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November 2004

Building the home for Savitri

In conversation with Carel

The second structure of Savitri Bhavan will be inaugurated in November

Helmut

Shraddhavan
It all began 10 years ago when a group of Aurovilians started studying Sri Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri. They met wherever a place was available until one day Narayan, a senior Aurovilian, ignited the flame of passion. “He suggested that there should be a place in Auroville dedicated to Savitri, where those interested could study it and where all the materials on Savitri could be gathered and exhibited. It should be a place with a special atmosphere, where even someone who doesn't know a thing about Sri Aurobindo or Savitri would feel an inspiring energy.” Shraddhavan smiles at her recollection of the start of the Savitri Bhavan. “The idea was taken up enthusiastically. Within a remarkably short time we were granted this piece of land and one year later there was a plan. On November 24, 1995 , Nirodbaran laid the foundation stone in a well-attended ceremony. Not being one of the organisers, I stood somewhat back. Nirod-da spoke very briefly and simply and read a passage from Savitri. Then something very powerful came down – I still shiver when I think about it. My commitment to the project stems from that moment. Nirod spoke about Savitri Bhavan being the twin of Matrimandir – probably in the sense that the one would complement the other. While Matrimandir is the shrine of the Mother, this is the home of Savitri.”

Since that time, Shraddhavan has been increasingly committed to the Savitri Bhavan, together with a strong supporting team which includes architect Helmut. “The needs of the project led me into areas where I had neither experience nor had ever felt the desire to work, such as accounting, fundraising and administration. For when the idea took off, there was no money. There was only the support of many good-willed people. Among them was Dr. Beena who, together with her parents, was instrumental in organising a benefit performance by Indian film star and Bharatanatyam dancer Hema Malini with her troupe in the town of Navsari in Gujarat,” Helmut interjects, “When we reached the railway station we were amazed by the crowd of thousands of fans who wanted to see Hema-ji. She was probably used to it, but for us it was an unbelievable experience!”
Though this performance raised almost six lakhs rupees (US $ 13,000), the amount was not enough to begin construction of the main building. “Helmut proposed to start instead with the smaller, free-standing caretaker's residence, and adapt that to our activities,” says Shraddhavan. “Once we started construction, help began pouring in, and the building was inaugurated just a few months later, again by dear Nirodbaran, on August 8, 1999 .
“In the meantime, while we were fundraising in Navsari, other members of the team had put up a keet-roofed shelter on the site, and it was there that the first regular programmes were started: Ananda Reddy with his weekly classes on The Life Divine, and our guest speakers on Sundays. At the same time we started our magazine Invocation which carries transcripts of the talks, and other materials on Savitri. It is now going out to people all over India and to 35 other countries. In 2004 we also began publishing a Tamil version, Prarthana. Both the journals are distributed free on request to interested people.”

Meditations on Savitri
Financial assistance was not the only kind of help that came. Says Shraddhavan: “When we started, we hardly dared to dream that one day the Meditations on Savitri, paintings made by Huta in the 1960s under the direct guidance of the Mother, could ever be exhibited here. But unexpectedly Huta showed a great interest in our project and increasingly gave support. The Mother had told Huta that all the 470 paintings in the series should be permanently displayed in proper order; but the Sri Aurobindo Ashram does not have a place for such a permanent exhibition. Ultimately, with the consent of the Ashram trustees, all these paintings have been entrusted to Savitri Bhavan, along with copies of Mother's sketches and written instructions, as well as other paintings inspired and guided by the Mother.”
To house and exhibit such a collection requires a proper gallery. “A real art gallery is part of the final plan,” says Shraddhavan. “In our present premises we can only exhibit reproductions, which do not carry the tremendous power of the originals. Mother gave detailed instructions and sometimes even corrected a painting herself with a brush. Moreover she concentrated on every one of them over and over again and put ‘something' in them. It was Mother who said that these paintings should not be judged from the ordinary aesthetic point of view, but that one should concentrate within and contact what is behind the surface. After all, these images are inspired by mystical poetry, which many people find quite unapproachable too.” Adds Helmut: “That, in the beginning, was also my problem. Most of the paintings I could not appreciate – though others were overwhelming from the moment I first saw them. Now I find that they have grown on me, I gain more and more from them – and this is always a very good sign with art.”

