As a Fulbright scholar I will spent 5 months in India – based at Srishti Institute of Art, Design + Technology. As part of my “Engaged Media” project, I will explore India-specific sustainability initiatives + the art/media methods used to convey them.
“Do you like my India?”
The woman who asked me with a bright smile seemed to have taken pity on me after I got yelled at profusely for a cultural misstep on my first day in India. Admiring the large Tamil temple in Chennai I had pointed my camera towards the interior of the main temple. I was too jet-lagged and un-nerved to think of a more beautiful reply and just said something like “I will find out – it is my first day”. I later wished I had said that SHE made my day beautiful. (Chennai, December 11, 2019)
Bangalore Initiation Rites
Day 2 in India brought be to the sheltered grounds of a charming if aging resort in Velahanka, the north of Bangalore near Srishti art school, my academic base as a Fulbright-Nehru scholar.
The next day I met Arzu who introduced me to a large number of faculty, all very welcoming and curious about my project. When Arzu left for her ‘Art in Transit’ project in the city, I settled into my desk + started to figure out who to turn to for the many arrival logistics from housing to FRRO (foreigner) registration + Indian SIM card. Well – to make a long story short: hurdles all around. But in hindsight, they all got solved (maybe I indulge in a long “getting an Indian SIM story”. Well, since I can only move into my guest apartment room on Jan 6, I decided to spend the time looking at sustainability projects (+ breath fresh air, listen to birds, eat organic food) at Auroville, the experimental, spiritual community near the coast.
But first things first: I attended the Srishti “Radical City” conference Dean Pithamber had invited me to. I enjoyed 2 days of varying urban theories, political + philosophical voices on re-evaluating a livable and sustainable city. The conference was back-to-back with the final exhibits and student projects of the Nov-Dec intensive workshops. Among the excellent exhibits was a First Year Master’s exploration of a Bangalore neighborhood with conceptual explorations of sustainability improvements. On Sunday I was surprised to find so many Srishti faculty and staff visiting the “Art in Transit” projects in several subway stations. My new colleague Manjani took me under her wings and offered me a ride into the city (a trying 1 hour stop+go, lane-weaving (what lane??) odyssey to cover a mere 23 km on pollution+ car choked throughways. (Well, this was my 3rd time in the city – Twice before I met Arzu to see her work-in-progress, try for a SIM + explore her own leafy neighborhood)
Well, the journey was worth it. Of the many projects I want to just mention the largest, Arzu’s (+ her teams’s) mural on a rediscovery of ancient water-conservation well techniques – all built from local mud (in distinct colors) with engaging graphic + typographic overlays. Find a better description here. (Bangalore December 12-22)
Auroville, international tropical-eco-spiritual enclave
After the exhibits, the university closes for a holiday recess + I am happy to use these 2 weeks in Auroville for an inquiry to the many experimental initiatives planned and/or practiced in this ca 50-year old egalitarian living experiment. So here I am, 1 week into my stay typing away with internet that comes and goes, among other guests that come and go – the majority from India, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, USA, China. I am surprised that I meet people of all ages from toddlers to a young 80-year old.
I am registering posters and campaigns to conserve water, recycle, compost scraps. There is almost zero single-use plastic here, no red meat (many vegans), no alcohol or smoking. The one sore spot is car and motorcycle traffic. Only a small portion on electricity. (PS: no pictures, no Instagram you ask? well, with my Auroville internet coming + going, it can take 5 minutes to upload a 300k photo. I’ll be adding some when I am back to ‘regular internet’ at Srishti. >> that is now!)
One of my best experiences so far was a 1/2 day visit to Sadhana forest. https://sadhanaforest.org/. A community of residents and volunteers lives at the ca 16-year old reforestation project. They reverted a near desert to a lush forest, mainly with native plants + were able to raise the water level by about 6 meters. All live a complete circular economy, eating vegan, composting all waste (including human), building palm-thatched houses of local material. Apart from biological concerns they practice a gifting economy and non-hierarchical respect for all creatures. I am not sure how scalable this project is – but even urban dwellers can implement many of the parts. Is our human survival not worth a ‘little inconvenience’? If that little ‘Inconvenience’ quickly becomes quite a normal habit, then we are ready for more steps.
My wish to all who read this is such an inconvenient but fulfilling 2020!
