My Cultural Life: Nisha Tandon

ArtsEkta project manager and Belfast Mela director on playing the harmonium, admiring Anna Lo and why the poem 'Phenomenal Woman' best sums her up

Are minority cultures well represented in Northern Ireland, or could more be done?
Well, I was delighted when Anna Lo became the first elected MLA from a minority ethnic background. More groups are been created and raising the profile of the different ethnic minority groups living here and that is increasing their visibility and representation in society. The Mela is very important in this respect and other events such as Chinese New Year and Polish Cultural week give people the opportunity to sample aspects of ethnic cultures, engage and hopefully breakdown some of the barriers that still exist.

One of the worrying things is the increase in the number of racist incidents here in the past few months and I think more can always be done at a community level to enable groups to engage directly with ethnic minority communities. However, it’s always about resources and we do try to get out there and bring the different cultures and customs to people through our programme of outreach events and workshops.

You run and organise the Belfast Mela festival. What is the festival exactly?
The Belfast Mela will take place on August 30, 2009 in the beautiful Botanic Gardens in Belfast. The Mela (meaning 'to meet' in Sanskrit) is an international showcase of music, dance, art, and food from more than 30 nations around the globe. The Mela in 2009 has a very special focus on caring for our environment and Arts Ekta have teamed up with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Belfast Harbour Commission to promote this theme throughout the Mela.

There will be two stages of live international music and dance, a world food market, an Asian fashion show, an eco-friendly area, an ethnic bazaar, a Bollywood Film, street entertainment and more...  There will also be a beautiful recreation of the Taj Mahal made with recycled materials by children from across Belfast with artist Gráinne Kielty. This will be constructed on the Great Lawn for everyone to see the talent of our young workshop participants.

Are there other festivals around the world that inspired you to start Mela?
Artsekta is a member of the European Mela Network and I had the privilege of visiting India with other members in 2008 as part of their Cultural Leadership Programme (CLP). The CLP visit was designed to promote quality leadership skills, provide opportunities to meet and network with other Mela organisers’ throughout the world and to develop and strengthen relationships with the Mela sector. It also provided us with an opportunity to showcase the Belfast Mela; view the innovative artforms showcased at Mela’s worldwide and enabled me to bring back creative, colorful, and imaginative ideas to the Belfast Mela. I also try to visit and participate in as many local festivals as possible - to take part, to gain ideas and network with people.

How has the festival changed over the years?
The Belfast Mela is now a firmly established cultural event in the city. In the space of three years it has grown enormously with over 12,000 people coming to the event in Botanic Gardens in 2008 to take part in a myriad of cultural and creative activities of various ethnic origins. This was despite the inclement weather.

This year we have increased the number of sponsors to 24, developed new partnerships and relationships across the city. The event and the support it receives illustrate the wealth of goodwill towards the Mela, its growing popularity and inclusivity and its importance as a major event in the Belfast calendar. In light of the recent racist attacks in Belfast, the Mela is well placed to show that we are not a hate capital and the majority of people living here want to live in and promote an inclusive society.

Away from Mela, do you consider yourself to be a cultured person?
Yes, of course. Well, at least I think so! I am a voracious reader, when I am not doing funding applications. I enjoy drama in particular and I try to attend as many cultural events as time permits. I am an accomplished dancer and can play the harmonium.

If you could have three cultural figures from throughout history round for dinner, who would they be and why?
Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes because he had a wonderful character and would be great fun at a dinner party. I loved his sense of humour and his vivid descriptions in his books, which make you laugh out loud and cry. The Dalai Lama, who has advocated for peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people. President Mary McAleese, as she is a real role model for women and very strong on keeping culture alive. I think she has shown strong leadership particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and I love her strong family values.

What cultural event did you most enjoy in the previous few months?
Bradford Mela in June. I was really impressed with the organisation and number and quality of events. It is a real celebration of the culture.

What cultural event are you most looking forward to in the months ahead?
Our Festival of Lights festival, which will run from October 17 to November 8.

If you could have created any work of art from throughout history, what would it be and why?
The New World Tapestry, which is the largest stitched embroidery in the world depicting the colonisation of parts of the world including Newfoundland and North America. It's larger than the Bayeux tapestry and is an amazing piece of intricate work which tells an important historical story. I especially love folk arts such as Phulkari, an embroidery technique from the Punjab in India which literally means flower working. We are devising an arts project at the moment using this craft and I am looking forward to the finished product and the maintenance of this wonderful technique.

Is there a particular line of poetry or other piece of art that best sums you up as person?

Maya Angelou's 'Phenomenal Woman':

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,

It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Lee Henry

Check out the Arts Exta website for more information in the Belfast Mela.