History of the Ashram Playground by Kittu Reddy

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, many devotees and disciples of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo requested them to admit their children to the Ashram as a measure of safety. This is what the Mother says:  

“At the beginning, we were very, very, very strict…. So long as one keeps all the ties, which bind one to life, you understand, which make you a slave of the ordinary life, how can you belong only to the Divine? … We had tried to create an atmosphere where only one thing counted, the divine life.

“But as I said, you know, little by little, it has changed. …That was the gift of the war! When people found out that Pondicherry was the safest place on earth, naturally… when they came with a flock of babies, and asked if they could find shelter, as they could not be sent back, well! That’s how it happened, not otherwise.” 

Thus, from the early 40’s, children began coming to the Ashram. By the year 1943 the number of children was quite large — almost 40 had already joined — and quite naturally these children and young men needed some kind of sporting activities. Besides these students, there were a few young men and women in their twenties who were already in the Ashram as sadhaks and were working in the different departments. Since there was as yet no organisation, these young inmates of the Ashram used to play in different houses of the Ashram or sometimes in the open spaces in the town; one of these houses was Dara’s house, the house where Chimanbhai Patel stayed afterwards. In the narrow courtyard — a bare 6 meters by 25 meters — they played regular football games with 8 to 10 players on each side. Another place often frequented was the open space in front of the Gandhi statue on the sea front and in the Park.

It became evident that an organized form of education would have to be started and accordingly a school was opened on the 2nd of December 1943.


In our Ashram we have found it necessary to establish a school for the education of the children of the resident sadhaks teaching upon familiar lines though with certain modifications and taking as part and an important part of their development an intensive physical training which has given form to the sports and athletics practiced by the Jeunesse Sportive of the Ashram.

In the admission of an activity such as sports and physical exercises into the life of the Ashram it is evident that the methods and the first objects to be attained must belong to what we have called the lower end of the being. Originally they have been introduced for the physical education and the bodily development of the children of the Ashram School and these are too young for a strictly spiritual aim or practice to enter into their activities and it is not certain that any number of them will enter the spiritual life when they are of an age to choose what shall be the direction of the future. The object must be the training of the body and the development of certain parts of mind and character so far as this can be done by or in connection with this training.  

List of children

K.G.: Lucy, Jhumur, Chum, Kalu, Bhai, Gauri, Bubu.

Class A: Ashok Kumar Roy, Barin, Dilip Patel, Harit Kumar, Lumiere, Mridula, Pratip, Ramakrishna (Kittu), Tanima, Dhanavanti Nagda, Prabir. 

Class B: Apurba Roy, Debdas (Mona), Kamal Kumar, Kumud, Ranajit (Runu), Samarendra (Gama), Navin Chandra, Vinay Kumar (Kucku), Kusum Nagda, Bonolata Sarkar.

Class C: Sumitra Nahar, Ashok Ganguli, Arun Kumar, Chhobi, Jayvir A, Amita, Aster, Suprabha Nahar, Bikash, Ashok Patel, Debkumar (Debu) Bhattacharya and Abhay Singh Nahar.

However, once the school was opened in 1943, a small playground was acquired and the beginnings of an organisation were started. A committee was set up to organise the sports activities — the first members of the committee were Benjamin, Shantida, Nirmalda and Dayakar; at a very early stage Chitradi [Chitra Sen] was also made a member of the committee; she is thus the oldest active member of the physical education in the Ashram. There were no clear functions assigned to the members of the committee but in general Benjamin used to deal with the affairs connected with the Government and the local matters while Shantida was in charge of the girls and Nirmalda looked after the boys. A few months later Vishnuji was also called to help. The games played were football, basketball, volleyball and certain athletics items like high jump, long jump and pole vault. A game, which the Mother introduced, was Croquet, popularly played in France and Sumitradi was given the charge of that game; Mother herself taught some of the organisers the game in the corridor on the first floor. 

The space was small and there was no money to buy any equipment; in order to procure even a basketball, money had to be got from contributions from sadhaks. Also there used to be frequent clashes among the members. 

A tentative programme was put up to the Mother for her approval in order to avoid clashes in the playground. (Letter dated 4-6-45). 

Things did not improve very much, so a proposal was made to the Mother to form a committee of four persons to look after the problems.

