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FEATURES/Work in Progress | Sep 9, 2009 | 16825 views

Commerce In a cocoon

Spirituality, environmentalism and business blend in an international commune in South India
Commerce In a cocoon
Image: M Lakshmanan for Forbes India
WORK IS FUN: Acoustics consultancy firm Sound Wizard's Dider Weiss with a colleague outside the Auroville office

F

ear overwhelmed Kenji Matsumoto. Alone at sea, in his sailing boat, off the coast of Japan, he thought his time was up. The ocean was having a mood swing, taunting him to try and escape as the waves rose higher; the sky grimaced, turning an ugly shade of grey and the wooden deck of his boat crackled and splintered. The Pacific tossed the boat around like an excited child as Matsumoto felt a chill creep up his spine. And then something happened. He felt calm, part of the dancing sea, the angry winds and the bawling heavens. The Grim Reaper slunk away. His body, the boat, the sea and the storm became one.

That was many years ago and thousands of miles away. Matsumoto had more adventures on his sailing boat. Once tossed off in Australian shores, he set down to repair his boat and discovered his love for wood. He went back to Japan, learnt carpentry, met an Italian lady and got married. But he always craved for the feeling of that night, when he was one with the elements. He found it in Auroville, a spiritual commune south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. He is one with the elements in his workshop, working on wood.

Matsumoto’s approach to furniture is not that of a typical carpenter’s. He looks at a piece of wood, meditates on it and the wood responds to him. “The wood tells me what it wants to become,” he says.
Imported Japanese machines blend with old traditions to shape the wood. Every piece is unique.

Matsumoto’s Japanese Furniture is just one of the 120 commercial units in Auroville. They are all small — employing about 5,000 people from nearby villages — but their impact is being felt much beyond the green belt around this model town. Most of these businesses are more an expression of the founder’s inner-self rather than a lust for a billion-dollar market. Many are expressions of a concern for the environment.

Compressed earth block (CEB) presses from Aureka’s were used to rebuild thousands of homes in Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake and in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. The next time at a party, someone boasts of wearing a pair of organic jeans, check the label. It’ll probably read Colors of Nature. Architecture, electronics, clothing, jewelry, books and renewable energy; you find everything in Auroville.

Hotbed of Creativity
They call themselves Aurovilleans. They are creative and are not afraid to experiment.

WEAVING DREAMS: Israeli Danny Merguel of Wellpaper in his workshop
Image: M Lakshmanan for Forbes India
WEAVING DREAMS: Israeli Danny Merguel of Wellpaper in his workshop
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“You will hear a hundred different things about Auroville, but there is something that everyone would agree with. Auroville is a hotbed of creativity,” says Danny Merguel, an Aurovillean.

Auroville was created in 1968. It was born from the vision of Mirra Alfassa, born to a Turkish father and Egyptian mother, who came to India in 1914 and became the spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian nationalist, philosopher and poet, in Pondicherry (now Puducherry). ‘Mother’ Mirra Alfassa expressed her vision so: “There should be somewhere upon earth a place that no nation could claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings of good will, sincere in their aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, obeying one single authority, that of the supreme truth.” And Auroville is indeed a melting pot that attracts people from all over the world.

An Israeli, Merguel was going back home with his wife, Orly, and their three children after working as a chartered accountant at auditing firm KPMG in New York. They decided to spend a year in Auroville. Two months after they landed here, the tsunami struck. The families it shattered, the homes it destroyed, the lives it took gave the Merguels a new purpose. Orly Merguel used to train people in papier mache and crafts back in Israel. The Merguels set up Wellpaper, trained 60 people and exported handicrafts. Danny Merguel, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt like most Aurovilleans, says the business is picking up. Ethnic apparel chain Fabindia just agreed to sell a few of its products. “And that’s great,” he says.

The Merguels have been here for the last five years. Others like Robert Trunz have been here since the mid-70s. After his schooling in Switzerland, Trunz wanted to travel.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 11 September, 2009
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Comments (2)
Nagapat Sep 26, 2009
Really cool. Very interesting!!
B V S Prathap Sep 15, 2009
That's cool discovery. Interesting Read and good conclusion. Looks like the way to go Ramnath!!
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