History of Ivar's School
by Bhavana, 2010
In about 1975 Ivar Jenten came from Holland to Auroville, and gave all his money to Pour Tous. Then he went to live in the Kottakarai area, where the pioneers were starting out with no roads or houses or wells or anything except energy and faith in the Auroville to be. While Larry started the Kottakarai Bakery, Ivar tried biological farming, rice, peanuts etc. and planted 800 banana trees on a small plot of Auroville land where now “Celebration” community stands. As the banana trees grew, he looked forward to bringing banana bunches to Pour Tous, but alas, before any bunches got ripe they were carried off in the night by local pilferers. He hardly got to harvest a bunch.
When he thought this over, he felt that the reason was because of the poverty of the people in the villages, and began to think how to counteract that. Meanwhile with Jaap and Daniel he was planting an enormous amount of trees, and dug nine big open wells. He worked shoulder to shoulder with the Dalit workers from Kottakarai colony, and got to know them and their problems well. He thought, given his limited means, it would be best to start his poverty alleviation attempt with the kids, so he started going into the poorest sections of the village (the Dalit colonies) in the evenings and running little schools for the kids. This he did in Kottakarai and Alankuppam colonies, and he played with the kids, taught them songs, gave them magic markers to write with, and began also to train some of the young men to be teachers too. Veeramani who now works with Auroville Health Services as a teacher, was one of these. Later social work jargon called such people “animators” but Ivar had the idea long before that word came into use, his major thrust was to get people moving, interested, excited. At its height, there were night schools going in Kottakarai colony, Alankuppam colony, Rayapudupakkam, Thurvai colony, Irumbai and Pettai, and at one point Ivar made and distributed playground swings to 12 villages. He thought every kid should swing.
Ivar thought that it wasn’t enough to just make the kids brighter and happier; their mothers needed work and independent income. When Bobby left for Germany, leaving the house she and Gerhardt had built in Ivar’s care, she also taught a few women how to knit. The government TRYSEM programme helped expand the training and it grew into a production unit, with up to 140 women sitting around the house knitting sweaters out of cotton tape, with another 45 crocheting and making beaded lampshades, not to mention all the women working at home and bringing in the products. The Bellaura leathercraft unit also moved there from Fertile Windmill (following Bhavana’s move from crafts to social work). Workers were being taught reading and writing and self-expression, as well as the craft skill. Heidi brought in the quality control, and Bobby’s business in Germany was buying the sweaters so that besides providing income to the mothers, the sales helped fund the village activities with the children.
Ivar’s dedicated and eccentric personality fired the imagination of the representative of Le Secours Populaire Francais, Luce Jailloux, who arranged funds to support the night schools and the boarding. But there was also money coming in from various individual donors who stayed a while and liked the down-to-earth, and at the same time fantastic, way the place was run.
After a while he knew the kids, and their parents, very well, and then he realised that a lot of them were being beaten and scared by chronically drunken fathers, so he moved about 23 of the kids from the worst families into the house. He was particularly interested in using music to develop the children, and so he also brought into the house some adults who could manage the place and teach music to the children. The day school opened on the day that Indira Gandhi was assassinated, but that didn’t slow it down. There was quite a turnover of helpers, both of local and foreign origin. Joseph, Vincent, Sandamurthy, Elumalai and Ettiraj were educated young men who ran the school and activities. Then there was Chary, an elder Tamil Brahmin whose hands were cramped from (cured) leprosy – he was a very bright light, loving to teach the kids not only classical tabla but also acrobatic feats. Added to the team was also Karpagavelli, a Tamil woman pandit, who taught in the school but had a very good ability to bring the children’s voices into harmony when they sang; and also Deigula Mary who was a trained teacher. The parade of foreigners who came through for longer and shorter periods included Ries and Appie who taught acrobatics, Ramu who taught crafts, Celestine who instituted a massive reoganisation,... There were various people who came and tried to introduce school curriculum, organisation and cleanliness to the place, but mostly it was run as a free school. The resident kids and some others from the villages attended regular classes, and got regular food, but the attention was not on the teaching methods or curriculum, rather it was on enlivening the kids with activities and ideas, rehearsing them in singing and dancing, taking them on trips where they also performed, and generally providing them with a more secure home life than was available at home.
The place was sprawling and untidy but happy – one day a researcher sat a group of the staff down and asked them what it was that made it so happy there. There was no confusion about the happiness, everyone knew what was being talked about, and after some thought they agreed that it was because really and truly everyone knew that all their work was for their own good.
Ivar was undaunted by his own lack of education (he’d left school when he was 14), and would take up any project with complete faith in energy, both his own and higher, to carry it through. The knitting project, the school, the boarding, the performances were all undertaken with total belief in the undefeatable power of doing good. He also built the school building, a marvel of spontaneous in-situ ferrocement construction, 10 m wide by 20 m long, without any engineering inputs, just faith in his own commonsense and building experience. Later on fearing it might fall on the children’s heads, Auroville architects and engineers were consulted, but they said it was reliable. It still stands, having sheltered the activities from 1984 til present.
The MICS (Multipurpose Industrial Cooperative Society) was set up to accommodate the business til Bobby returned and took it over. It still (2010) employs 550 women. The action and profits were never confined to Auroville, staff learned how to manage their own businesses and eventually there was a large independent sweater-making unit in the village, the leather workshop gave birth to two and later more independent units, and the crochet and beaded lampshades also become its own unit in the village.
Although it was never the intention to make the boarding students into Aurovilians, in fact half a dozen have joined Auroville, with Sivaraj running Martuvam Healing Forest, a somehow similar family-like set-up of crafts and children and herbal production on Auroville land near Alankuppam colony.
In 1991 Ivar left to look after his mother in Holland, and the school was taken over by Lisa. When Lisa left Subash took over, and he is still the principal at what is now Isai Ambalam School.