For some time, Puraniji was also helping in the running of the playground; he sometimes found it difficult to manage the children and on one occasion he gave a good beating to one of the children who was indulging in some mischief. Generally, he was teaching the children combatives and other exercises in the Indian style, items like lakri patta, lezime drills, dunds and baithaks

In June 1945 a month after his joining the Ashram, Pranabda was requested by some young boys to organise the playground activities. He wrote to the Mother and made certain proposals, which Mother gladly accepted. In July 1945 (9th of July) it was proposed to the Mother that Pranabda be made a member of the committee to assist Nirmalda in handling the boys; he was already training the children and it was written in the letter that the children were very happy with the training. Within a few months — on the 27th of September — he organised a demonstration of physical education with fourteen boys; the items in the demonstration included drills, kathi dances and pyramid formations. Mother heard the reports of the demonstration with great interest and expressed her happiness to Pranabda and she also wanted to know what was meant by pyramids; since at that time, there were no photographers and cameras, Jayantilalda was requested to make some drawings of pyramids to show them to the Mother. 

The committee was still functioning and Pranabda was a member of the committee but it became clear that the Mother was leaving the whole functioning to him as is seen by the note  to Shantida. It was also at this time that the first constitution of the JSA was drafted by Pranabda and was translated by Pavitrada into French and approved by the Mother. The JSA was the original name of the Ashram sporting youth — Jeunesse Sportif de l’Ashram.  Later it was changed to JSASA — Jeunesse Sportif de l’Ashram  de Sri Aurobindo — and since then it has remained so.

It was in the year 1945 that the first demonstration of physical education was held on 2nd December in the playground. Mother received reports that the demonstration was a great success and she told Pranabda that she would come to see the next demonstration. And accordingly, she came for the first time to the playground on the 2nd of December 1946. That was the beginning of the Mother’s active participation and involvement in the sports activities of the Ashram.  

A few interesting tidbits of those days — 1944 to 1946 — which will illustrate the condition of the organisation. The size of the basketball court was the full length of the playground, that is to say almost 60 metres. For a few days at the beginning it was the practice that every time a player received a ball he had to lift up one of his feet off the ground in order to avoid making a step.  This was learnt from the Pondicherry Police. Much later, sometime in 1947 the Mother witnessed for the first time a game of basketball in the town played in this fashion and she called it “jeu de diable”. 

There used to be frequent clashes among those who wanted to play football and croquet in the playground and the matter had often to be referred to the Mother; similarly, the football and basketball games were often very rough and here too the Mother had to attend to the many complaints that she received from the committee. Now and then, basketball and volleyball matches were held and the names of the players were sent to the Mother.

Competitions were held for some items like Athletics and Novelty races like slow cycling and pillow fights; in order to give prizes to the winners funds had to be collected from the disciples with the Mother’s approval. The first competition was organised and financed by Dr Agarwal. Prizes included cards signed by the Mother and even cups and medals were given. The first prizes were distributed by the Mother herself in the Meditation Hall staircase.

At the same time, football games were being organised with local teams; our football team used to play matches at the Military Ground and at the Cercle Sportif Ground mainly, beside playing with some other teams, like the Rodier Mills. 

In all these activities, the Mother was involved through the reports of the committee as well as through personal contact with the individuals. She had not yet started going to the playfields and was not directly involved, but kept a constant watch on all the developments. This may be considered as the first phase in the development of physical education in the Ashram.  

Another interesting event during the year 1945 was the participation by the Ashram boys in the July 13th route march all around the town; Pondicherry was at that time under the French and  the administration used to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution by route marches by all the sports clubs  of the  town. Our boys were accompanied by a mini-band, a base drum played by Birenda and a kettle drum played by Hridayda. In a sense, it was the beginning of the Ashram band. 

Almost immediately after the demonstration in September 1945 the organisation began to take shape. The younger children also wanted to participate in the activities and so two groups were formed — the older boys and the younger boys. Birenda was given charge of the older boys and Pranabda took charge of the younger ones. Soon the girls requested the Mother that they too wanted to take part in the sports activities organised by Pranabda and thus a girls group (there were 32 of them) was started. At the beginning, the girls used to wear salwar and kameez; later they changed to pyjamas and finally to the dress that in now put on — shirts, shorts and the kitty cap.

The route march was repeated in 1946 and this time according to the Mother’s wish, the girls too participated;  they were dressed in pyjama and jacket. A notable point was that it was the first time that the flags of the J.S.A.S.A. were used and the standard bearers were Abhaysingh and Lumiere.

