal of the same name, which was edited by Medhananda, the Librarian of the Sri Aurobindo Library. =1 stood for new ideas in education and society. The founder of the school, Medhananda’s parter Yvonne Artaud, had even already been given the title of ‘Director of Auroville Education’ by the Mother. She had prepared a proposal for ‘Auro Devenir’, a vast educational environment for Auromodele, which the Mother had endorsed by writing on it, ‘Voilà une excellente programme, qui doit être réalisée.’ Roger admired her ideas very much, and I think that the original design for Last School was inspired by one of her drawings for Auro Devenir. In 1970 the =1 school was being run mainly by Fausto, a young man from Ecuador, along with an American woman called Gloria — of course under Yvonne’s guidance and inspiration. Shanti Shah worked there for some time, before joining Aspiration School in April 1971. =1 school continued to function in a way up to 1974 or 1975, but probably could not continue after Fausto left for Switzerland. Nevertheless the revolutionary work being done there was a great inspiration to us in the early days of Aspiration School, although it could not be a model for us, since the conditions it worked under — a very protected environment on the first floor of a Pondicherry house, very few students, perhaps a maximum of 10 at a time, mostly of Western origin, with young parents who were ready to support unconventional and informal educational experiments — were very different from the harsh realities we had to deal with in Aspiration.
I believe that I arrived in Pondicherry on November 12, 1970. In those days, to be accepted for AV, there was a form to be filled in, and you had to give a photo, and this form and photo had to be given to one of three people. So far as I know they were Navajata of the Sri Aurobindo Society, Monsieur André Morisset, the Mother’s son, who was one of her secretaries for Auroville, and the other was Roger Anger. My friend took me to Roger. On the form I had mentioned, amongst other things, that I had done some teaching. I never wanted to be a teacher, I come from a family of teachers and I had long ago decided that I didn’t want to do that. When I was in my last year at school, my headmistress asked me to do some teaching with some of the younger classes, and after leaving school I had gone as a fill-in teacher in a local junior school. After I left University, though I was not a trained teacher my degree qualified me to work in junior schools and I did some supply teaching in England just to earn money; but I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t like it and I knew that I definitely didn’t want to do that; but I had done some other work with children, as an au-pair and looking after children in families; and when Roger saw those things on my form he got very excited and said, ‘Mother is pressing us to start a school in Auroville – you can do that’. And because he wanted me to do that he took me to see Mother at his time. It was just one week exactly after I arrived. I think it was on November 19th. It seems that Mother said yes, because as I was drifting down the stairs in some kind of rosy cloud Roger came running after me and told me that Mother has said yes and that I can go to Auroville and start the school. Then my friend took me to Monsieur André and M. André agreed that I could go to Aspiration although he said, ’You know, they are living three to a hut there.’ But anyway he gave me permission to go, and the same day by lunchtime I was settled in Auroville. I didn’t feel at all capable: I had only just arrived – how could I start a school? But I thought, ‘Mother has seen me and she knows what she is doing and whatever help is necessary she will give.’ I felt quite confident that it would turn out all right.
So when I got to Aspiration I was very relieved to find that there already was a small school there. It was being run by Rod, Rod Hemsell, who is here again now, and a very nice young German woman called Ursula Pflug, and they were doing classes and activities for the children who were living in and around Aspiration in those days – Rose Monnier and Gopal, and the first generation of integrated family children. That is to say the families from the local villages who had been accepted as Aurovilians, their elder children. It was just a handful six or eight kids in the keet hut where Rod was living – there the activities were going on.
I just joined them, and learnt from them and did what they did and I suppose that must have gone on for a couple of weeks before we heard that in fact Aspiration School was going to be opened on December 15th and that Norman Dowsett had been put in charge. He was an Englishman who had been in the Ashram for many years. He was working in the Ashram School, the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, and it had been decided that he would be in charge of Aspiration School. A team of Aspiration people, Vincenzo and Jean Claude and others, hastily put up a keet hut that was to accommodate the school.
On the morning of December 15th, 1970, Monsieur André came and cut the ribbon and declared the school open. Mother had given a message. She must have been asked which languages will be taught in the school and she had mentioned the four languages which we now think of as the four official languages of Auroville: Tamil as the local language, English as the international language, French (which is the medium of instruction in the Ashram school), and Sanskrit as the future language of India.
