Tagore inauguration at India House Leuven
Tagore inauguration at India House Leuven

Geert Robberechts, trained as an art historian at the KU Leuven, has been involved in heritage projects in Belgium and India. Since 1997, he is the chairman of the Advisory Council for Culture of the City of Leuven in Belgium. Since 2013, he is heading India House Leuven, a unique institution "to facilitate and promote contacts between India and the Leuven region".

Excepts from a conversation with The Indian Diaspora:


Why was a need was felt to open India House Leuven in Belgium?

A. India House Leuven (IHL) is a collaborative platform between the City of Leuven, the KU Leuven and the Chamber of Commerce of the Province of Flemish-Brabant (of which Leuven is the capital). It is not a physical space (although it holds its office in the 18th century building Romaanse Poort, the former city-hospital). The aim of the IHL is to facilitate and promote contacts between India and the Leuven region in four fields - academic, cultural, social and economic.

The need for this initiative was felt because of more and more separate initiatives with reference to India were taking place in the Leuven region, and it was felt that a central platform would be helpful to streamline these initiatives and to get the most out of it, through collaboration and mutual exchange of experiences. From the Indian side we have close relations with the Indian Embassy in Brussels, but also in India, e.g. with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

The opening of the IHL (5 October 2013) happened during the Belgium-wide Europalia India Festival (Sept 2013-Jan 2014) and amongst the dignitaries were Mr. Mohamed Ridouani, Deputy Mayor of the City of Leuven, Dr. Rik Torfs, Rector of the Leuven University, Dr. Karan Singh, then chairman ICCR.

How has IHL been able to bring India closer to Belgium and its people?

A. Apart from the first big exhibition “Temples, Forts and Palaces. 2000 Years of Indian Architecture” (curator : Dr. Saryu Doshi), in the Europalia India Festival, the IHL regularly stages concerts of Indian music and dance and organises Indian movie screenings. This leads to a regular Indian cultural season in Leuven.

Since its opening what have been the major activities of India House Leuven?

Apart from the above mentioned cultural activities, the following happens on a regular base :

- Academic on actual issues at the KU Leuven

- Yearly Chair at the Department of Modern History, funded by ICCR

- Recruitment missions to attract Indian students

- Organisation of students visits to the Leuven region (e.g. last October, 60 students from the Narsi Moonji Institute of Management Studies

- Presence at the regular economic missions to India from Flanders and Belgium

- A distinctive highlight was when India gifted a bust of Rabindranath Tagore to Leuven for which we organised a special Tagore Day with events in the local city library, screenings of movies and a one day conference on Tagore (in collaboration with the Visva-Bharati University Santinitekan, in the presence of the ambassadors of India and Bangladesh)

How big is the Indian population in Belgium?

A. We have a large population of Indians from Gujarat in Antwerp, thanks to the diamond business, but also a distinctive Punjabi population in Limburg. And the most diverse academic Indian community in and around our biggest universities of Leuven and Ghent. The total amounts to 30,000 plus.

Can one describe India House Leuven as the hub for India-related activities not just restricted to the city but to the whole of Belgium?

A. Yes, indeed. We try to be open to the whole of Belgium. But since we are a small team, our first priority and focus lies with Leuven and the Leuven region. After three years, we can say that IHL has rooted well in the Leuven soil, and it can now start to grow more. More specifically, a special focus is being developed on the Indian Smart Cities Mission because we see that Leuven (and Flanders) as a high tech region that can contribute in several fields to this ambitious programme to the city which has attracted many Indians, especially students to its prestigious University of Leuven.

How long has been your association with India House Leuven and how you have engaged in promoting the Indian culture?

I have been associated with the IHL since the beginning, even before it was officially launched. Indeed, during more than two years a steering group – of which I was a member - has been gathered regularly to define the concept of the IHL. And speaking of the Indian students at the KU Leuven : they come together in the Indian Students Association Leuven (ISAL), a very dynamic organisation the organises its events in close collaboration with the IHL.

You have been a frequent visitor to India? Tell us about your impressions about the country and its people?

Indeed, since 2000, I have been a regular visitor to India, with usually two or three trips of several weeks every year. But how can I speak about “the country and its people” It is such a vast diversity of peoples and cultures. On the other hand, yes, there seems to be a distinct Indianness that unites the whole country. With all its difficulties and challenges, I find that the Indian situation mostly invites dynamism and warm humanity in its people. Take the demonetisation process; everybody has difficulties with it, and still – with the eye fixed on the broader context – everybody complies and makes the best out of it. On such a large scale, such a monetary decision has never been taken nowhere in the world nor in the history. But the result is not revolution, but a dynamic acceptance, in the trust that in a few months the positive results will show. And such a positive attitude (and at the same time a sense of opportunity) one can see on every level.

In my 15 years in India, I have seen already many changes, mostly for the better. But in my experience, many of these changes are just a wiping off some dust of the genuine positive underlying attitude that seems to be part of the Indian character.

You are also actively involved in the Belgian Chapter of INTACH. Tell us about your role?

As you know, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is with its 150+ local chapters everywhere in India the largest heritage NGO in India. In the beginning of the 21st century, a strategy has been put in place to interest the large communities of NRIs abroad in the heritage of their home country, by setting up international chapters.

The Belgian INTACH Chapter has been founded in 2004. I’ve been its convenor from the beginning.

Although INTACH Belgium is active in a consultancy role in collaboration with the local chapters of Aurangabad (MA), J&K/Srinagar, Kodaikanal (TN), Orchha (MP), the major project was from the beginning : The Lost Gardens of Khajuraho (MP): the restoration and rejuvenation of the 18th century royal gardens in Khajuraho and the larger Bundelkhand region. This implies not only research and restoration of the built heritage components of these gardens, but most of all the introduction of sustainable organic farming techniques in these gardens so that they become training centers for the local farmers.

INTACH Belgium collaborates for this project very closely with the Natural Heritage Division of INTACH. It has established a dynamic network of donors in Belgium for the funding of the same. Till date, two gardens have been restored, and negotations for a third are going on.

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Guest How to be a part of the ngo. I am living in antwerp.
Thanks
  • Posted by Guest
  • May 29 2017 7:07AM
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