By 1946, the number of children in the school had increased considerably; the equipment was quite inadequate and the space also was not enough; neither was there any literature or books to serve as a guide for the organisation. It was at this time that Pranabda suggested to the Mother that he could get admission in a  physical education college to get some training so that he could build a really sound and good organisation. The Mother said that there was no need to go out and that he could learn everything here itself; she added that a day would come when this would become a very good institution and that all would praise it very highly. However  to start, she said that he could suggest the names of two books every month which she would procure for him and in this way he could learn all that was needed. This was the start of the library of Physical Education. 

It was on the 2nd December 1946 that the Mother first came to the playground to see the demonstration of Physical Education. That was the beginning of her direct and active participation in the sports activities. She began to visit the playground now and then at regular intervals. 

Some time in 1946,— 24th April — the Volley ball ground was acquired, it was given to us by the French Government — and soon volleyball became a very popular game among the young men; a local tournament was organised by the Ashram on this ground and the Mother came and witnessed the final match in  1947.

In 1946, cricket was also introduced and the games were played in the Saravane ground; Norman Dowsett who had just come generally coached the younger players and there was a lot of enthusiasm for the game.

The Mother was taking a lot of interest in the sports activities; she had begun to go out and see some of the football matches played by the Ashram team at the Military ground and the Saravane ground. When the Mohan Bagan team came to Pondicherry in April 1947 and played against the state team, she went to see the match and even remarked that if football was played in the way they played it, then it was a beautiful game. Some time later the Mother even went to Cuddalore to see a football match.  

It  was  after the 2nd December 1946 that the  Mother  began coming to the playground a little more often; each time she  came Pranabda used to show her one of the items that were being practised  like  marching,  drills and other  activities. She began playing with the children and on one occasion she played a tune on the harmonium and taught the children to sing.

The equipment was quite inadequate and it was becoming difficult to manage; so Birenda was sent to Madras to purchase some material; these included a vaulting box, a wall pulley, a punching ball, and some mattresses. Some equipment like the parallel bar and the dund woods was also made in the Harpagon Workshop by Udar; they are still in use today. Since then many more items — the barbells and dumbbells were made at Harpagon and are still being used today. At a later stage, since Pondicherry was a free port some equipment was brought from foreign countries they included the parallel bar, the pommelled horse and the vaulting box among other things. 

In the early days we had no facilities to hold any competitions among ourselves for games like football and cricket;  in fact both  football and cricket were  played on outside grounds; the younger boys would be taken in files of two running or cycling to the Military Ground on Sunday morning at around 6a.m, sometimes with Pranabda and sometimes with Kashinathda. All this organisation of games and matches on local grounds and with local teams was looked after by Benjamin. The Mother was kept informed on a daily basis and she took a detailed interest; she was very particular even about the maintenance and use of the cycles by the children. 

The Mother took a lot of interest in the matches that the Ashram team played; she insisted that these games be played with concentration and seriousness and she was particular that on the day of the match the players should gather themselves and not indulge in any kind of loose and frivolous talk or activity. 

One day, Amiyoda asked Mother if he could buy a table for playing table-tennis at home with his brothers and friends; and the Mother replied : “Why at home, why not at Nanteuil, then  I too  can play table-tennis”. And that is how, the Mother started playing table-tennis and thus begins the active phase of her personal involvement in the sports activities. That was also the beginning of the introduction of table-tennis in the Ashram — more  tables were made and put in Fenetres and Michele and later at Nanteuil another table was added. 

In August 1947 some unfortunate incidents and events took place. On the 14th of August, on the eve of India’s independence there was an attack on the Ashram which resulted in the death of one of the inmates — Mulshankar, who was attending personally on Sri Aurobindo. The Mother’s flag — the spiritual flag of India — was hoisted on the Ashram building but was later removed because of the attack. It was then decided that this flag would be used for the Marchpast in the playground and that the Mother would take the salute. 

She usually came  to the playground in  the  evening at around 5.00 pm and sometimes gave interviews to sadhaks; she also started taking classes with 4 or 5 students once or twice a week; some youngsters used to play tennis — practising on the wall — in the  playground.  The Mother also began some practise on the wall in the playground.

In 1948 the Tennis ground was acquired; at that time that area was one of the dumping grounds for the Pondicherry Municipality and was probably one of the dirtiest spots in the town. It was given to us on a lease of thirty years and it was cleaned up and levelled and two clay courts for tennis were set up in the early months of 1948. Mother started playing tennis first on the 2nd court and on May 12th she played for the first time on the 1st court which was a concrete court. She played the first game with Manoranjanda — it was his birthday — who had worked very hard to prepare the courts. Since then she played all her tennis on the 1st court. Pranabda was her partner as long as she played tennis. 