I think it was actually only the following day that the students came. There was a school bus, a big blue bus which collected the children from their various locations and brought them to the school in the morning. (Over the next years this bus was a very important lifeline for all the scattered Auroville communities. Later in the morning it went back to Pondicherry, without the children, who were still in school, and people went in with it to do all sorts of shopping, so that when it came back in the afternoon, it was loaded up with construction materials, buckets, all the kinds of things those pioneers needed. This bus was eventually taken over by some of our revolutionaries, I think it happened some time in early 1977 – and that was the end of it. Only quite recently has Auroville again had its own daily bus service to Pondicherry.) Some of these were children whose families had been accepted for Auroville, but because there was nowhere for them to live out here, they were still living in Pondicherry. In Pondicherry there was a whole set-up for Auroville, based on the Sri Aurobindo Society’s Beach Office. There was a Dining Room there for Aurovilians and a Prosperity Service, run on similar lines to the Ashram’s Prosperity Service. (There were no ‘maintenances’ in those days – we received food and basic necessities in kind.) That was all run by Prabha-ben with a team of assistants. So the children used to have their breakfast in the Dining Room there in the morning, and then the bus would pick them up and go up the Jipmer road, to Promesse where there were several families living. It would pick up the children from there, Indra and Bithi’s children, Piero and Gloria were living in Promesse in those days; their elder daughter Martha was one of the very first students of Aspiration School. And there was a French family living at AuroOrchard, so their son Raphael was the next to be picked up. Then the bus followed the road through Edayanchavadi to what is now called Certitude – in those days we knew it as ‘Auroson’s Home’. There Shyama’s three children, Hero, Taddy (Erisa) and Renu would get on. Later on it would go to the Matrimandir Workers’ Camp and pick up Satyavan – Jack and Mary Alexander’s son, and any other children from that side, but in December 1970 there were no school-age children living out there. At the Forecomers Corner, Tandapani would join – and so on.
As I remember it, on the first day there were 35 children who arrived either in the bus or on foot, – a mixture of local Indians, Indians from other parts of India and children whose parents were of Western origin – roughly one third of each. And that remained the mix, as far as I’m aware, through the whole history of Aspiration School. (Of course we had the Tibetans, I’ll come to the Tibetans later. But in terms of the mix, we considered them non-local Indians.) On the first morning, I see from an article I wrote about the school in 1973, there were 12 adults who had volunteered to work with the children. None of us were trained or experienced teachers, so far as I know. Already in Aspiration were Rod, Ursula, myself, Cristof Pitoeff (he was living in Aspiration in those days) Alain Monnier and Gerard Marechal, perhaps Bhagavandas; Savitra and Satadal and Elia came on the bus from Pondicherry with the children. Later other adults came also – Ananda Reddy, Michael Redbeard, Deepshikha, and very importantly, but not at the beginning, Kiran Poddar. I think that on the very first day Norman himself must have come out with the bus. He had been allotted a hut in Aspiration for him to live in, but did not stay there for long – less than a week.
Norman felt that from the beginning we should try to learn all the four languages the Mother had mentioned in her message. I remember that there was a Sanskrit class on the very first day. Elia taught us all a sloka. That was the first time I had heard Sanskrit and I remember how moving it was and that I said to myself, ‘Oh yes! Finally I will get to learn this language.’
But languages were a big problem at the beginning, because though the children who were living in Auroville all spoke and understood some English, whatever their mother tongue might be, many of the ones who had been living in Pondi and arrived for the first time that day on the bus, did not at all. Many of them were Hindi-speakers, or from Orissa. There were three very clever and energetic brother from Assam – Atmanand, Brahmanand and Chittanand – they spoke Hindi. And though the adults who were there to receive them spoke quite wide range of languages, from French to Bengali, so far as I remember, none of us knew Hindi.
Ange was helpful. Ange was one of the first students. She had been in the Ashram School, her parents were Ashramites, but for whatever reason it was decided that she would be part of this new experiment. She was fluent in at least five languages, including Bengali and Hindi. So she was quite influential as an interpreter – not always a good influence from the point of view of the adults I might say.
The building we had (it stood where the Maroma Factory is now) was a keet hut that had only been completed the night before, and it was almost completely bare. There were a couple of very simple wooden beds issued by Prosperity, low beds which were used as tables. And Norman had received from the Ashram Handmade Paper Factory a wonderful gift: stacks and stacks of huge sheets of beautiful brightly-coloured handmade paper. And someone had provided a lot of scissors. That was the only equipment we had on the first day – apart from the books, games and art-materials that Rod and Ursula had collected.
