I taught myself Dutch in Calcutta and came to the Netherlands to study the archives of the Dutch East India Company in the late 1980s. Upon my return to India, I worked at the National Library of India in Calcutta and taught at Vidyasagar University, West-Bengal. While in the Netherlands, I had met Dr. Victor van Bijlert who was then busy with his research on Buddhist epistemology. He kept on visiting India, and later we got married in 1992.
Since I came to the Netherlands in 1993 to live here, I have taught briefly at the universities in Leiden and Rotterdam, but from the beginning, I have mostly been associated as a researcher with institutions like International Institute of Asian Studies (Leiden) and International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam). In between, we were in Calcutta from 2000 to 2003 when I taught at Rabindra Bharati University for a year. Since 2011, I work at Gӧttingen University in Germany as a senior research fellow, and I have been commuting between the two countries since.
Association, interest and activities related to the Netherlands India Association
Mrs. Marianne Oort, a close friend, and the late Dr. D N Bhalla introduced me to the Association, I attended the activities like the celebration of the Independence Day and Christmas organised by NIA. After we returned from India in 2003, we became members, mostly attending the programmes, when possible. Dr. Victor van Bijlert, my husband is currently the Secretary of the Executive Board of NIA.
Association and activities with the broader Indian Diaspora Community in the Netherlands
Up until the 1990s, there was only one Bengali club, Pravasi, and Bengali New Year and Vijaya Dashami were the only festivals they organised. Now there are four Bengali clubs, and all the clubs organise Durga Puja, among other Bengali festivities. If some programme is organised at a time when I am there, I try to attend it. I have been associated with the cultural programmes organised by Saraswati Arts founded by Siddhartha Krishna as well.
I advised and cooperated in making two documentaries on Tagore by OHM (Omroep Hindoe Media, a Hindustani broadcasting corporation) “Rabindranath Tagore”, and “Wie kijkt er nog door mijn ogen” (Who still looks through my eyes?).
It was a great honour to be able to organise a seminar at Leiden University together with Dr. Ellen Raven celebrating the 150th Birth Anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore in 2011 on behalf of the University and the Vereniniging van de Vrienden van Instituut Kern (The Society of the Friends of Kern Institute). Distinguished members of the Indian diaspora also from Spain, participated in it.
Amongst all the research I have undertaken for the books and articles I have published I have really enjoyed the work on Indian Coffee House – arguably the oldest chain of coffeehouses in the world – published a couple of years ago. It gave me the opportunity to interview more than one hundred writers, poets, politicians, academics, and people from other background visiting the institution in Allahabad (now Prayagraj), Calcutta and Delhi. It was an amazing experience to hear and use this living archive as it led me to understand why and how the coffeehouse became an important public space for discussions on issues of public interest since the early 1940s. I have published on several other subjects, but the experience of this research has been unique.
I have been awarded fellowships by distinguished institutions and organisations like the University Grants Commission in India, International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden, Thyssen Foundation, the German Research Foundation and the Indian Council of Historical Research.
Different organisations like The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), India Institute, and Linguarama have often sought my advice and assistance in the furtherance of the relationship between India and the Netherlands, Bengali language, and culture respectively.
As a part of a European Council project on mutual heritage between Leiden University and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, funded by the European Union, together with Dr. Samuel Berthet (Central University of Hyderabad) I was responsible for making a documentary entitled ‘Gujarat and the Dutch’ (2009).
With people of more than 200 nationalities, this country is multicultural. Working in different sectors of the economy, Indians live all over the country. While on the whole Indians are well integrated, some never come out of their shell. When you are living in a country for some time, the benefit is all yours when you learn the language and explore local culture little more beyond Rembrandt, van Gogh and windmills.
Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya
Historian of Indian Coffee House, specialist in Bengali culture