When going out to listen to live music in Auroville, Kalabhumi Music Studio quickly comes to mind; but not everyone knows that Kalabhumi is actually the name of a wider community including the film institute Aurofilm, the nearby performing arts theatre CRIPA, and workshops for painting and sculpting. Building a centre for the arts in Auroville has been an adventure in itself, and the journey is ongoing. We spoke with Rolf and Edo about this unique community space in Auroville’s Cultural Zone.
A Space for Culture
With Auroville’s aspirations and ideals, artistic personalities have been drawn to the township ever since its inception. However, the early years were marked by the relentless labour of battling the elements, to transform and restore the soil. With living conditions minimal, it would take time for the infrastructure to come about to allow Aurovilians to express their artistic gifts.
In the 1980’s, Pondicherry was home to an underground music scene involving expats from France, Sri Aurobindo Ashram youth and travelers. At the time, the main practice space for Auroville musicians was a non sound-proofed room at Bharat Nivas. As Auroville life was becoming more established and certain, many began hoping that beyond a spiritual community focused on Sri Aurobindo’s ideas, Auroville could emerge as a cultural centre as well.
Multidisciplinary artist Rolf Lieser was active in Germany’s art scene in the 70’s before coming to Auroville, where he organised cultural events as well as teaching art at Last School. He remembers internationally renowned trumpeter Markus Stockhausen coming to Auroville on tour in the 80’s, and sometime in the early 90s, a huge multimedia show organised at the Bharat Nivas auditorium in the week leading up to New Year’s eve.
In that week, artists from different disciplines, such as painters, sculptors, musicians and theatre performers, created an event where stage and audience spaces were reversed – a magnificent light show in a hall filled with sculptures, paintings and upcycled materials, with the audience sitting on stage amidst the installations. One Aurovilian went so far as to compare that performance’s spectacular quality to that of a Pink Floyd concert.
At the time, Auroville already had a designated Cultural Zone, but no clear plans for its development. Having worked for a decade in Auroville’s youth community Ami, and inspired by the kind of interdisciplinary multimedia art expression seen in the Bharat Nivas show, Rolf proposed a centre for the arts in the Cultural Zone, to be called Kalabhumi – meaning “Land of Arts” in both Tamil and Sanskrit.
The layout, approved in 1994 by the Planning and Development group, involved a set of art studios beside the future crown road, with a line of caretaker homes in the back. Rolf soon moved into his new home, and began welcoming other artists while setting up water, phone and electricity infrastructure on this previously uninhabited land.
From a Bunker to a Collective
With a futuristic design in place for a large music studio, excavation work began, but soon came to a halt due to planning considerations. Only a concrete-lined generator room could be completed at the time, which musicians ironically called a ‘bunker’. They decided to pitch in to convert the bunker into a rehearsal room, which thanks to sound proofing designed by “sound wizard” Didier, became a popular space for practising drums, as well as for bands.
Looking at the abandoned excavation pit, Rolf, who had architecture experience, designed a large, open-air amphitheatre requiring only a minimum of bricks for the steps and soil moving. The shape of the hole left behind by the incomplete work turned out to be perfect, and a large amphitheatre was constructed at a cost of no more than 20,000 Rs. ($250) over one week in 1998.
A few years later, the music studio itself with a smaller amphitheatre in the back was funded by Mereville Trust founder and bass player Franco. Almost immediately, the area began hosting full-week art festivals and many concerts, becoming a favourite gathering place for the Auroville community.
Upgrades have been added to Kalabhumi facilities over the years, and as of 2022, discussions are underway for an extra backstage space to store costumes and sound equipment.
A second rehearsal space is in the works to accommodate the growing Kalabhumi Music Collective, now comprising over 40 musicians. This includes those who give classes or are involved in bands. They are active in diverse music genres from rock to blues, jazz, funk, folk music and many others.
Kalabhumi Music Studio
Edo has been playing guitar since age 14, is currently involved with several Auroville bands and responsible for scheduling and activity coordination at Kalabhumi Music Studio. Since August 2017, he has been organising the Kalabhumi Goes Live event, a series of live concerts at the studio itself, and on other Auroville stages such as the Visitor Centre’s Right Path Cafe, Youth Centre and Nowana. On occasion, concerts also take place at Cripa, Bharat Nivas or Unity Pavilion.
“Being an artist, ideally you just want to focus on your practice and on creating.” he says, “Everyone wants music shows, but there is a very demanding and pragmatic sense about managing them.” Organising is a lot of work, and Edo has been on the lookout for people interested in live shows production, including logistics such as setting up a stage.
As is the case outside, most Auroville musicians still have day jobs and other commitments, and only a few are lucky enough to be able to play full time. “We get inspiration from doing different things”, Edo says, “and actually I find it very honourable.” Shows inside Auroville are non-commercial, and budget is a constant pressure.
In South India’s high moisture environment, electronic equipment quickly gets damaged, and a new set of two PA speakers can easily run up to 1.4 Lakh ($1,700). “Who’s paying for that?” Edo asks. “If something breaks, it’s panic. So where do you take it? Especially here in India. Sadly, this type of repair expertise doesn’t exist in Auroville, and we send equipment to Chennai or Pondicherry, and it’s quite challenging. We mapped the places and the people who can do it, and we’re building a network of specialists.”
With a miniscule arts budget, Edo and his team have gotten creative, and are fundraising at the entrance to Kalabhumi Goes Live concerts. They also invite food stalls, which share part of their revenue and feed the musicians and crew who have often been working since morning.
Edo tries to remind people that there is value to the music, and that the space and equipment cost money to maintain. “Outsiders are super aware that a concert may cost 500-600 rupees in Bangalore or Chennai, and they’re happy to give what we ask as a donation.”
Connecting with the World
In addition to Auroville performances, Kalabhumi music collective bands have begun playing commercial shows outside of Auroville. “When we go outside, such as to Pondicherry, we try to get the client to pay for everything, and even to rent equipment there,” says Edo.
“In Auroville, people happily perform with no payment for the spirit of Kalabhumi. But outside, there is negotiation with the client – it comes with conditions. We are growing more professional. It’s great to know that some of these musicians can play and earn a living through this – as some of them are only working on music.”
In recent years, Kalabhumi began increasingly connecting with outside artists who are trying to launch their careers and travelling through India. Edo wants to support them in terms of covering their travel and stay, to make it possible for them to come.
His other dream is to have enough equipment and infrastructure to be able to host visiting musicians with an ‘Introduction to Auroville’ package, which would include recording sessions, a lunch at the Solar Kitchen, a session of Watsu and accommodation at a nice guesthouse.
A Kalabhumi Music Studio live music night at the Visitors Centre BulletProof Funk performing at Kalabhumi Music Studio
“It’s a little challenging because there has always been an impression in Auroville that people should feel honoured to come and play here. Artists from outside are not necessarily aware about Auroville’s environment, and we are trying to find sustainable and immediate solutions so that we can thrive as a cultural activity. We want outside artists to get an idea of what it feels like to be an Aurovilian, to invite them to be a part of this and to weave a network in India, and possibly internationally.
“Culture is the communication, through a medium, of feelings, visions and aspirations that can be very difficult to convey otherwise. A society needs all these expressions, and it’s a wonderful experience to be involved in Kalabhumi Music Studio. There’s so much to it.”