After initial hiccups, Helga Peeters, of Belgium, is establishing an art centre in Jew Town, Kerala
Photos of Helga Peeters by Albin Mathew
By Shevlin Sebastian
Helga Peeters stood in the middle of a 200-year-old warehouse on Bazaar Road in Mattancherry, near Kochi. There were broken bricks all over the floor. When you looked upwards, there were gaps in the tiled roof. But what was making her look worried, on a day in mid-October, was that the workers had played truant. “It will be difficult to meet the deadline of starting this art centre in time for the opening of the Kochi Biennale on December 12,” she says.
Helga breaks into a smile. “That's India for you,” she says. “Everything can go smoothly, one day, but on the next, work can come to a standstill. It's a challenging time for me.”
But, in early November, luck turned for Helga. Following discussions with the owner of a 100-year-old house, at the nearby Jew Town, Helga was able to lease out a 3000 sq. ft. space. About 2250 sq. ft. will be given, temporarily, for three months, for use by the Students' Biennale, while the remaining area will be an art centre.
She got the idea of starting an arts centre when she attended the second edition of the Biennale in 2015. “I felt inspired by the energy and excitement of the art festival,” she says. “It seemed to me that a new wind was blowing through Fort Kochi. And I wanted my guests to experience it first-hand.”
The Antwerp-based Helga runs the travel firm, ‘Anubhuti’ (This is a Sanskrit word which means, 'to feel something that you would like to treasure'). Over the past decade or so, she has brought groups of tourists to different parts of India: Ladakh, Kolkata, Darjeeling, Jaipur, Mumbai and Kochi.
“I am not just taking them from one place to another, but I make them immerse themselves in the local milieu,” says Helga. “To travel through this colourful, complex, beautiful and spiritual country is magical as well as inspiring.”
In Kerala, and especially Fort Kochi, tourists enjoy the European heritage – Portuguese, Dutch and British – as well as the strong tradition of Ayurveda and yoga. “The nature in Kerala is unique,” says Helga. “It is green in Belgium, too, but not so tropical. And our people love the sea.”
The trip is also a moment of self-reflection. “During the visit, my compatriots are able to compare their own lives to what they see in India,” says Helga. “It make them aware that things can be done differently.”
Usually, at the end of the trip, they say they are ready for their next trip to India. And they end up coming five to six times. “And they always tell me it is a real anubhuti,” says Helga, with a smile.
As soon as her art centre gets established, Helga is planning to bring talented and upcoming artistes from Belgium. “It will be such a different experience for them,” says Helga. “But it will be an exciting one, too. Because they will realise that India is like an onion. There are layers upon layers. It is so fascinating. And this is the reason why I also keep coming back. On every trip I learn something new.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)