That was how we started on the first day. It was quite tough and confusing for everybody I think. Gradually over the next weeks some kind of order began to establish itself. But from those very early days, I should mention one feature which repeated itself. Anybody who had anything to do with education in the Ashram was invited to come and give us advice – which of course, we sorely needed. Of course Norman was leading this train of people who came and told us how we should be doing things. And I must say that the shared aspiration was really very consciously that we wanted to give the kind of education that Mother and Sri Aurobindo have written about. It was such a wonderful opportunity: tabula rasa absolutely and we could make a start at something that had never been done before. But although all this advice was often inspiring and fascinating, we found that we couldn’t just implement it like that. This was because the conditions, the circumstances we were facing were so totally different from what anybody else could imagine. They could tell us, ‘You should do this, you should do that’ but we had to work it out on the ground ourselves. And I think this has been generally the history of Auroville education: that the people who were working with the children just had to find out by trial and error what worked. So we should just be very grateful to everybody who sincerely tried to do that, whatever they did, each in their own way. No one has any right to criticise or complain or anything, because nobody can imagine the challenges that those people had to face.
On the first day we ran out of ways to keep the children interested long before lunchtime. The mid-day meal was eagerly awaited. The kids were queuing up half an hour before it was ready. It was given in the existing community dining space, what was called the Cafeteria, along with all the residents of Aspiration. But very early on Norman decided that this was not at all a suitable environment for our children. And I think it was on January 4th, 1971 that we were able to move into another place – a very beautiful keet structure that I think had been designed and prepared by Johnny. It stood more or less where the bakery is now. It was intended for the use of the integrated families, and it became the school kitchen. Many of the integrated family ladies, and later the so-called ‘Welfare Ladies’, worked there and made it run. Eventually it became the community kitchen for all Auroville, and at one point, I think it was in mid-1973, the school took over the running of the kitchen for the community. So that became quite an important part of the educational environment of Aspiration School. The opening of it in January 1971 was one step towards the School’s separate identity.
How do you build up an educational relationship with people when you have no common language? I remember that I played a lot of games with the children: Snakes and Ladders and Ludo and even Chess, and things like that, because while playing games you can develop a shared vocabulary, and develop a relationship at the same time. We soon found ourselves splitting up into small groups. One adult would get on with one particular group of children and another with another group, and that feature also remained as an underlying pattern of the structure of the school to the end. We came to call them ‘compatibility groups’; that meant children not necessarily of the same age or the same linguistic background grouped together, but simply groups of people who could be together in one room for most of the day without trying to tear each other apart, compatibility groups who could quietly get on with some kind of learning together. It was very interesting to see that develop spontaneously.
In April 1971 Mother sent me back to England for some time and I returned in August of that year. During the time that I was away Shanti Shah came and joined the school. This was such a grace, because she was a very highly experienced teacher. She’d been working with a big boarding school for underprivileged children in Gujarat. She’s a person with a very intense spiritual aspiration and a marvellous way of relating to children, as well as a miraculous organising capacity. So from the moment that she arrived the school started to come into shape.
When I came back in August 1971 I brought with me from England a big tea-chest full of books and music recordings. By that time the school had more keet huts, and part of one of those was allocated to me and I was able to start the first library. That became quite a focal place.
During that first year of course we received various messages from Mother about the school and people asked her various questions. One message I remember vividly. It must have come before I left in April 1971, and there is a background to it which is worth explaining. She sent someone especially to share this message with us:
- Some responsible person must be with the children at all times. This is not to inhibit their sense of adventure, but to see that they do not come into danger.
She sent this message after a particularly alarming incident had been reported to her. Out in the fields, in the area which became Auromodel, a huge well was being dug – by hand, in the way things were done in those days. This meant a huge hole in the ground, with a little pathway winding down the side, along which the coolies would carry or pass up chetties full of soil, as they dug and dug further down. Perhaps the hole was finished, or work had been suspended for some reason. One day many of our school children made their way out to this field and came across the excavation. The more adventurous ones set off on the path down to the bottom; others stood on the rim and threw stones into that inviting hole. It was Ange who realised the dangers and managed to stop the stone-throwers, and perhaps ordered the others back up to the top. It was she too who reported the incident back at the school. The next day I went to have a look, and was really alarmed – a dreadful accident, even a fatal one, could have occurred. But what I remember most vividly is my sense of helplessness when the Mother’s message was conveyed to us: how could we possibly keep up with all those kids? But look at what she said – she did not tell us that we had to keep the children under surveillance in the school at all times. She gave us the responsibility to keep up with them in their explorations – not to limit their adventurousness, but to be alert that they did not come into danger.