Once the tennis ground was acquired, the physical education programme rapidly changed and was enlarged. The basketball courts and the boxing ring and the wrestling pit were added and provision was made to practise athletics also. Competitions were held in the tennis ground— athletics and games in the tennis ground and gymnastics in the playground. The running items — 100 metres to 1500 metres races — were held on the beach road in the morning;  the finish line was just in front of the northern gate of the  tennis ground and the timekeepers had to accompany the  runners on cycle. The field items — jumps and throws were held in the afternoon and the Mother would be present to see them all. She noted down the performance of all the participants in a notebook and would often speak and encourage the children and even the older sadhaks who also participated in these competitions. The competitions in the Tennis ground were held from the year 1949.

It was at this time that the group organisation was given a firm shape; there were five groups A,B,C,D and E; it was also the beginning of the group uniform with different colours for the groups. The uniforms were given by the Mother and all the groups addressed a prayer to Her and she replied to each of them. 

On 24th April 1948, — the Darshan day — all the groups filed in front of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo before the actual Darshan began. The marchpast was led by the standard bearers —   Abhaysingh and Lumiere. The groups assembled in formation outside the Ashram main building and then filed past; they went first through the meditation hall and the staircase, then turned right to enter the Darshan room, tete droite (eyes right) in front of Mother and Sri Aurobindo, then after going through the adjoining room came down the staircase. Pranabda would be standing in one corner of the room and softly giving the marching orders — un deux, un deux —as the members filed past. The whole thing lasted three to four minutes. Later Mother told Pranabda that Sri Aurobindo was very happy and was amused and quite impressed.  The march past was repeated in 1949 and 1950 on the 24th of April. 

When it was decided to hold the March past in 1948, many of the older sadhaks also wanted to participate and joined the physical education activities. They requested Pranabda to give them some training in marching as they wanted to put up a good show in front of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. This marching became very popular with the older group and they wanted to continue with  it; since only marching would have been  boring  the exercises were added and in this way the ‘gymnastic marching’ was started. Pranabda wrote the orders in English and the Mother translated them into French. 

In 1949 the Mother decided to start a quarterly periodical as the official organ of the Physical Education. It was to be issued on the four Darshan days and the first issue of the Bulletin came out on February 21st 1949. The first article was written by Sri Aurobindo himself and he contributed one article regularly till November 1950. 

This marks a distinct turning point in the aims of the Physical Education; the stress on the spiritual role of Physical Education became evident. Through the writings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo the ideals of increasing the consciousness in the body and of its ultimate transformation became more and more prominent. 

In the year 1945, we participated in the route march and we hired a base drum and a kettle drum and these were played by Birenda and Hridayda respectively. This was repeated in the year 1946 and 1947 also. We did not participate in any more marches after that; but in the year 1949 the Military band played in the playground for the 2nd December programme.

There was a lot of enthusiasm among the youngsters and seeing that some devotees from Calcutta decided to send some instruments — a few drums and bugles and some flutes; we already had some bagpipes. A gentleman by the name of Paul also came and taught our boys how to play them. In July 1950, the Ashram band played for the first time in the Tennis Ground for the March past as the Mother took the salute for the opening of the Athletics competition. 

Later in the same year, instruments for the Brass band were purchased from France. Monsieur Selvanadin, who had just retired from the Military band was made the bandmaster; the practice used to  be  held in the Cycle House — just behind Golconde — and  the first  performance  of the Brass Band was given  in  February 1951, first for the March past in the playground  and then  the concert played  in front of the Mother. Later in the year the Sports Ground was acquired and the band quarters were shifted there.

In the year 1954, the present quarters were built and since then the band has been playing there. 

From the year 1946, — with the children taking part in a vigourous and intensive physical education programme — it was felt that the children were not getting adequate nutrition and so arrangements were made to supplement their diet with some nutritious food. In the evening, Ravindraji would come to the playground and serve to all the children sometimes bread with butter or condensed milk and sometimes coconut with jaggery. At a later stage roasted groundnut was distributed. From 1948, the Mother herself distributed groundnuts to all the members of the different groups. At one time she distributed groundnuts in small bags; later the Mother would ask each individual how much he wanted and the reply would be either plein, moitie, or peu and the Mother gave accordingly.

Soon the arrangements for the children’s tiffin was given a more organised shape; bread, butter and eggs were given to the children at 4.00 pm in the playground. Later, a permanent arrangement was made by the acquisition of the Corner House.

