Community Life / Work

An Accidental Teacher: Chali

Chali grew up in Auroville in the 70s, so she has seen every aspect of education in Auroville over the years – from homeschooling and very basic educational systems in the huts of Aspiration, to our current world where both A-levels and Free Progress schools are an option for Auroville youth. Until very recently, she was one of the executives of SAIIER, the institute that has all the Auroville schools under its wing. What better person to give us an insight into education in Auroville?

The Accidental Teacher

Chali grew up in Auroville and one of the most iconic pictures of the early days is a shot of Chali, around 4 or 5 years old, standing on top of the Auroville urn. Although her family hails from the US, they have been Aurovilians since the very beginning and her father directs the Ohm-choir even today. “I was born in California, but my first memories are of Pondicherry and growing up in Auroville. My parents had come into contact with The Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s writings and teachings before I was born, and my mother had come to Auroville to meet the Mother in the early 60’s. We were here for the Inauguration of Auroville actually, but I was a little baby so I don’t remember it of course. My family decided to move here in 1969. ”

The schooling in Auroville was very basic, if it existed at all. Kids would come together with an adult inspired to share with them – over time, a slightly more structured form of schooling emerged in Aspiration. “I lived in the Matrimandir campus, so Aspiration seemed like it was on the other side of the planet, and so I didn’t go to the school there. I was homeschooled and went to Equals One in Pondicherry, until I was 10, which was when I went to the Kodaikanal School for about 3 years in the late 70’s. Following that I moved back to the States, did my High School and university studies there, and worked there for a few years.  I reached a point where life was fine in the States, but I started to feel more and more that something was missing. So I came back to Auroville for a visit and it quickly became clear to me that this was the next phase in my life, the ‘something’ that I had felt was missing.”

As there was a need for teachers, Chali jumped in. “Ironically enough, teaching isn’t something I ever thought I would do. But it happened because there was need at the time for teachers, even though I had no idea if I would be any good at it.” These days, Chali has stopped teaching and instead works with SAIIER, the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Educational Research, an umbrella entity that has the schools, the libraries, sports, and cultural programs under its wing. They take care of allocating the budget for education, granted by the Government of India, among other tasks and responsibilities. “I’m not directly involved with the teaching aspect anymore, but for the 20 or so years that I was, I was in a constant process of learning how to teach, I had to look at myself all the time, and I appreciated the self-reflection and learning that I went through. Having contact with the curiosity and the energy of the kids was very energising and fulfilling for me. Considering it was something I resisted doing for the first part of my life, it ended up being the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done besides being a parent. Sometimes the Universe knows better than us, than what we think we should be doing.”

Education as a Choice and an Aspiration

Education in Auroville has always been approached more widely than what can be taught in schools, and Chali has been at the forefront of trying to consolidate education and make different options available for the community. For example, seeing the huge potential of the different skills and knowledge present in the community, Chali and Luk worked together to create the Centre for Further Learning. “The initial idea was to create an educational match-making centre where anybody in Auroville who was interested in learning something could approach us, and we would try to find someone in the community who would be willing to teach it. It could be anything, from languages to basket weaving! After a couple of years we realised that we needed to focus our attention, and we were trying to do too much. So one of the things we wanted to focus on was helping teenagers in Auroville to get into study programs that would give them some kind of recognition. At that time, the only high school in Auroville was Last School and it didn’t provide students with any certification or diploma.”

The need for a diploma grew as more and more Auroville youth wanted to be able to go out and enjoy university after their high school years. “It’s not that that should be the goal of learning, but just to provide the kids in Auroville with the option.” Eventually, the British GCE system was adopted and the popularity of this system led to the founding of Future School. With the existence of Future School, some feel that education in Auroville has become more ‘mainstream’, but Chali finds the reality a bit more complex than that: “For one thing, there are still choices within schools and among schools. For example, in Future School you have the option to take exams or not. In contrast, Last School doesn’t offer exams and certification, but it gives you a different approach to education. I think it’s very good that there are these choices, that people can choose what seems to be right for them, for the direction they want to go in life.”

More than that, education in Auroville, whatever specific form it takes, is still imbued with the Auroville ideals. “It’s not just about education, it’s about the society as a whole with all its differences, challenges, options, choices and diversity. And underneath it all, there is this common aspiration or ideal holding everything up and supporting it. And that’s true for education, and that spirit already creates something different. One way to explain this practically is that people who teach here in Auroville aren’t teaching because it’s a job, it’s because there is an outlet for them to offer something specific that is a passion of theirs. And this again reflects the spirit of having an aspiration behind everything you do. It’s also about learning something themselves as teachers. One of the main points in the Charter is that ‘Auroville is a place of unending education’, and that is the general mindset that everybody has.”

Highs and Lows

Chali is very clear about how important it is for her to do this work in Auroville, where education is just one aspect of what she is looking to develop, inside and out. “I feel very grateful to have grown up here in Auroville. I think the schooling is great in general but it’s also about Auroville as a whole, and I think many people will tell you that it’s not just the schools and the places you go but it really is the environment. I’m glad that my own children could also experience that.” 

That does not mean that working and living in Auroville is always so easy. “It means many things, it’s a complicated relationship. It means highs and lows that can be quite extreme, but that are somehow very meaningful on one level and that are a very firm reminder of being alive. We are living for something more than just getting by day to day, although at times, there is that as well. When people in the States would sometimes ask me ‘Why do you stay there?’ I can only say that life in the States was fine, there was nothing terribly bad about it, but here there is this intensity. Auroville does not have much middle ground, which can be exhausting, but it really does make me feel alive. Living in Auroville means to try and live for something beyond oneself, and to believe that despite everything, there is something beautiful and meaningful to look forward to. Someone once said to me that the beauty of Auroville is that despite all the problems, the challenges and everything, we keep waking up in the morning and trying. And that’s something.”

Pictures of Last School © Aswin Ezhumalai
All other pictures © Auroville Archives and Auroville Online Store


  • Nagesha c nagappa
    April 21, 2021 at 10:21 am

    Happy memories.. of Ur life.. thanks for sharing …

  • Maggie Greer
    April 21, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    Love reading this! Thanks, Chali.

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    April 28, 2021 at 5:19 pm

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