One of the questions Norman had asked the Mother was whether the holiday period should be the same as in the Ashram school. And she had said that yes, it could be. That meant that November 1st to December 5th became the only holiday period for Aspiration School. It was probably also in that first year that Ananda Reddy asked the Mother about the model of education that she would like to see in Auroville. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote to her but the response that he conveyed to us was that a kind of modern Gurukula situation would be a good thing to aim for. The Gurukula was the ancient Indian model of education where those young people who were going to be educated would go and live in the household of the main teacher as part of his household. Their education would be the whole life lived together. Breakfast, lunch, household chores – all this was shared and then learning mantras and scriptures, and the story telling in the evening, the daily worship, all this, the whole life together would be an educational process, under the influence and example of the Guru, the teacher. Out of this came the vision of the possibility that individual Aurovilians might gather around them some kind of small household or family of students of different ages for 24 hour a day education by influence and example rather than by formal lessons. This possibility never really materialised in the history of Aspiration School but it was very much in our minds all the time and by October 1976 I remember we were really planning to create an environment where something like that could be done. I think that all these developments happened within the first year.
So we had our break from 1st November 1971 and then the school reopened on 16th December. We thought we were very well prepared. We had lots of new books in the library; we had ordered new furniture, we had actual classrooms, and we had teachers to teach specific subjects and several different study areas or specialised environments – not only the library but other study areas where groups could go. Even Last School had been completed and opened by M. André on October 6th, 1971 and it had been decided that Thomas and Mireille and others would look after the youngest children there. But then on opening day we got quite a shock, because another 50 kids we had not expected turned up. Amongst these were the first Tibetans. I think Pashi’s three children joined at that time, Vinny, Naveen and Anjali; also Jehangir and Reshad, who were the sons of Peggy who had just joined Auroville. Peggy courageously agreed to take in two other younger boys who had come to Auroville without their parents to join the school that winter. The other biggish group who suddenly appeared out of the blue at that time were older children, already teenagers; either their parents been accepted for Auroville or in some cases the parents were not coming to Auroville, but they were apparently ready to give generous donations if their children could be accepted into the school. This was partly because a rosy picture of the new and ideal education that was being offered in Auroville was being promoted by the Sri Aurobindo Society, and partly due to a fear amongst parents especially in Bengal that their teenage children would get drawn into the Naxalite movement that was vigorously developing at that time in the North. This situation was quite difficult to cope with, because they’d come out of ordinary schools, and it was very interesting to observe that they had not learned much in their previous schools. What they had learned was how to deceive their teachers. It took quite a while before relationships of trust could be built up and they realised that here things were different. But we were much better organized by that time. I mean really you could say that by December '71, in spite of this surprise influx it looked like a school. And we were able to get an agreement from the Auroville Administration in Pondi that in future they would not send us more children without announcement or consultation.
The coming of the Tibetans was actually the result of a very beautiful inspiration. Tibetan students had been attending the Ashram school for quite a few years I think. One of them, Kathak, had settled in Pondicherry, He was recognized as a Rinpoche, so he was quite an influential person, and he had suggested to the Dalai Lama, who had, by the way enthusiastically endorsed the whole Auroville project from the very beginning, that orphan Tibetan children could be sent to grow up in Auroville, so that they would be Aurovilians, and they would create the Tibetan Pavilion in Auroville. Mother had accepted this idea. So these 10 or 11 children turned up, under the care of two Lamas, for the start of the school year in December 1971. The youngest of them was very young, maybe only five; later on small Lobsang came when he was only five. There were two girls, Tashi who was seven and her younger sister Kelsang; the others were all boys. The oldest one, big Lobsang, was maybe eleven or twelve when they came. We had no place for them to live in Auroville, so Kathak had provided something next to his carpet factory in Pondicherry. They were among this group of children who came at the beginning of the second year, from December 16, 1971 – and from the start they were an army, at least the boys were. They had their breakfast in the Auroville kitchen in Pondi, then they got on the bus. They started fighting already at the breakfast table, they fought their way all the way to Auroville, they fought their way through the day, until at about three o’clock in the afternoon, by which time the rest of us were exhausted, the idea seemed to penetrate that they would soon be going back to Pondi and perhaps had better be able to show Kathak that they had learned something. So they would come along with their books and say ‘Now we want to read.’ As I said, they had two Lamas with them who had been deputed by Mrs. Pema Lama, the Dalai Lama’s sister who was in charge of Tibetan Education, to look after them. But at the beginning, not only did the children not know any English, neither did the Lamas. That is part of the Tibetan story so maybe I should follow that thread a little further.
