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September 2007


Reliving the magic of constructing Matrimandir

- Alan

On August 15th Doris Van Kalker's new film, ‘Building Matrimandir', was shown in Cinema Paradiso. Auroville Today spoke to Doris and to Francis, who assisted her, about the aim of the film and the challenges they encountered in making it.

“I want to emphasise that this is her project, she's done most of the work,” begins Francis. “But,” says Doris , “he knew all the stories behind the construction, as well as whom to address for what. And when it came to editing it was extremely important to have another pair of critical eyes.”

Doris filming on top of the Matrimandir

So now that's been straightened out, how did it all begin? “During my early days in Auroville I was staying in Center Guest House,” recalls Doris . “After lunch we had this coffee club of long-term Aurovilians. Most of the time it was gossip, but once in a while they told these stories about the time they worked on the Matrimandir. And the minute they started talking about it, their voices changed; all of a sudden they were in a totally different mode. This interested me. I began to realize there must be something special about this building.

“Some time later we were doing some filming in the inner chamber. As we were coming down I asked John Harper about the documentation of the ongoing work. Who was the regular Matrimandir videographer? When he told me that nobody had done it for the past ten years, I just couldn't believe it. So I decided there and then to make a video documenting the history of the construction.”

“When Doris announced that we (we!) were going to make a video about the construction of the Matrimandir,” says Francis, “she was totally ignorant of what it would entail. I knew immediately – which is why I kept quiet! But she has this unbelievable obsessiveness. Once she locks onto something, the thoroughness of her focus is amazing. It drives everybody crazy, but she gets what she's after.”

Doris and Francis

“It's a personal thing,” explains Doris . “Once I get into something, I want to start at the beginning and know everything.” Getting to know everything (or almost everything) about the Matrimandir involved, among other things, speaking to numerous Aurovilians, reading every Matrimandir newsletter and delving deep into the Auroville archives for relevant photos and footage. “There was a very nice man there, Thambidorai,” says Francis, “who helped her. And she needed it because basically all the Matrimandir material was just stuff on a shelf. It all had to be organized, categorized. Also, the old films, some of which were in a very bad state, had to be laboriously cleaned and copied on to DVD. Then she took all the old Matrimandir newsletters to Pondy to have them photocopied so she didn't have to work with the flimsy originals.

“We also got a lot of advice from our fellow-Aurovilians about whom we should talk to and what absolutely had to be in the film. And then everybody had their construction stories. The problem is that people's memories are defective, so they kept disagreeing about what had happened, when. Even the Matrimandir newsletters are not much help as they contradict themselves!”

Doris recalls overhearing two Aurovilians disagreeing about what was happening on the Matrimandir the moment Mother passed away in Pondicherry on 17th November, 1973. One said that was the moment the concreting of the beam joining the four pillars was completed. The other one said this was when the top of the final pillar was completed. Finally Alain Grandcolas said he would check in Ruud Lohman's Matrimandir diary: it confirmed that Mother's passing coincided with the completion of the tip of the final pillar. “And that's just one of the stories. We had to check out hundreds of them,” says Francis.

The Matrimandir, to put it mildly, is no stranger to controversy. There have been major personal conflicts and strong disagreements concerning certain aspects of the design. Yet none of this finds its way into the film. Why?

“It was a conscious decision,” says Doris . “Our goal was to give a historical overview of the construction, not to talk about the difficulties. I wanted very much to reunite Aurovilians through this film.” In a small way, this may have begun. When Paulo Tommasi heard that the film was being made, he decided to visit the Matrimandir for the first time since his design for the Matrimandir gardens had been rejected. “I assumed that that had broken his heart,” says Doris . “But the day he revisited, he was very touched: he said everything was so beautiful. That evening he gave me the original hand-drawn design of the Matrimandir he had shown to Mother. ‘You'll know what to do with it', he said.”

Francis recalls how everybody at Matrimandir was very supportive of the project. “I thought this project wouldn't fly because of the protective shield which had developed around Matrimandir over the years. But they were very open. Whenever something important was about to happen, the team leader would phone Doris and tell her to come. Then they would explain what was going to happen and help her up on the scaffolding to get the best view.”

View of the Matrimandir through the base plate of the crane.

“I was overwhelmed by the way the Matrimandir team accepted me,” says Doris . “I'd never done anything like this before, and yet they trusted me. Later I asked Barbara, ‘Why?' She said it was an experiment, but all the time she felt I could do it.”