A place for study
Before Savitri Bhavan was inaugurated, Auroville did not really have a place for studying the works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. This has now become a major focus for Savitri Bhavan, which has been offering regular classes on The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, Mother's Conversations and of course Savitri itself. And to make Savitri accessible to non-native English speakers, Shraddhavan has started to teach English through Savitri. “This targets not only many newcomers to Auroville, but also Aurovilians. Koreans, French, Italians and a group of young Tamilians are enthusiastically participating, all people who are interested to know more of Sri Aurobindo. We study one page at a time – the correct pronunciation, going through it word by word, sentence by sentence, understanding the meaning of the vocabulary, the sentence structure, and the images being used. The marvellous rhythms and the whole richness of the English language sink down into deeper layers of the consciousness – and come out again after some time.”
Another focus has been added recently. An increasing number of people visit Auroville for continuing education in fashion design, alternative technologies, sustainable architecture, afforestation or organic farming. Says Shraddhavan: “More and more people in Auroville are beginning to feel that everyone who comes to study something in Auroville should be offered an orientation course about the specific aims and ideals of Auroville. We at Savitri Bhavan are also participating in providing such sessions, which are being well appreciated.”
Savitri Bhavan also has an audio-visual section, run by Vladimir , which prepares recordings and other study aids. All the recorded talks given at the Savitri Bhavan, such as those by Shraddhalu, Professor Nadkarni, Georges van Vrekhem and others, are processed here on various media – tape, CD, video and DVD. Vladimir was also responsible for digitising the recording of a complete reading of Savitri made by Nirodbaran in the late 1980s. It was made available in the form of MP3 files on CDs as part of his 100th birthday celebrations last year. These CDs are now distributed through VAK Bookshop in Pondicherry .
Gradually Savitri Bhavan is gearing up to support academic studies. Savitri was declared by The Mother, after the first edition had been published, as a poem which nobody could truly understand. Medhananda added in 1958 that the mind that can understand Savitri hasn't yet been developed. But now Shraddhavan feels that the meaning of Savitri is coming nearer, even though surely nobody can claim to understand all the poems many layers of deep inner meaning – to do so, one would need to have the spiritual experience it is based on. “But it is an ocean; we'll never get to the end of it.” Work has been started on a bibliography of Savitri materials, and several other interesting research projects are going on. “From time to time we receive queries from students in different countries who have chosen to write a thesis on Savitri. In due time, perhaps, Savitri Bhavan could become a focal point for Sri Aurobindo Studies where students obtain recognised credits. But we would not like to place too much emphasis on academic studies. The activities we are organising aim to make Sri Aurobindo's vision and work more accessible to people of very varied psychological types and cultural backgrounds. What we want is not just an intellectual grasp. We approach his writings for help and light, for the psychological insights and spiritual support that can show us the way to a new and better human life and society.”

 

The brand new addition to the Savitri Bhavan (Photo: John Mandeen)

The second building
For a time the first building was adequate to accommodate these growing activities. About 18 months ago a possibility emerged for expanding the facilities. “Our hopes were raised when we heard that, as part of the Rs 22 crore grant approved for higher education facilities in Auroville by the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India, Rs 51 lakhs had been allocated to Savitri Bhavan. But this money has so far not materialised. Then we were encouraged to apply for another government scheme under which we might get a grant specifically for an art-gallery. We learned that we would be expected to provide at least half of the funding independently. Since we had started the first building with only half the needed amount, we decided to go ahead with this one as soon as we had half the estimated building cost in hand.”
When the concept of Savitri Bhavan was designed, we had planned that this second building would be the last one to be constructed,” says Helmut. “But here in Savitri Bhavan we have noticed that the buildings follow the activities planned, and the next activity on our schedule is the exhibition of Huta's Meditations on Savitri. The original plan envisions an art gallery as part of the main building. But we lack funds to manifest that building. Instead, we have decided to adapt the future library building to display the paintings. It is a closed walled structure with indirect light coming in from the top, and in this way the pictures will be protected from ultra-violet light which destroys the pigments. When we get to do the dedicated art gallery in the main complex, this building can very easily be re-adapted to become the library.”
The first-brick laying ceremony for this second phase building coincided with Savitri Bhavan's 8th anniversary in November 2003. Through the generosity of patrons around the world, the building is now complete – even though the hoped-for grant from the government never materialised. “Were the Auroville International Centres involved?” Shraddhavan shakes her head. “Sadly not directly, even though a detailed presentation was made for their meeting in Brazil . But the AVI Centres channel donations to us from individuals, who mostly support our work because of their love for Sri Aurobindo's Savitri. The Mother had told Udar ‘Savitri is a mantra for the transformation of the world' and we find that more and more people are responding to this great poem.”
With the second building nearing completion, Helmut is already thinking about finishing the entire complex. “Roughly about 1.2 crores (US $ 270,000) would be needed. The next step, estimated at about Rs. 22 lakh, would be the entrance and administrative section, with a properly equipped storage room for the paintings. After that would follow the permanent art gallery, an audio-visual studio, a conference hall, and additional rooms for classes and research as well as an open-air auditorium for small-scale music, dance and drama productions related to Savitri,” explains Helmut. “Later we also hope to add a hostel to accommodate speakers, visiting students and staff.” A Savitri Park is planned around Savitri Bhavan where all the flowers and trees mentioned in Savitri will be grown. It will be part of the larger Mahasaraswati Park , one of the four main parks of Auroville.
All money needed for the construction of the complex as well as its running costs – on average Rs. 50,000 per month – comes entirely from donations. But Shraddhavan is not anxious about the future. “If we can stick to our ideals and objectives, if this work is of real value, this will be taken care of. The Supreme Lord will finance it.”

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