(December 29, 2019, Auroville)
Auroville Sustainability project selection
I spent the 2 weeks collecting + researching some of Auroville’s Sustainability Projects:
More on Sadhana forest – It was started by the Israeli family of Yorit Rozin, The 8 min Doc tells the history FROM MY LITTLE HUT IN THE FOREST ,2018, Link: https://youtu.be/G5OE5RFNvs0, URL: https://sadhanaforest.org/
I participated in a harvesting workshop that resulted in making our own lunch. Krishna, originally from GB started the farm 24 years ago. The farm mixes wild and planted greens. We picked + collected about 30 farmed + wild plants and made them into a smoothy, a salad, + chutney. The farm uses no pesticides, produces no waste (all scraps get composted). They run an open-air lunch restaurant + sell about 80-100 single daily meal plates with choices of self-made juices and drinks. https://www.auroville.org/contents/2897
more in this short doc: EAT LOCAL WEEK AT SOLITUDE FARM AUROVILLE , 6 min
“As an experiment, they only ate what was locally grown, three meals a day, for one week, under the guidance of Krishna, the founder of Solitude Farm in Auroville. Watch and discover all that is locally grown in Auroville and the health benefits and delicious recipes they learned. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpF3GtewiMU
PS: at the workshop I met Tom, a Biochemist-engineer from Yorkshire, who came with his wife, a Yoga teacher, by land on a ca 2-month journey. They travelled through the tunnel to France, on to Moscow, with the Transsib Mongolia and Tibet by train, by road to Nepal + India, and again by train south to Auroville
I looked up several architectural initiatives:
Other than traditional palm-thatched housing, much of contemporary architecture in Auroville is built by local architecture studios or experiments using sustainable methods. The early modernist architecture from the 70-ies – in a “pre-sustainable” era were typical concrete-heavy constructions.
Much of the housing is nor privately owned but by the Auroville community. Rents are determined on a sliding scale. Utilities used to be cheap but paid by residents but then electricity was made available free.
When talking to Adil Writer, an internationally known sculptor, potter + architect who founded ‘Mandala Pottery’ (https://www.mandalapottery.com/) about 2 decades ago he made me aware of this problematic decision. While he had installed solar panels on his roof for all his household + some of the firing kiln needs, many of the formerly energy conscious residents resorted to replacing fans with AC and other energy-hungry appliances. So unfortunately, despite a general awareness, the wrong behavior was incentivized.
The Suhasini Ayer owned firm ‘Auroville Design’ has built the light and airy Auroville Library with multiple sustainable considerations and a design that relays on ventilation rather than electric cooling. https://www.aurovilledesign.com/pdfs/auroville-library/ And across the street they are in the process of building an apartment complex: Humanscapes. https://www.aurovilledesign.com/pdfs/humanscapes/
The Auroville Earth Institute, down a red earthen road is a non-profit Resource Centre for Asia of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen Architecture, Constructive Cultures and Sustainable Development”.
They have built residential and community buildings, teach workshops and assembled an exhibition room with building samples and photographs of their 30 years of work. Bound copies of a dozen case studies are available for a low copy fee (under 700 rupees or $10) + include concept, photos, blueprints. http://www.earth-auroville.com/
The ecological housing project of architect Manu Gopalan and his team of educators, biologists, masons, interns are building ‘Sacred Groves’ a 3-part prototype built with mud bricks, rainwater harvesting, solar panels, use of palm wood etc. The project serves as a hands-on workshop for architecture students and volunteers who live on the site in dorms and a perma-culture garden/kitchen. In addition, some experimental small student 1-room houses are under constructions. Two girls with a wheelbarrow passed us.
Their dorm on stilts with a tent-shapes thatched roof included a humming bird nest they were preserving. The small solar lamp I gave her will get her a dorm light at night. http://sacredgroves.in/
Comment: Bill, a young German architect I met, observed that the different initiatives do not seem to benefit from each others experience as much as they could. Some at ‘Sacred Groves’ did not seem to be aware of the Earth Institute’s materials – are their building materials different – is competition a factor?
This concludes my Auroville experience. It so happens that next week is the Auroville Film fest. I hesitated but decided not to delay my project + lose my flight, so I copy and paste excerpts of sustainability related films/shorts next (+ plan to watch the trailers/movies over the next weekend)
I end with two images of a timeless India before I go back to modern Bangalore.
(January 5, 2020)
2 weeks in Malleshwaram + with Srishti colleagues + fellow fellows
After exploring Sampige street with markets and small stores down to ‘Green Path’, an organic store + lunch place, I am surprised to find a ‘SPAR’ supermarket in the Mantri mall (+ subway station). Packed with household basics + groceries I start many days of meetings at Srishti.
