In the heart of the green Pitchandikulam Forest is nestled the Woodwork office. In front of the exposed brick walled house stands the welcoming figure of Walter Van Asshe, a woodsmith and a master carpenter. He carries with him the typical energy of an Auroville old timer. He speaks excitedly about the past when he was a young man working alongside Roger Anger, the then chief architect of Auroville, when he started to dig the hole for the Matrimandir and he is equally excited about the present when he gushes about the numerous projects that he is involved in.
He came to Auroville as a young man in the hopes of becoming a physician one day. But early years of Auroville were days of survival and the demands of the time pushed him to learn many other skills, carpentry being one of them. He returned to his country of origin, Belgium, after five years of hardship. He developed his skills as a carpenter there, ran a successful business, worked with NGOs and also began some evening classes where he taught carpentry. During this period he did not forget Auroville. The little township always held a special place in his heart. After thirty six years providence finally smiled upon him and he returned to Auroville.
In his return he worked at the Bamboo Centre for few years before returning to his comfort zone -carpentry. Due to the abundance of waste wood available after the cyclone Thane that wiped out over 50% of green cover in Auroville in 2011, he began developing ways to recycle and upcycle that wood. His repertoire consists of simple products such as cups, bowls and tops to larger household items like doors, chairs, cupboards upcycled from waste wood brought from all over Auroville and also from neighboring cities.
In a world where change seems to be the very fundamental law of life, what drives an individual to dedicate his whole life to a particular work or art? “Why carpentry?” was the next question to him. He replied “Because wood is concentrated sun energy. When you burn a tree down you have only a little bit of ash left on the ground which only represents the material content. Other elements of nature such as water, air and fire constitute a large part of a tree. So when you work with wood, you are actually working with a piece of life.”
In the brief time that we spent with him, we could only imagine how interesting the coming workshops will be. His youthfulness, his positivity will resound with the young participants; his devotion for carpentry will spark a new passion in the hearts of those watching him and his undying love for idea of Auroville may, even in this short period, give a glimpse at the soul of this quaint little township.