Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Art in Auroville

Current issue Archive copies Auroville Adventure June - July 01 Art in Auroville - by the AVToday editors "It is in the service of spirituality that art reaches its highest expression" (Sri Aurobindo)
Art has played a role in community life from the very beginning. Auroville, for many old timers, was not just a desert to be afforested, but also a play of light and space and austere beauty, a place of magic and creativity, a cradle, in Mother's words, for the creation of a new world. Ever since, many Aurovilians have been inspired to evoke this new world and to explore themselves through the medium of art. Efforts to promote the arts, however, were for a long time retarded by the need to first deal with the rudimentary requirements of subsistence. As late as 1988, Auroville was still regarded by some as a cultural desert.
Auroville has come a long way since. At present, many Aurovilians are involved in one or more art forms. A multitude of expressions in dance, visual arts, poetry, music, theatre, and sculpture, enhanced by the rich interaction of eastern and western cultures, have become a normal part of the daily life. More than sixty Aurovilians are pursuing the arts either on a full-time or part-time basis. Kalamitra (Friends of the Arts) formed by a group of Aurovilians to stimulate cultural life in Auroville by promoting a wide range of events and workshops has brought many top artists over the years to perform in Auroville. More recently there have been two initiatives - Khala Koj and the Visiting Artists Residency project - which aim to bring artists from all over the world to Auroville for brief or extended periods of time and to promote artist exchange programmes. To this purpose Kala Khoj has become affiliate member of the international 'Res Artis' network which is represented in over one hundred and twenty countries .These positive developments notwithstanding, resident artists often complain about the almost complete lack of community support. The Maintenance Fund, struggling as it does to provide a minimum maintenance to those working for community services, has hardly any artists on its maintenance lists. Neither is there a support system to help artists to sell their works.
What, then, attracts many artists to Auroville, or, as is often the case, turns Aurovilians into artists? For the majority, the vision of Sri Aurobindo and Mother is the most powerful inspiration - the vision of a new world based upon a new consciousness. In fact, many Auroville artists view their work of artistic creation as a vehicle of their yoga. Mother spoke of an ideal place where the exigencies of existence would be removed in order to allow the individual the freedom to discover him or herself, and this is another important factor. As one artist puts it, "One of the greatest things that happened to me was finding this place and environment where I can spend time and space to search for the inner self, in my case through the arts." Another attraction is the sheer diversity of cultures and individuals represented here which, through the cross-fertilization of ideas and perspectives, creates a ferment of creativity. And Auroville also offers the possibility of continually reinventing oneself, of taking up new ideas and activities without having to conform to social or 'professional' norms.
On a more prosaic level, for a community of 1500 people there are a surprising number of venues at which artists can perform or present their work. Visual artists can exhibit at the Savitri Bhavan, the Centre for Indian Culture, at Pitanga Hall, the Information Centre, or at the Solar Kitchen. Musicians and other performers can use the open-air stage at the Visitors' Center, the large auditorium at Bharat Nivas, the dance room in Pitanga Hall, or the recently opened music salon Salle Auropax.On the flipside, Auroville artists have to deal with a number of discouraging factors. There are, of course, climatic factors which play havoc with musical instruments and other sophisticated or sensitive equipment and materials. Then again exhibitions, while frequent, are not always well-attended. Additionally, few Aurovilians have the means to act as patrons or supporters of the arts through purchasing or commissioning new work, although a few commercial units have commissioned public art. Consequently, full-time artists have to market their work outside Auroville in order to survive, a job for which most artists are badly equipped. Some Auroville artists also resent the fact that their work only gains public recognition when it is used to promote Auroville at a public relations event or for fund-raising efforts.Another problem is the fact that only a small number of outstanding artists or aficionados of the arts reside here - after all, artistically we are still a very young and undeveloped culture. For artists like musicians, it is hard to achieve greater perfection or explore new territory without regularly playing with other musicians of high calibre. For visual artists it may be difficult to see things in new ways if one is not able to challenge one's own thinking through seeing the works and conversing with numerous others.One possibility is for them to draw upon the experience of the many visiting artists who come to Auroville for brief or extended periods of time. They often regard Auroville as a kind of paradise and are eager to share with other artists and to impart specialised skills.
It would be wrong to blame all the disincentives to artistic creation on the community at large: the artists themselves must also take some responsibility. Indian art in all its forms has wonderful potential for expanding one's artistic horizons, yet this source remains largely unexplored by Auroville artists. Again, it is quite common in artist communities and centres of the arts elsewhere for artists to come together frequently to discuss and critique each other's work in a spirit of artistic collaboration. Yet here such forums hardly exist. Another criticism of the arts produced in Auroville is that many artists are reproducing Western definitions of "high art". In this concept art is seen as separate from the mundane world, to be viewed in galleries, or heard in auditoria. The commitment to this orientation explains why so few artists have experimented, for example, with the use of everyday materials or performances that break with the tradition of the proscenium stage.
An Auroville culture?
Is a distinct Aurovilian culture or form of artistic expression emerging, something different from what is happening elsewhere? The majority of Auroville artists are cautious about making any such statement, pointing out that a specific culture may take many years to evolve. However, there are at least two indications that something specifically 'Aurovilian' in artistic expression may be in the first stages of birth. Firstly, Auroville artists who exhibit or perform together outside Auroville are often seen by outsiders to be expressing something 'different' from the norm. Secondly, there is increasing evidence, particularly in the realm of music, that Auroville artists are no longer merely drawing upon existing material or trends but are increasingly experimenting with new forms.This raises the question of what Aurovilians expect from the community's artists. A few years ago when Beckett's play Waiting for Godot was staged, some members of the theatre going audience expressed disapproval, stating that the play was inherently irrelevant to life here. A similar verdict was pronounced on a performance of Japanese butoh dance a few years later. The suggestion is that only certain subjects are appropriate to be worked on and viewed in Auroville - presumably those which can somehow be described as 'spiritual' art. But how do you define 'spiritual' art? The more one thinks about it, the more impossible it becomes, for almost any form of expression can be a means of evoking or exploring the subtler realms in the hands of an inspired artist.
Though there are many concrete and mental stumbling blocks to artistic creation in Auroville, there is a definite sense of the tremendous potential this place has for the creative process, and there is little question that the overall quality of artistic work is steadily improving. With the diverse population and beautiful environment, one may expect that Auroville will not only attract many fine artists, but produce more and more of them itself so that, together, they will make of the city and its greenbelt one gigantic work of art.
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