I first heard about IIAS back in 2013. Dr. Paul Rabe was visiting Bangalore and a colleague at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements introduced him as a researcher and practitioner interested in understanding the urban geography of Whitefield, an area I had been engaging with for some years. I was just preparing to screen the next instalment of my Neighbourhood Diaries film series (Whitefield Diaries was the previous instalment) and Paul readily agreed to attend the screening in a historic family mansion in a colonial-period bazaar area. As we chatted, he suggested that I should give some thought to joining him on a panel he was putting together for the next ICAS, on urban renewal and community agency. ICAS is where I met Philippe and others from IIAS.
I have since been associated with various IIAS projects and initiatives, including UKNA (Urban Knowledge Network Asia), SEANNET (South East Asia Neighbourhoods Network) and HAB (Humanities Across Borders). Although I have not been directly employed by the institute or its projects, I have had ample opportunities to engage with its material practices. As a humanities-based, community-engaged practitioner and scholar from the Global South who has long promoted interdisciplinarity in research and practice, it's reassuring to see a Global North institute walk the talk.
For IIAS, attempting to decolonise knowledge production practices while co-creating knowledge in ways that are inclusive is neither mere rhetoric nor just academic discourse. Under Philippe’s able guidance, the institute understands all too well the trap and resultant limitations of institutionalised forms of knowledge production. It's not easy to consistently walk the thin line bordering many binaries: academic and practitioner knowledge, didactic and pedagogical approaches, community-engaged and expert-driven lenses, global and local knowledge networks, theoretical and applied research.
Nor is it easy to consistently pay attention to what is being said rather than ‘who’ (by which I mean the designation) is saying it. I respect Philippe and the institute’s sustained efforts to empathetically engage with diverse social actors, be they individuals, advocacy groups, or universities. In an increasingly fractured world, such institutions play a crucial role in bridging various socio-cultural, educational, and economic axes. Significantly, IIAS recognises that any such facilitation across axes can only be reasonably democratic, and they frame their work with this self-awareness. Going forward, it would be wonderful to see more platforms like this that actively promotes a need for contextualised understanding of people and places.
Krupa Rajangam, Saythu… Linking People and Heritage, India