Very soon we began to feel that the conditions they were living in in Pondicherry with the carpet workers were far from ideal and that it was important for these children to live in Auroville. So some time in 1972 we presented Mother with a plan that each of these children could be adopted into an Auroville family. We had people who were ready, willing, eager to take them. In that way, we thought, they would become more integrated into Auroville. We thought it was a great plan, but Mother said, no, on no account: they are here to represent their culture, and they have to be able to stay together in Pondy until there is a place for them to live all together in Auroville. And that was when she gave a beautiful message which has always meant a lot to me. She said, ‘The unity we want to realise in Auroville is the divine Unity which is vast enough to embrace all differences.’ It was never written down, but it is engraved in my heart. So she didn’t want the kind of ‘assimilation’ process we had thought would be a good idea. So we set about trying, and eventually in June 1974 it was possible to start the Tibetan boarding and that is a story in itself which can be told later probably.
In December '71 we had the use of Last School, which we felt at that time was the most beautiful building on the planet. Mother had given two messages for the opening day:
- The future belongs to those who want to progress.
- Blessings to those whose motto is: “Always better.”
- In the physical the Divine manifests as Beauty.
It was decided that the very youngest children should make use of this facility. Mireille was looking after them and Thomas, and I don’t remember who else; but quite early on they found out that this didn’t work, that this was not really a suitable environment for very young children.
We’re going now into 1972. We had a good school year through 1972 under Shanti’s steering, and in August, around Sri Aurobindo’s Centenary we had the visit of the Dalai Lama. By that time there had been a change of management. The Mother had given Norman another job and Yvonne Artaud was in charge – the founder of =1 school in Pondicherry. She was really encouraging us to try all kinds of new things. But again, she came only once a week and gave us her inspiring talks and inspiring as they were, it became more and more clear that we had to manage the school ourselves.
It clearly emerged that the captain of the managing team was Shanti. This was reinforced by a couple of incidents. It must definitely have been in the course of 1972 that it was reported to Mother that parents were not at all satisfied with the education that their children were receiving at Aspiration School. They were not learning to read and write, there were not enough general studies, these children were not being equipped for life, and so on. Then Mother replied ‘If the parents are not satisfied with the education being given at the school they may take their children elsewhere.’ In many other ways also she made it clear that she had confidence in the team and in what we were trying to do. There was one period in 1972, when as part of our attempt to move towards the ideal of ‘No School’, in which the whole of Auroville would be seen as a learning environment and the children and the adults, all of us are part of that, we decided that for the older children we would find places in other parts of Auroville, in working places where in ones and twos every morning they could go and learn on the spot certain things. It was an administrative nightmare and eventually after two months or three months of sitting up till midnight doing scheduling and then finding that when the kids go to the place in the morning, the cow is sick and the fellow had to go to the vet and there is nobody there to receive them and these kind of things happening repeatedly, we had to abandon it. But still Mother sent us blessings for it. In particular there was a question about whether Far Beach – what we now call Sri Ma – was a suitable place to send children. Gerhard was building a wooden boat there and we sent a couple of boys down there to work with him; then somebody asked Mother, should the children really be going to Sri Ma? It had a rather dubious reputation perhaps in those days. But Mother answered, ‘if Shanti is satisfied it is all right ... if Shanti thinks it’s a good idea it is all right’. This message gets passed down the administrative line, obviously. It was Shyam Sunder who was taking the messages and receiving the answers. So because of Mother’s support, gradually confidence built up in our working.
Then in early December 1972, Auroville was hit by a cyclone, which did a lot of damage all over. Our community kitchen was blown down, and it took a couple of months to get it repaired. So when the school reopened on December 15th we had nowhere to give lunch to the children. We decided to have half-day school only. All the classes and sports too would be held in the morning, and then those children who did not live in the Aspiration area would go back on the bus. I remember that as one of the best times in the school. We had a very concentrated programme in the morning, and then in the afternoon there was time for other things. We adults could prepare learning materials or areas for the children, and the children who were still around in Aspiration had the whole school at their disposal to explore and make use of as they liked. By then we had the Library in Last School, and with the help of Christl Klostermann the ‘World Game’ was set up there. We had some wonderful experiences with the children using the World Game – all through the day, but especially in that quiet time in the afternoon. When the Dalai Lama visited, Yvonne took him around Last School and I remember her showing him some especially beautiful boxes that the children had done, and explaining their deeper meaning to him.
