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A utopia between the East and the West


Matrimandir: The 'soul' and the architectural icon of Auroville. Photograph by Dharmik Thakkar, 2018.

'Utopian town in India, built on a dream,' read a headline in the New York Times in the 1970s, spreading the word about Auroville, a settlement in southeast India in Tamil Nadu.[1] Auroville was founded as a utopian experiment in 1965 by Mirra Alfassa to further the religious and social principles of Sri Aurobindo, the settlement's social motto is 'to be the cradle of a better humanity, united by a common effort towards perfection.'[2]

An air of internationalism pervaded the already previously colonised territory of Pondicherry - with its history painted by past domination from both the British and the French - when people from 124 nations gathered to inaugurate the town. The new utopia was thus an amalgamation of influences from around the world, both past and the then-present through to today.

Early utopianism, originating predominantly from British and French threads - helped create a fictional notion of the 'ideal' East, seen as a spiritual and mystical land. By the 1960s, this Eastern identity was attracting a lot of dissatisfied Westerners, who brought over their lifestyles, experiences and cultural values. The establishment of Auroville in 1968 was one such endeavour, a pluralistic attempt to bring together these two parts of the globe, the ‘East’ and the ‘West’, establishing a new world through collective living. Auroville, in its essence, acted as a bridge linking the West to the East, where attempts were made to bridge spirituality from the latter with science from the former.

The Charter of Auroville declares that:

'Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to Humanity as a whole,' [3]

This illustrates how Auroville is a result of multi-fold influences from the East and the West, of global encounters that have all flowed into this local place.  Such encounters have also left a lasting imprint upon the settlement's built environment and architectural imagery.

Sites of utopia happen to be a critique of the social practices in the society. Yet, Louis Marin states that the utopian discourse itself hides the critical truth of the ideology it represents.[4] He further emphasises the irrelevance of a comparison between the imaginary and realistic constructs of the social and political programs. Instead, they are embedded into the structures of its modes of representations, which need not be harmonious and resolved but rather driven with contradictions in tension yet at play.

This dissertation further attempts to establish relationships between India and the West in regard to the architectural symbolism of Auroville, through an examination of two of its architectural icons – the Matrimandir and the Visitors' Centre. While the former is a temple that is called the ‘Soul of Auroville’, the latter is a functional representation of Auroville’s ideologies and practices. Both are representations of utopian settlement’s ideologies and practices.

Tracing the architectural vocabulary and narrative of both buildings to study the tension between the ‘spectacular’ Matrimandir and the ‘mundane’ Visitors’ centre opens up how their architecture is differently visualized, created, and built. Through each of these structures’ roles within Auroville's utopian vision, the ideological disputes of their makers are apparent – whether in regard to the agency, finance, labour or influences. The built environment thus acts as a visual referent to Auroville's hybrid yet combined idealized vision. These architectural symbols and technological innovations have become the settlement's representational identity today, thereby masking the notion of utopia that was initially envisioned. However, the depictions created by Auroville's iconic architecture, as visual utopic symbols, could be best read as a collage of contradictions. These contradictory characteristics 'neutralize' Auroville's utopia, where they play against one another and this is how, according to Louis Marin’s theory of neutralisation [5], they allow fundamental contradictions to operate in tension against each other.

Yet in Auroville, architecture does not and cannot exist in isolation. Its built environment is a result of social and political influences that act as a catalyst, in turn leading to the formation of more complex social and political formations and power relations at local, national and global scales.[6] In other words, architecture results in the production of social architectures. Thus, this dissertation further explores the impact of Matrimandir and the Visitors' Centre in the ontological formation of Auroville in relation to the neighbouring villages, of wider India and the world.

Looking at the social hierarchy of power, the authoritarian position of the founders, and tension between what is preached and what is practiced in Auroville as well as the division of labour are some of the ontological issues that are examined. The issues of politics and monetary dependencey of the government as well as  international organisations, on both national and global scales, the social relations with the neighbouring villages for labour and employment are all critically studied in relation to Auroville’s charter.

Through studying influencing agents, architectural symbolism and the consequent ontological practices, this dissertation, with Louis Marin's theory of contradiction and neutralisation in utopia as a starting point, aims to locate Auroville's 'utopian' intentions as an Eastern/Western dialectic, and as a part of its reflective social practices. Paradoxically, the argument here is that the individualistic and dialectic translations of the founding ideologies in its built form and social environment are bringing Auroville closer to a 'normal' existence in Indian society and further away from the envisioned utopia that was initially intended.

[1] Kasturi Rangan, Utopian Town in India Built on a Dream. New York Times, October 16, 1971, 8.

[2] Information on Auroville, 1966–74, Note of Information, 1969, Auroville Archives, Auroville, India.

[3] Auroville, “The Auroville Charter: a new vision of power and promise for people choosing another way of life.” (retrieved October 17, 2020).

[4] Louis Marin, Utopics : The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces / Louis Marin ; Translated by Robert A. Vollrath., Contemporary Studies in Philosophy and the Human Sciences (New York: Humanity Books, 1990).

[5] Eugene D Hill, The Place of the Future: Louis Marin and His Utopiques, Science-Fiction Studies vol.9, no. 2 (1982), 167.

[6] Kim Dover, Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form, (London: Routledge, 1999).

Copyright of image: © Dharmik Thakkar, reproduced with owner's permission

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