The Corner House was started in 1967 for giving children the nutrition that they needed at that growing age and suitable for the vigourous activities of the physical education. The Mother suggested that the children should be given eggs and dal everyday and meat or fish once a week.

In the year 1949 the Pondicherry Athletics Championship Competition was held. It was held under the auspices of the Comite d’Education Physique at the Military Ground. The Ashram athletes participated and though we had not sufficient training our athletes performed well. We scored the second highest aggregate in points after the Military team. We did not do very well in the running items, but we had impressive successes in the jump and the throw events. In the 110 metres hurdles, the pole vault and the javelin we established new records.

October 18th is Pranabda’s birthday and it used to be celebrated every year with enthusiasm; programmes used to be held in the playground and the Mother used to be present on  all these occasions and she would distribute sweets to all present. On one such occasion, in the year 1951 the children made a map of India with flowers and leaves. It was a map of truncated India and the Mother liked the idea of the map very much but she said that it should have been the map of a united India. Accordingly she herself drew the map of united India on the wall in the playground and called it the spiritual map of India. And since then she has been taking the salute for the marchpast standing in front of the map. The Mother remarked that while drawing the map she saw in the  northern  part — in Kashmir — a beautiful lion  guarding the nation and she said that it  was the guardian angel of India. 

After acquiring the Tennis ground, the basketball and volleyball tournaments were being held regularly; but there was no chance of playing football and cricket as we had no ground of our own. In early 1951 a plot of land was acquired and it was decided to convert that into a football and cricket ground with a cinder track.  The sadhaks and the children of the Ashram themselves worked on it and on the 1st of July 1951 the cinder track was opened by the Mother. The first athletics competition in the Sports Ground was also held in that year.

A few months later in the beginning of 1952 the football ground was opened.

On February 21st of the same year the wrestling pit was opened and on the 24th of April the weight lifting section was opened. Some time later the Asanas section was opened.

All athletics competitions and the games of football and cricket were held in the Sports Ground from the year 1952. 

Fencing was introduced in 1953 by Mr Repiton. 

Softball was introduced in 1955 by an American Michael. 

It was decided to build a swimming pool sometime in 1954 and this was opened in 1957 on February 21st. 

In 1958 December the Mother stopped playing tennis and coming to the playground. She used to visit only on the Darshan days and on the 1st and 2nd December and on the Christmas day. She used to take the salute on these days for the Marchpast. In April 1962 the Mother stopped coming down and messages were sent by her for the opening of the competitions and the 2nd December programmes. 


About the Author: Kittu Reddy was born in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh on 2nd July 1936 to Narayan and Meenakshi Reddy. He is the nephew of Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the former President of India. At the young age of five in 1941 he was brought to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, by his father who was an eminent member of the Swaraj party formed by Chittaranjan Das. He has lived there ever since. He had all his education at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education from where he graduated. He has been teaching at the same Centre since 1958. His subjects today are: The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity (all books of Sri Aurobindo), Political Science, Social Science and History. Since 1987, he has been giving talks to the Indian Army on Indian culture, the Mission of India and Motivation and Leadership. In 1994, General BC Joshi, the then Chief of Army Staff, appointed him Adviser to the Army Welfare Education Society. Since then he has been in close touch with the Indian Army and has conducted workshops for the Indian Army, Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. These workshops deal with Motivation, Leadership and the Indian nation. They have been held both in Pondicherry at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and at training centres of the Armed Forces. He is the author of the following books: A Vision of United India: Problems and Solutions, Kargil: A Manifestation of a Deeper Problem and The History of India: A New Approach.


6 Replies to “History of the Ashram Playground by Kittu Reddy

  1. Dear Anurag – Thank you for publishing a fascinating account of the history of the playground as seen and felt by dear Kittu – da – He is eminently qualified to write this kind of creative history – He possesses a photographic memory and has recreated marvellously all that which has happened during this golden era – we are made to feel as if we were the witness of these lovely life changing events –
    Kittu – da writes with deep historical perspective and accompanying precious insight -🌹🙏🌹

  2. My cousin sister, late Swapna Lahiri, had seen the Mother playing lawn tennis, when she had visited the Ashram in early ’50s.
    Nice article about the Ashram playground by respected Kittu Reddy.
    Thanks for sharing, Anurag.

  3. Multi-million thanks for the brief life-sketch of great spiritual Souls…
    My Pranaams to those Souls…
    ॐ आनन्दमयि, चैतन्यमयि, सत्यमयि, परमें …. !!!

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