Bernd Dreesmann, the founding Secretary-General of the Deutsche Welthungerhilfe / German Agro Action, talks about the organization's involvement in Auroville's early days
It's story-telling time. Bernd Dreesmann relaxes comfortably in his chair in the Hotel de l'Orient in Pondicherry and eyes us benevolently over his cup of tea. He is reminiscing about the early days when, as Secretary General of the Deutsche Welthungerhilfe, he was asked to give money for an irrigation project to a place called Auroville. “Nobody had heard about it, so I wrote to the German Consul-General in Madras who replied that there was something vague going on near Pondicherry . The opportunity to visit the place arose in 1971, when I had to visit Madras for another project. I had arranged that a certain Mr. Frederick Schulze-Buxloh from Auroville would meet me at some function there. He walked into the room like ‘Jung-Siegfried', as we say in German, [young Siegfried, the muscular impetuous hero of the mediaeval Nibelungen saga, eds.] handsome, smiling broadly, and very convincing in his attitude. When the function was over we took a car and drove down to Pondicherry , a trip which went via Chenglepet and Maduranthakan and took a good 4 hours. While driving Frederick told me that I was lucky, as it was The Mother's birthday that day. I thought he referred to his own mother, but that misunderstanding was soon corrected. Frederick delivered a crash course on Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Then he led me straight to Mother's Darshan – even before offering me a cup of tea. Mother was up on the balcony, surveying the crowds below. What I saw was a very old lady with a wonderful charismatic smile, something one couldn't forget. I never did.
“Those days I stayed in the Grand Hotel de l'Europe, some sort of a unique left-over from the former colonial days, which was managed by a certain Monsieur Magry. The hotel was about the only decent place available in Pondicherry , with an excellent kitchen. During the next few days I was shown around in Auroville, but in 1971, there wasn't really all that much to see. I learned about Mother's ideals and her Dream, and I thought to myself that I had become witness to the naïve phase of Auroville. For The Mother had spoken about a community without money, about free education and no need for marriage. Now I have a Jewish background, and consequently I was very skeptical about all that idealism. I thought, ‘Reality will assert itself.' For it is nice to talk about a city without money, and true, at the time there wasn't even money to buy a bus ticket to Madras . And ‘no marriage'? Well, I learned that Auroville had developed its own euphemism for a split-up. ‘He or she has moved into another hut' was the going term at the time.
“But skeptical or not, there was something fascinating about the Dream, the project and the people I met. There was Poppo, who was building a Rs 1,000 house. We later sponsored a little booklet about this, which is still available in the Visitor's Centre. There was Lisa, who had just established AuroCreation, a unit producing wonderful, embroidered children-wear and kimonos. I still own one and regard it as some sort of ‘antique treasure', a memory of my younger years. Another rising star was Joss from Pitchandikulam with his fantastic environment work. His dream to convert a desert-like plain into a lush forest has become a reality. All the people I met were idealistic and very persuasive. Yet, my organization was not ready to start helping Auroville. I felt that we could not help build some sort of Disneyland without looking after the nearby villages, which were in a really miserable state. In fact, we realized that the only possible way to help Auroville was to focus on the development of those villages, with a spin-off effect for Auroville.
“My Board of Directors accepted the idea. This was also helped by the fact that the philosophical departments of the universities of Bonn and Heidelberg gave a positive judgment about Sri Aurobindo's philosophy. The most outspoken proponent was Professor Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who stated that Sri Aurobindo was probably one of the last great philosophers who in his conceptual thinking combined East and West. That, and the fact that a few people on the Board were India aficionados, gave me the freedom to act.
“So we created the Tamil Fund for Rural Development. This was easier said than done as Navajata, who was acting on behalf of the Sri Aurobindo Society, wished to have a large finger in the pie. The resulting statutes were full of sentences such as ‘The Board of Directors will decide, unless The Mother decides otherwise.' This was OK with me. I went, guided by Dyuman, to The Mother to get Her blessings for these statutes, but during that visit She did not express great interest. It was 1972; She was already very much withdrawn, but I felt that She gave the Tamil Fund a benevolent nod. That evening during dinner we talked about the statutes. I mentioned that I had no objection to Mother being the ultimate decider, but would have an objection to giving such power to Navajata. And I asked what would happen if The Mother … At that moment, Shyama, Frederick's partner, put down her eating utensils and said with great force, ‘Bernd, do you want to suggest that Mother is going to pass away?' This led to a long and rather painful discussion. Nobody wanted to accept that possibility.
“But the Tamil Fund started. One of its first projects was to supply drinking water to Fraternity.We also sponsored one of Auroville's first windmills and a project to build a lime kiln nearby Forecomers. Over the years we did quite a number of projects. Reforestation was also part of it, though my German Board members predicted that Auroville's approach in planting mixed species would be a failure. German reforestation at that time was in the Prussian style – line after straight line of – preferably – pine trees. After 5 years the Board had to admit that it worked, and that Auroville's micro-climate had changed. It was one of the first big successes of Auroville.
We also gave funds to start small handicraft units in Fraternity – which were built with asbestos roofs, then an accepted building material – and supported Lisa's AuroCreation through our Third World Shops, which marketed the products all over Germany . At the time Indian products had the reputation of being rather shoddy. Lisa was aware of our requirement that her products needed to be colour fast. She had in her workshop about 200 jars of water each with a different coloured thread. She bought the threads in Hyderabad , and was testing them for their color fastness. The DW-Shop, by the way, is till today one of the major customers of some of Auroville's garment industries.”
Over the years, the role of the Tamil Fund gradually lessened. Today its role has been taken over by other units such as Auroville's Village Action. Bernd's involvement with Auroville diminished as he became Secretary General of EuronAid, a European NGO consortium, which is active in food aid and food security programmes, particularly in Africa . “In between 1971-1991 I visited Auroville at least once a year, but in the period 1991-2001, I was only twice in India .” He sometimes regrets not having built a house in Auroville. “At the time, I had no money, and when I had money, I had no time. But now that I am retired I visit every year to see old friends but above all, to sit quietly at the Samadhi – one of the two places in the world where I experience real peace – the other one is the Western Wall in Jerusalem.”
Asked for his impressions of Auroville today, he isn't exactly full of praise. “There are a lot of interesting people around, but the Aurovilians must not forget the main goal of Mother's Dream for Auroville: creating something new in the world. My dear friend Dyuman talked about this topic with me many times. At present I experience quite a lot of human weaknesses here like anywhere else. I don't expect to meet a community of saints, but I would expect more commitment to the spiritual ideals – to The Mother's vision of a new community which eventually could be the base for bringing about a new being. But most probably, it will take more than one or two generations to realize Mother's Dream. Auroville's forecomers are perhaps like Moses in the Bible: allowed to see the Promised Land, but not to enter it.”