By April 1973 we had a clear established structure, which I have written about in an article which was published in Mother India in September 1973. I think that article gives a good picture of the structure which prevailed from then on until the end in October 1976. By then we were using an environment that stretched all the way from La Ferme, which was then called the Mango Grove, on the other side of the canyon from Aspiration, through Aspiration itself to the various buildings that were in use by the school in the Last School compound. There was Last School itself, and Shanti had got the Sanskrit School completed with the help of Seven, I can’t tell you exactly when. The Pyramids was incomplete but Shanti turned it into a series of laboratories where children could work independently with work cards and things like that.
Then there was the Kindergarten. Eliane Monnier had set that up, and further afield we had the Tibetan boarding which is where Protection is now. It was housed in a vast keet hall erected by someone called Sheldon in 1972 as a television studio – but I don’t think it was ever used for that purpose. When he left, he handed it over for the use of the school. Perhaps it wasn’t even complete at the time – I have a memory of us all, children and adults, working together there to make a proper floor. Before the Tibetans moved in there to live in June 1974 we had used it for some groups. Then of course, as I mentioned, the kitchen. At some point we took over the management of the Community kitchen, so that was part of the school ambience as well – not to forget the Sports Ground, which was where Shakti is now. All this comprised quite a big area spread over the whole of Auromodele. That was why it was important to have some activities that involved everyone in the school.
There were three activities that brought us all together. The first was Assembly – as soon as the children arrived on the bus we all gathered together for a little concentration; Deepshikha would teach us a Sanskrit song or something, before everybody dispersed to wherever they would be working that morning. Then at lunchtime there was the wonderful French Kitchen which had been set up by Alain and Elian Monnier first for the Kindergarten children. Later it was widened to accept other children if they could behave like civilized beings. In a French family, how do you behave? No matter how young you are, you have some duty. You have to help at setting and clearing the table. You have to show good manners the whole time that you are there. You’re only allowed to eat this delicious food if you can behave properly. And they had set it up in a very civilized way. There too you could see Shanti’s amazing organizing capacity. If somebody had a vision for an environment or a project she would just say, yes, and do everything possible to help them set it up. So they had beautiful furniture, beautiful polished tables and benches to sit on, and glasses and proper white ceramic plates and knives and forks and everything. This was educational in itself, of course; and all the children of all the backgrounds could eat there, and came together there, and made friendships there and knew that they were all part of one family. The third unifying element was the Sports in the afternoon. We had a big area more or less where Shakti is now, that was the sports ground. Ananda Reddy had started the sports activities and gradually more people connected with the Ashram came out and helped with that. That is how Kiran Poddar joined us originally, for the sports. And Satadal was quite a figure. He was a Bengali teacher rather close to Nolini but he had joined the school from the first day. Each of these adults had a special influence on a particular group of children. If you ask those who were part of the school then, they will each be able to tell you which adults they related to especially and why, but in one way or another everybody was in touch with Shanti.
Mother left her body in November 1973, but actually we hadn’t been able to get any guidance or advice from her since February or March probably. At first that did not seem to change things much in the school – it went on growing and developing. We formed a sort of Management Team for administration and decision-making. But from about June 1974 onwards it became more and more apparent – in practical ways – that Auroville was having difficulties with the Society. Then the Auroville Society was formed in November 1975. By that time I had left the Tibetan home and was living first in Hope and then in Certitude in the Auroson’s Home storeroom with Thomas and Christl – we had a small family: Christl’s son Aurokarl was the youngest, Tashi was with me, and Thomas’s daughter Miriam was the eldest. I was teaching in the school in the mornings but no longer in Last School because I had handed over responsibility for the Library to someone else when I went to take care of the Tibetan Home in June 1974. In 1975 and '76 I was teaching small groups in the Sanskrit School building, which was the hub of the school at that time. At lunchtime I used to cycle down the hill to Pondi, and work in Norman Dowsett’s Library there, with Mirajyoti and Pushan, revising the English translation of The Mother’s Collected Works for re-publication for her Centenary. This kept me out of some of the things that were happening in Auroville. The first violence erupted in the School, in the summer of 1975. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, that was a sign of a deteriorating situation in Auroville as a whole. Nevertheless when the school year of 1976 ended in October with a big picnic outing to Gingee, Shanti and Kiran and I sat up in one of the breezy pavilions on the top of Ranigiri and discussed our dreams and plans for the coming year.
