"You'll Always Find Your People": How Auroville Shaped Ahilya Bamroo's Artistic Identity

"You'll Always Find Your People": How Auroville Shaped Ahilya Bamroo's Artistic Identity
Ahilya Bamroo

Ahilya Bamroo is a digital creator who has gained a substantial following for using her unique upbringing in Auroville, her pechant for the dramatic arts and a remarkably blended set of cultural influences to create whimsical, relatable and observant short-form videos and Reels. Her aptitude for cinematography and her ear for music allows her to create content that provides an eye-opening insiders view into the sometimes enigmatic experimental multicultural township of Auroville and the lives and idiosyncrasies of the people who inhabit it.

In a candid, freewheeling interview, Ahilya spoke to Homegrown about her identity, her origin story as a content creator, her larger career aspirations which include both acting and music, and much more!

This possibly sounds a little pretentious but your work is clearly an amalgamation of a number of arts and disciplines and it’s always fascinating to see how it all comes together across everything you create. How would you describe yourself as an artist? Do you like labels or do you see them as restrictive? Could tell us about how you got started as a creator?

So, how would I describe myself as an artist? 

As a person, I think I was given the immense privilege of being able to explore and try out a variety of different mediums when it came to art — visual art, performative arts, music, dance, painting, and pottery throughout my life hugely credited to the places that I grew up which are Pondicherry and Auroville,  respectively and of course, parents that allowed me to kind of try so many different things out. I think the main essence of why it was important and how it shaped me as an artist was that there was no, so to say, pressure on having to see something through till I became a master at it. And so this exploration of these different art forms matched my interest level and motivation levels and love for the medium. 

So if I ever got bored or felt like I wanted to do something different, I was able to kind of leave that and try out something new. This style doesn’t work for everyone but for me as a person it worked out well because I was able to get a broad overview of so many different kinds of ways to express myself. And so now, that reflects in my art because I do not just want to do one type of thing. I would like to be able to express myself through many mediums because people, I think, intrinsically have so many facets and are such kind of multidisciplinary people. I mean we all have such different interests and capabilities, you know? Our selves are so different. So I guess my art is a reflection of that. Do I like labels? I don’t hate labels. I don’t think labels make me feel, “Oh god! I’m being restricted”, but I guess I would like people to just like be open to changing their label about me if that makes sense; to not stick to a label for me. You can label me but then if I do something completely different, then I’d like you to also be like, “Okay I’m gonna label you differently.”

How did I get started as a creator? Just for the heck of it. It was really just for fun. I was tinkering around with vlogging because reels had just launched in India and I found it to be such an easy medium. So I was tinkering around with doing a little bit of filmmaking, and talking about Auroville, and making some jokes because pretty much what I do anyway with my friend and it just kind of turned into something that I saw there was an appreciation for and so I decided to chase that kind of spark that I had creatively with this type of creating and then I decided to go through it, but it was just happenstance; it was for fun. I never really expected it to be something that I would feel like a job and it still doesn’t feel like a job so I feel very grateful about that.

You’ve probably gotten this question a lot but could you talk a little about Auroville and how it’s shaped you, both as a person and an artist? Do you think you’d be the same if you’d grown up anywhere else in the world? What are some peculiarities or idiosyncrasies of Auroville and its people that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world?

A lot of people have a lot of questions about Auroville and it is a very interesting, kind of unique place. I think a lot of people have criticisms about it as well, which is absolutely fair, because every place has its pros and its cons. There are many pillars to what makes Auroville, Auroville. There's obviously a spiritual philosophy, the pillar, because its founders are both spiritual gurus, so there's that aspect to it and there’s also an aspect of what has come to be a sustainable understanding of Auroville that’s kinda like this hub for like green practices and we have really cool organic and reafforestation programs and stuff. And there’s also the pillar that we are trying to be international and that we are trying to create a sense of ‘human unity’ amongst people and equality which is an extremely hard task and the fourth one is experimentation. So Auroville on Wikipedia is called an experimental town. So what does it mean? It means that in every aspect, we’re still trying things out. We’re still trying to work different ways of how to live as a society to achieve our goals which come under the idea of ‘human unity’.

