Dharmesh came to Auroville in 1992 – he was 24, fresh out of college with a civil engineering degree, looking for inspiration and direction to his life. “I was drawn by the ideals of Auroville and it seemed like a very progressive society,” he says, “and that attracted me the most.” Dharmesh stayed and says he has never regretted the decision. “Though there are many challenges, I am still very happy that I am here.”
The biggest challenge according to Dharmesh is the lack of progressiveness. “In some areas, Auroville is still stuck in the seventies. Take town planning for example,” he says going straight to the point. “If you look around the world, you find plenty of town planners, developers and architects who are thinking much ahead of us – we're not evolving.
“Even our concept of beauty I feel, has stagnated. We have to try to redefine what our aesthetics are; what our concept of development is; and the context we're building in.
“What is presented today in exhibitions all over the world is Auroville in the form of the galaxy. As a concept it is great – but it needs to be adapted. We can't build today what was conceived in 1971 as ‘futuristic'. The times have changed. Now we have to build what is ecologically and energy-wise the best.”
Dharmesh has been a key player in the development of Bharat Nivas, the Pavilion of India. “I see Bharat Nivas as the first point of contact for anyone who wants the feel of Auroville and the International Zone character of Auroville – with Bharat Nivas, the Tibetan Pavilion and the American Pavilion.”
He was the architect responsible for the design of the Athithi Griha guest house at Bharat Nivas. His more recent achievement was the dramatic transformation of the unfinished structure of the restaurant building into Kala Kendra with its Gallery Square Circle, a beautiful and much used space for workshops and exhibitions. Attached to it is the Indus Valley Café, a small restaurant serving primarily North-Indian cuisine. What is unique about it is that is that it is based on a ‘gift-economy' – instead of paying a fixed price, one gives what one wants.
“ India is all about hospitality and generosity,” he explains. “It is this feeling we're trying to bring out at Bharat Nivas – a place where people can come to work (there is free wifi), or hang-out and just feel good. One visitor recently commented how wonderful it was to see a place that fuses materiality with ecology and spirituality.”
Asked if the Indus Valley experiment has been a success, he warms up. “Over the past 20 months, we ran up a deficit of about Rs 40,000 – Rs 50,000. This is peanuts considering the number of meals we've served – it amounts to just 2 to 3 rupees per meal. But the positive feelings this has generated is tremendous.”
Dharmesh is not only certain that the project will continue – he has guarantees from some friendly Auroville units to meet the deficit if required – but feels that it should be extended to all of Auroville. “Imagine the goodwill it will generate in people's hearts! Imagine you go to the Solar Kitchen or any other Auroville restaurant, and no one asks you for money; you pay what you like from your heart. There is no need to be part of any ‘intelligent' schemes that are being devised in Auroville…”
Dharmesh makes another observation – the feeling of deprivation that seems to be quite widespread in the community. “Why are we feeling deprived?” he asks. “Auroville was, of course, never much of a material attraction for most of its residents. Any young professional who wants a lucrative job will look outside. But just look at the kind of peace that we get here, the kind of life we can live here, and the aspiration that is the basis of this place – it's something you can't find elsewhere. The other day I was telling someone how here in Auroville we are living very simple lives but enriched with so much aspiration, creativity, and beauty.
“Auroville whether we realize it or not, is still a magical. I meet a lot of people who in their first year here are totally inspired and into it. So we should be having a feeling of abundance.”
The talk shifts to the limited population growth of Auroville. “That's another major concern – that we don't have enough new people coming in and not enough young people. That has to change. We have to become more welcoming.
“When I came in 1992, I felt very welcome in Auroville. Within 20 days, I had a house in Aspiration. Two months later I was declared a Newcomer. The doors were wide open. But in today's Auroville, practically all our doors are closed. Today it is very hard to become a Newcomer; and if you do manage that, it's very difficult to find a house.” That is why he welcomes the recent decision by some administrative groups to rapidly create 200 houses.
“But everything in Auroville takes so long to decide; we either begin to quarrel or get bogged down in senseless bureaucracy. In any other town, building 200 houses would be considered a minor issue. Here we make it a big deal. It isn't a question of money, it's a question of vision, of entrepreneurship. Some people say “Mother will decide what's best”. But we have to provide at least the basics – Mother is not going to act if we're not really together!”
Life in Auroville, concludes Dharmesh, is about contrasts and contradictions. “Some tend to get depressed because of all these challenges and material difficulties. I still remember what Dr. Karan Singh said in a recent interaction at Bharat Nivas: that Auroville is a collective experiment and that the strength of the collective can make good things happen; but that by the same token, the collective can be undermined by a little negativity.
“I have total faith that Auroville will manifest its power as a collective. I believe our problems will be solved the day we learn to use our true power as a collective.”