For a long time we had had the idea of an environment for 24-hour education for adults and children living together; the seed was laid perhaps by the Mother’s response to Ananda about the Gurukula model. At one time we thought that this could materialise across the canyon from Aspiration, in the Mango Grove, which was under the care of the school, with Jim de Vries managing a wonderful environment for biological sciences there. Roger and the planners offered to build us something there. The design did not correspond to what we wanted, but they promised us that if we accepted the design as it stood, we would have our settlement within six months. We accepted – but it did not work out like that. Roger decided when the houses were half built that the roofs should not be a simple flat slope, but curved. The contractor spent all the money for the entire project on fulfilling this wish – and the buildings were never finished. Jim wanted to turn those sloping roofs to use for algae culture, but I can’t remember now whether it ever worked out. In any case, we did not get the environment we wanted. But in 1975, Thomas and I had been offered stewardship of a beautiful plot of land – what is now Grace. Piero said that would be an ideal place for the project we wanted to carry out, because on the Town Plan as it then stood, this plot was on the interface between the Cultural Zone – where all the schools of the City area were to be located – and the Residential Zone. Some friends had given enough money to get a simple well drilled, and later we installed a hand-pump. So that was where we wanted to start our new project.
A couple of weeks after that picnic, in November 1976, there was a meeting of all the school teachers. There had been an all-day concreting at Matrimandir earlier in the month, and Croquette and Alain Monnier and Gordon Korstange – who, with his wife Jeanne, was important in the school because they were both fluent in Tamil, had a special relationship with all the local Tamil-speaking students, and had from their own funds created the ‘Tamil Illam’ a boarding for boys and girls from local villages studying at the school – were all working together in one section of the concreting. As it went on they got into a discussion about the school, in the context of what was going on between the community of Auroville and the Society, and they came to the conclusion that things couldn’t go on the way they were and that even if we didn’t know what was going to happen next, we had to change the way things were running – including the school. Of course they were thinking particularly of the participation in the school of Navajata’s daughter, Kiran, and other people who were based in the Ashram: Michael Redbeard, Satadal, and others – probably those were the main ones. So a school meeting was called. Probably we anyway had planned to have a staff meeting for planning the coming year, and I know that what Shanti and Kiran and I wanted to present was a proposal for the next step towards No School, the residential project. But then the political situation was very clearly put on the table and it was suggested that certain changes should be made. Up to that point the management was being done by a smallish group of teachers: myself, Shanti, Kiran, Ananda Reddy, Alain Monnier, and Jean Pougault, so far as I remember. It was suggested that this should be changed – that instead of the school being managed by this small group of teachers, there should be management by the Pour Tous meeting – the new Auroville Residents Assembly you can say. Auroville was looking for a way to collect and manage and disburse funds that would be independent of the Society, and Pour Tous had become the channel for that. This suggestion was linked to that. Then a second suggestion was that those people working in the school who were not resident in Auroville should be requested either to come and live in Auroville or to leave the team – and similarly for students: those who were not willing or able to come and live in Auroville should not be allowed to continue attending the school. There were a couple of other decisions. Possibly this is recorded somewhere but I can’t exactly say. I think there were four decisions, but these were the two that killed the school.
I remember that Shanti and myself also felt the need for some kind of change. But foreseeing to a certain extent – not fully, for we could not possibly have foreseen fully what it would mean –the effect on the children if Michael Redbeard, Satadal, Kiran and some of the sports instructors were not coming any more ... for most of the children, Kiran really represented Mother; they felt such a love for her, felt that what was coming from her was really the authentic thing ... we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how to give our vote and we didn’t know what to do. In our helplessness we asked some of the children, ‘What do you think?’ And they said, ‘Well it would be good if Kiran-di would come and stay in Auroville.’ So somehow we went along with it. It was a unanimous decision of the teachers. Suicide; it was absolute suicide. Because actually, who had been holding everything together, who had been channelling all the finance for that huge operation? Shanti. And she found that she just couldn’t function in this new atmosphere, under this new arrangement. So suddenly there was no finance, there was no structure, there was no school, there was nothing.
Of course the kids who lived in Aspiration experienced this collapse very very directly, because they saw our revolutionaries just move in and take over the school buildings and destroy the laboratories which they had been using and that they felt were theirs. They saw that we had a carpenter who was fully employed just constantly doing things for the school – and the Frenchies wouldn’t even let him take his own tools away. Things like that. And then of course finally the library was disposed of, destroyed. Our Tibetan kids, who had settled down in their boarding and formed themselves into a very orderly family, suddenly weren’t orphans any more: parents came and took them away. Of course there were people of good will in Auroville, people like Rod, Croquette, Johnny, more, people who had said, ‘Yes, we will continue with the school even if Shanti and Shraddhavan drop out; we will run it.’ But it didn’t work at all. So that is a sad story, that part – the end of Aspiration School.