These are big words and this is a very broad understanding of what it is but that’s essentially it. There are a lot of ways in which we succeed and a lot of ways in which we really fail. But as of total, I would say, how Auroville shaped me as a person was that I came to Auroville with the idea that I wanted freedom in my education and my life and that is exactly what I got. I got so much freedom to just discover different aspects of myself. There are people who are willing to teach me things for free and just for the sake of it which is a very beautiful thing I think, which I later on realised doesn’t really happen in the rest of the world. You have to pay for everything. And again this is a huge privilege and I want to acknowledge that. But Auroville has shaped me as a person in the way II want to keep trying things out. I don’t think there’s one way of anything. I also think that you are not idealistic for dreaming of a better, new world and I think those are the kind of essential pillars of my belief system and I’d rather be super optimistic than absolutely pessimistic. 

What was the other question though? Some peculiarities. I think I wouldn’t be the same if I grew up in Mumbai. If I’d grown up in Mumbai, I would be different obviously. There are certain aspects of Auroville life that are just so unique to the place. I’m really happy that I have a connection with nature; that I get to be living in what is a forest and man-made at that which is quite crazy and I’m also happy to have like a spiritual aspect to my life and I say spiritual, I don’t mean religious because I believe them to be two different things. But yeah quite happy about that. I can’t really explain it you’d have to come to Auroville to experience its idiosyncrasies. I think everyone is pretty kookie. You’d have to be a different kind of person to want to come and live in Auroville. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s something else.

Your ear and your selection of music are what really catches our attention when it comes to the more cinematic reels and videos you’ve created. Could you talk about your relationship with music and whether you see yourself diving into the art more as your career progresses? How do you go about curating songs that fit a certain atmosphere, mood or emotion? Is it something you put a lot of thought into beforehand or do you just go with the flow? Who are some artists you look up to personally, for musical inspiration or otherwise? 

I’ve always loved music since I was a kid. My grandfather was a playback singer for Hindi movies and so I've just grown up with music around my life. Both my parents really love music as well so I think I’ve always been singing and kind of setting my life to music if that makes sense because I’m always singing while I’m living my day and doing little activities and so it seemed very obvious that a big part of the world I like to create visually is very tied to the sound of it all and its always because I think when I watch any kind of film, what I really connect to most is that atmospheric feeling. It’s the music along with the silences and the expressions that really create that whole feeling for me so that's what I wanted to create in a very bite-sized small version. So music is very important for me when I’m creating content.

I like to pick my song first and then I edit it according to it. So I film anyway by myself not thinking about the song but I will then sit along with the song and edit according to that if that makes sense because I think very musically about my videos so it really goes to the beat of the music and I feel like that kinda editing style is my favourite if that makes sense and there was another question actually. So the artists I look up to for musical inspiration are definitely Bon Iver I think is an absolute genius and I like this band called Hailaker its comprised of Jemima Coulter and Ed Tullet and I feel like their production style is really attuned to what I love. My music taste is extremely eclectic I think I have a playlist on Spotify that if you go through you'll be like what is going on here? There are a lot of different inspirations and styles but if I really had to boil it down, it would be Bon Iver I think who is my biggest inspiration.

You come from a fairly blended mix of cultures and influences as a result of your upbringing but the reality of India is most people do find a certain sense of belonging with a defined group of people, for better or worse. Do you ever feel a sense of… perhaps alienation is too strong of a word, but a sense of stark difference when you’re in other parts of the country or do you find yourself fitting in regardless of where you are as a result of your early years? How do you personally define your identity and how has your identity changed as you’ve gotten older?