Manjari introduces me to faculty teaching sustainability-related design courses (many!!) + I decide on giving 2 “Master classes” (lectures). A skype with Arzu gives me valuable literature + people references – but our February workshop is in flux + I may join her March project instead (meaning I have to replan my travel > see below, it all works out). One thing I have learned is to be flexible with my planning + trust it will all fall into place. A new insight for an organizer like me.
A weekend insert:
Sat Jan 11: 8am (YES, a sacrifice!) ‘Bengaluru by foot’ city walk in the old ‘Pete’ town: The most impressive part was the walk through the old alleys and silk factory streets that I would never see or dare to walk into: we went to a silk wash + dye factory – 2 rooms, steamy, wet, dark with 2 men each wrestling large batches of silk thread in + out of concrete basins. Then we continued to another 2-room factory tightly packed with 4 electric looms. The concrete walls reverberated in a deafening metal racket. It made me appreciate the difficult labor going into the gorgeous silks.
I continued with one of the participants, a Berlin student, via Botanical garden to MTR for a lunch of endless plate refills, and ended on Church Street at the Bangalore ‘Strand NYC’ equivalent, the 3-story Blossoms. Got some books on Bangalore + water (Discovering Bengaluru by Meera Iyer, Nature in the City by Harini Nagendra). On the way we peeked into St. Marks church for an amazing smell fresh wedding flowers!
Sun, 12 – Arzu made me aware of a water-exhibit (‘Submerge’ – by Smithsonian plus select artists) and talk at the new Science Gallery (https://bengaluru.sciencegallery.com/) – with Dr. Nagendra, the author of the book above. I meet her, along with Meetu, a marketing writer for an eco startup developing ‘at-home’ water test kits. I meet Meetu next Saturday at the Museum of Modern Art to continue our conversation. I ended Saturday with a reference to smell + will do so again: the beautifully designed and ecologically conscious gallery sits next to a heavily polluted canal. I had to hold my breath to photograph and record it.
Mo, 13 – Th 16 January: meeting with Manjari on other classes + with Srivi, (Srisrividhiya Kalyanasundaram) who heads several UG and PostG programs and is writing her PhD on how visuals can translate sustainable issues. To that end she is rethinking the curriculum philosophy centered around the question: “Who is the person coming out of our programs + what do they stand for?” Among clusters are experiential projects on Embodied Practice to foster a relationship with nature. Geetha Narayanan the founding director encourages innovative and interdisciplinary ecologically responsible practice. To learn more, I spend the next day in the library- and Srivi introduces me to a number of colleagues who I meet that week. Just a sampling here: ecological economy; law, environment + planning; social justice; public space design, urban planning. Faculty come from such diverse backgrounds as art, design, psychology, communications, biology, film, media studies.
>Gururaja is a Biology researcher, teaching the value of animals (specifically frogs) in their habitat and brings urban students and communities together to foster a relationship with nature to motivate its protection.
> Keya, an environmental geographer brings students to rural communities and then maps the resulting data and insights.
> Rustam, Dean of Projects, is a political ecology writer + we have an animated discussion with tips for Delhi NGO’s he worked for.
> Mahesh, a photographer and documentary filmmaker takes students to grasslands and to explore impactful visual ecological storytelling.
I am collecting so much valuable information on sustainability initiatives in + out of Srishti – and all colleagues are extremely welcoming + share their history with me. The public bus gets me to + from Srishti + I am happy to reduce my heavy Uber/Ola car carbon footprint.
Wednesday (Harvest Holiday) Jan 15 – I had emailed all Bangalore Fulbright-Nehru scholars + six of us meet at Koshy’s before Sebastian (left) returns to the US in 2 days. Sammi (right), who works on Women’s Empowerment at a Bangalore NGO invites me to come with her to the Barefoot college near Jaipur (combined with the Lit fest there that 8 other Fulbrighters attend). I am intrigued, since I was interested in the ‘Solar village women engineers’ but did not have a contact there. Some inquiries – ok – I’ll go + am excited! Cutting this blog short bc I have to work through the weekend to move up all my January deadlines + prepare for the first lecture (Monday) on ‘Outsourcing Culture’.
All is good! Jaipur next!
(not so quick > Have to let you know of a surprise visitor, a monkey made it up our sheer wall and onto the kitchen table. Took off with my banana and nut bowl (no photo + the window is now closed as I am writing on my laptop all day… now taking a break with the NY Times..) . Jan 21.