I think all of us are still somehow connected. All the kids are now over 40 – anybody who was in Aspiration School must be over forty now. But I think we all somehow feel connected by those memories.
In November 1976 I was living in Certitude, with Thomas and Miriam and Christl and her son Aurokarl, one of the first children born in Aspiration. After the collapse of the school, the children got taken care of in various different ways.
Most of those who were not living in Auroville were accepted – by an extraordinary exception – into the Ashram school, which up to and since that point has always refused to accept any child connected with Auroville.
The Tibetan children were still living in the Tibetan home in what is now Protection, being looked after by Rod and Anita, Nathalie’s mother. There was also a Tamil Illam, which had been established by Jean and Gordon Korstange in 1975, where 12 boys and girls were living and learning together. Croquette was looking after quite a vibrant educational scene in Douceur, and Johnny had another out at Fertile. I am not sure what happened in Aspiration itself – I can’t imagine that the Monnier family allowed schooling to stop entirely there.
At first my personal participation was at Ami. Dietra’s daughter Dawn left Auroville and offered her house in Ami for the use of children. The group that gathered there were mostly girls: Marta, Miriam, Tanya, Janna’s daughter Dotty, and Niru Panda, Tashi and Kelsang – but probably Sacha was also part of the group. In Miriam’s account, quoted in Heidi’s book, she mentions that they were 10.
I don’t remember why or when I stopped participating there, but by 1978 I was working instead with a group of much younger children, the young ones of Certitude. It was a group that Renate had started. Nilauro and Puja were there, Durgaura and Aurienne .... When Renate decided to return to Germany, she entrusted this group to me. It was a ‘mornings only’ school. Thomas allowed us to use the ground floor of the house he was living in, the Auroson’s Home ‘Storeroom’. We set up some sandboxes there, used a bed as a table for painting and drawing, read stories and played games. The group gradually started to grow. Fanou brought Auromarichi, Auralice used to come and Jan Allen’s daughter Gina.
Then one day, a young Tamil teacher arrived with his six or eight students – they were the children of the Matrimandir carpenters and other craftsmen who had been accepted as Aurovilians in 1974. Their children were mostly quite young at the time, we had accepted them into Aspiration school, they used to learn English with me. After the collapse, somehow the parents of these boys had found a teacher for their sons – now they had heard about our group in Certitude and wanted to join. Really, literally, there was no room for them. But round about the same time, Dianne Hassinger, the mother of Sunaura and Lunaura – two of the very first children born in Auroville – offered use of the building which is now the crèche next to the Kindergarten. She had been living there, was leaving Auroville, and thought that it would be a good place for a small school. Indeed it was ideal. I moved there with my group, including the Tamil boys, others joined, both adults and children, and it was a thriving little school by the time that I was asked to withdraw for yet another of my political indiscretions – probably in 1979. Mauna took charge and built it up further into a flourishing school, which became the basis, I think, for Transition School – which belongs to the next phase of the history of schools in Auroville. That was not quite the end of my involvement with Auroville schools, but it is a good point to end this part of the story.
A Postscript Note In what is written above, I have focussed on work with children in schools; but it feels important to point out that from the very beginning, ‘education’ in Auroville was not seen as being confined to that, but as a focus of the entire life, individual and collective, of the community. So from the very beginning, quite apart from individual efforts to educate ourselves, there were groups and classes and courses in which people shared their knowledge and expertise with others. I remember in the very early days in Aspiration some such efforts. For example Ruud Lohmann asked permission from the Mother to start an early morning Hatha Yoga class. She gave her permission, but along with a message ‘It is not what you do but the attitude with which you do it that makes it Yoga’. Physical education of other kinds was going on – Judo with André Pithon, and gymnastics with Eckhardt from the Ashram. In 1972 Michel Klostermann held a very interesting and unusual series of art classes, and later on I remember quite large groups of aspiring artists gathering with a teacher and a model for portrait drawing classes. In 1971 the Mother gave Blessings to Madhav Pandit to come regularly to Auroville to give talks on Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga – which he continued to do right up to 1978 or '79. These are just a few examples of the kind of educational activities that were started in those early days, and which have continued and diversified to the present day as part of ‘Unending Education’ in Auroville.