Identity for me is kinda constantly evolving. Since I was born in Mumbai and my mom grew up in Mumbai, there is a connection. A lot of my family lives there, so there is that aspect that still ties me to a kind of metropolitan Indian life but still allows me to be very distant from it. Then you look at growing up in Pondicherry which is a small little quaint town in Tamil Nadu where no one speaks Hindi.  I was in an Ashram school where we were learning French and English and Bengali because those were the three languages we were taught there and again you have this mix of cultures going on but at the same time you don't feel like that connected to other sides because you're growing up in a small town and kinda like in a bubble. Then I moved to Auroville which is an even stranger, unique community feeling which has about 3,000 residents from 42 different countries approximately. So identity has always been something that was constantly shifting throughout my life, especially in terms of how I see my own identity. It's still evolving. The values of Auroville kind of set you up to see things this way. I wouldn't say someone from Auroville doesn't manage to fit in when they're in other places; that's not necessarily true, but there's a sense of home and that home feeling is coming from a very unique context. So it's not like home is like a big city. Home is an experimental township based on spiritual philosophy and alternative economy and education, so it is very unique in that sense.

Sometimes I feel like I've missed out on one or the other, if that makes sense. What I mean by that is I don't necessarily feel like I grew up in a very traditional Indian setting but at the same time it's not like I grew up internationally either. I grew up around people that were very international, but I myself wasn't foreign. But I was still living in India and at the same time not really being like other kids that grew up in India because they had such different lives to me. So it was a bit different but I don't think it's too much of a barrier. I still feel very comfortable and still feel very Indian in my cultural identity. However, you can feel the contrasts sometimes when I speak about certain things I believe in, my experiences and what I hold near and dear to my heart but like with everything you find your people everywhere and it doesn't matter where you are. You'll always find your people.

How do you reconcile the value system that Auroville stands for and inculcates in its residents with the fast-paced, mile-a-minute, hustle culture world that you’re finding yourself becoming a bigger and bigger part of? How do you find a balance between the two? Do you think the Auroville model is something that could be expanded nationwide or even worldwide?

So the value system that Auroville was founded on, a lot of people think it's idealistic and very utopic; which cannot always be grounded in the absolute reality of the world that we live in today, however, that's kind of one of the things I love most about Auroville — that it is indeed idealistic. Compared to the rest of the world I feel like the value system that is kinda created here can be found everywhere. There are people that are sick of the status quo, who want to do something different with their lives;  living in a community, sharing resources, doing something other than being another cog in the big wheel; I don't know if that's a saying. They want to do something different. So I think you can find those kinds of people everywhere, as I mentioned before. However, competitiveness and hustle culture isn't something that has been taught to me. It has been something that I have had to learn a little bit more recently. But I think it also gives me an edge because, and again I'd like to emphasise that this is because of my privilege and my upbringing and the opportunities that I was given; I don't feel the pressure to succeed in the traditional way; to have a great successful career, make a lot of money, buy a house and then retire. So that's not the trajectory that I see for my own life. And so, I find that my love for my work, my joy and my ability to kind of not be so focused on success allows me to offer something maybe new to the table. Without sounding too ignorant about, you know, the realities of this world where you do have to work, and people are trying to pay rent and all of that. So, I don't want to be speaking out of turn if that makes sense.

How do you see your craft evolving in the next few years? Would you prefer to focus on a particular niche or are you looking to expand your horizons into as many areas as possible? Now’s your chance for a cheeky plug haha. What can we look forward to seeing from you in the next few months? 

I think it will keep changing. Here are some of the things I’m interested in. I think a lot of people see me as a content creator first and foremost, but before that, I was always actually a singer and an actor and then I was a writer for a while as well where I was doing different things. I think I always saw myself as doing some kind of social work. But now, through everything that’s happened in the last two years in terms of content creation becoming more important in my life, I’ve had access to opportunities to actually bring acting and performance to (pun intended) the centre stage of my life. So I’m an actor at the moment and that’s something I’m working on and maybe you’ll be able to see something in the coming months and years, so that’s one thing but I also would love to make music and I think that’s something I’d also like to put time into. Also, I would love to write for film or television. Either write a show or be a part of a group of writers to create a story because I love storytelling. If you were to really condense what my Instagram is about, it’s about storytelling so that’s something I’d like to do more of in the future and use different mediums because Instagram is amazing but it is limited so I’d like something a little more long-form maybe; something live or even a show. But there’s a lot in store and I’m looking forward to all of it. 

You can follow Ahilya's adventures here.

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