From A Desert To A Fantastical Forest

A group of people gather in India to bring life back to a once deserted and, healing themselves in the process.

“The jungle is a womb. The air in the tropics is like warm honey,viscous, sticky, filling the ears until the sounds of the outside world are far away. People come from all over the world, people for whom ordinary life isn’t enough anymore,” says Stockholm-based photographer Néha Hirve.

Hirve spent two months documenting Sadhana Forest, an off-the-grid community of about a hundred people in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India.

Once thick with trees, European colonists razed the region’s dry tropical forests to build cities throughout the 18 -20 centuries, leading to desert-like conditions. In 2003, Sadhana Forest—the smaller community based within Auroville, which was founded in the 1960s—was established by an Israeli man named Aviram who arrived with a mission to take care of the land through reforestation. Since 2015 more than 30,000 trees have been planted by volunteers from across the globe. And, as Hirve discovered while creating her series Full Shade / Half Sun, the forest gives back, too. “A lot of them have personal things they’re trying to work out,” she says.

Bernard and his parter have successfully regenerated eight acres of eroded land since 1994 with almost no external input such as hired labour, or imported soil or organic matter.

Hirve, who first read about Auroville while researching her masters thesis at Mid Sweden University, traveled to India in 2017.

A city person with a self-proclaimed trouble slowing down, she was compelled to match the quiet pace of the community and, for the first time, trust the process of photographing in the present, rather than fixate on the end result. She was surprised how quickly she adapted to alternative lifestyles like living offline and eating a vegan diet. Once, when the solar power was low, Hirve blended chutney for 40 people by pedaling a bicycle with a tiny blender attached to its gears.

Hirve participated in the community, did what they do. She helped cook, clean, reforest, which was very useful instead of just taking pictures.

Full Shade / Half Sun aims to introduce the relatively unknown story of Auroville and Sadhana Forest to the world, and urge people to think about lifestyles that are more in touch with the land.

“With all these environmental changes happening on the planet,” she says, “there’s a need for alternative solutions.” Hirve is a winner of the inaugural Women Photograph + ONA grant for her project Full Shade / Half Sun.

Reports National Geographic