Photograph by Néha Hirve
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Beth—subjects asked to be identified by first name only—poses for a picture after a swim in the mud pool at Sadhana forest. The mud from the pool is often used as a beauty pack or as a soothing agent from the hot sun.
Photograph by Néha Hirve

This Eclectic Community Transformed a Desert into a Fantastical Forest

Living offline and off-the-grid, these people gather in India to bring life back to a once deserted land, 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.”

These are the words of Stockholm-based photographer Néha Hirve, who 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 18th-20th 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.

“Being in this simple environment that is connected to the land gives them space to work through whatever they’re going through.”

Slowing Down

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

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.

“It took a while, like an hour and a half, you have to do very small batches,” she says with amusement.

Adds Hirve, “I participated in the community, did what they do, helped cook, clean, reforest, which was very useful. They saw me as more of one of their own rather than a photographer who came in from the outside.”

Natural Solutions

One of many “fantastical and magical” moments captured while Hirve was working shows a man kneeling on the ground, his head in a hole where a tree will be planted.

The shade and pattern of his clothing match the tones and arrangement of the vegetation around him––a “metaphor of the forest becoming an envelope to protect the people from the outside world,” says Hirve.

The project had its challenges––at one point temperatures got so high that Hirve began to worry about her film. Without a refrigerator in Sadhana Forest, Hirve traveled to a nearby village and stored it at an ice cream shop.

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.”

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Lise at sunset

Hirve is a winner of the inaugural Women Photograph + ONA grant for her project Full Shade / Half Sun. Follow her on Instagram.

Follow Sarah Stacke on Instagram.