Even so, when it came to showing a rough -cut of part of the film to the Matrimandir old-timers, Doris was very nervous. “When the showing ended, there was silence in the room. Finally Barbara said, ‘I thought you could do a lot but this is amazing.' In fact, everybody was positive, I couldn't believe it. It was then I knew I was on the right track.

“But it wasn't just the Matrimandir workers. Anybody I asked for something immediately said ‘yes',” says Doris . “Hemant spent weeks making the animations, Giorgio provided photos, Holger supervised the sound recording, Joy felt ‘honoured' when I asked her if we could use her voice on the soundtrack...”

In February this year the still-uncompleted film was shown to the Aurovilians. “When it ended,” recalls Doris , “Savitra invited all those who had worked on the Matrimandir to stand. They stood up, they looked at each other and that special vibration was there. And suddenly, from the others, came this spontaneous applause. Afterwards, people came up and hugged me, they stopped me on the road and thanked me. And that's when I knew that we'd touched them.”

Has making the film changed their perspective upon Matrimandir or Auroville as a whole?

“Watching the old Matrimandir films was very moving,” says Doris . “Those Aurovilians worked so hard with their bare hands, they had such few resources, but in their faces you could see this belief, this joy, this passion to do the work. I wanted to remind them of what they had done and to say thank you. But more than this I wanted to keep that vibration alive, to bring something of that into the Auroville of today. We latecomers need this. You Aurovilians who met Mother or who worked for many years on the Matrimandir experienced something which we don't have. For us to share in something this vibration which the old Aurovilians had has to be kept alive, it has to be fed, nurtured. I got this through the making of the film.”

The lotus pond beneath the Matrimandir with a crystal that receives the ray of sunlight that passes through the Chamber above.

It's been a long trek,” says Francis. “When I first came to Auroville I was convinced that everything, including the city, would be completed in 20 years. Making this film has helped me understand what a struggle it has been for the Matrimandir to be born and how important it is for the Aurovilians that it is there. It's been many years since I worked there and I'd sort of forgotten the significance, the magnitude of the task and the dedication of so many people. The structure itself emanated a vibration – that's why we put in so much time there, the energy was so rejuvenating.

“So when you see the old movies and you see how beautiful the Aurovilians were physically and in their dedication, it's very uplifting. It helps me in today's situation to keep the faith, which is the most difficult thing to do. Because I feel there is slippage; we're becoming institutionalized, bourgeois. With our petty struggles we're getting left behind.

“Working on the Matrimandir helped me keep something that touched me when Mother touched me many years ago. This video revives a distant memory of a feeling which is most sacred to me. It emanates a vibration which I wish we could all carry with us on a more permanent level.”


Matrimandir diary

June 25th 2007.This […] was the day that the very last of the pipe scaffolding was removed from the interior of the Matrimandir. These pipes have occupied the interior space for more than twenty years. First to help support the precast concrete beams of the spherical space frame as it was being built; then as working platforms for many operations, from fixing the outer skin's ferrocement panels, to painting and finishing the two spiral ramps that link the second level to the two chamber doors; and recently to lift and install the more than 700 panels of the inner skin.

The transformation of the interior was very rapid and dramatic in late May and June when the southwest and northwest quarters of the inner skin were completed and the scaffolding removed. By late June, the work on the final quarter, the southeast, had come to a point where scaffolding was no longer needed.

A team of twelve young men undertook the job of removing the pipes – and they did it with gusto – enjoying the last chance to work with the scaffolding. By 2 p.m. that day, all pipes, planks, and clamps were down, lying in the first level of the building. And by 4 p.m. all this material was removed from the inside of the Matrimandir. It then took just four more days to install the lowest three rows of the inner skin panels so that by the last day in June the inner skin of the sphere was complete, revealing a marvellous space that feels light and very peaceful.

It was a wonderful moment, seeing it whole and complete for the very first time.

View from the second level, where the two ramps start their spiral journey up to the Chamber. The appearance of the interior is now one of spaciousness with the white curving lines of the ramps and the second level seen against the glowing orange spherical shell of the inner skin.

An excerpt from the Matrimandir newsletter – August ‘07

The video is on sale at the Visitors Centre.
Price Rs 400.
For more info: francis@auroville.org.in

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