Botanic Gardens can't contain us, says Belfast Mela founder Nisha Tandon

It's Mela in the Park time again as this year's multicultural festival gets set to take over Belfast's Botanic Gardens. Its founder, Nisha Tandon, tells Gail Bell why the colourful carnival is now more important than ever

Belfast Mela founder Nisha Tandon says the inter-cultural festival "has never been more important", given how fractured society is becoming Picture: Hugh Russell
Belfast Mela founder Nisha Tandon says the inter-cultural festival "has never been more important", given how fractured society is becoming Picture: Hugh Russell

WITH her impressive track record on cultural integration and racial and religious harmony, it is difficult to conjure up an image of Nisha Tandon, the feisty young Indian woman with a rebellious streak.

But the softly spoken founder of the award-winning ethnic arts organisation, ArtsEkta, and face behind the annual multicultural Mela festival, admits she once did try to rebel – against coming to what was then to her, as a young bride-to-be, the unknown outpost of Northern Ireland.

Come she did, however; as a 20-year-old she left behind all she knew in her home city of New Delhi to arrive to new in-laws in Belfast.

"I didn't want to come here at all and my grandfather had his doubts, mainly because he watched the BBC news and saw what was happening here at the time," she says. "But, mostly, my family in India didn't know anything about Northern Ireland – everyone just called Belfast, 'Ireland' – and it was all a bit remote and far away.

"It was a bit of a culture shock, arriving in the north – especially the food and the weather. My first impressions were that my new home was very green and very wet."

Now aged 59, the mother and grandmother who founded the successful Mela festival 11 years ago in response to the increasing population of ethnic minorities in Belfast, is a true Belfast woman – and one who has made an indelible mark on the city she has called home for almost 40 years.

Speaking ahead of the 2017 Mela, which is set to take over the city's Botanic Gardens on Sunday August 27, she believes the event's role in a fractured society is more crucial than ever.

"The Belfast Mela – the name originates from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘to meet’ – is a celebration of our continuing journey to become a truly shared and cosmopolitan society where communities come together with mutual respect," says Nisha, who is also a founder member of Stronger Together NI and was the driving force behind the development of the Indian Community Centre.

"With recent events at home and across the world, the significance of the festival has never been more important. There have been huge strides forward in Belfast which, I think, is a very friendly city, but it is an easy thing to shake hands with someone and eat their food, but, perhaps, a different story when it comes to being a next-door-neighbour or having your son or daughter sit beside a child who speaks another language.

"I think Brexit is playing a role with regard to the number of 'isms' we still carry in our own heads and, I am sorry to say, the leadership is not here at the moment which could have the momentum to speed up the pace of change.

"Despite this, though, there have still huge changes in Northern Ireland and the infrastructure, the schools, the shared spaces, are all changing for the better."

Playing a pivotal role in this transformation is the Mela festival, which was recently described by Peter Osborne, chairman of the Community Relations Council, as contributing to a "genuinely inter-cultural future in a region plagued in the past by intolerance of diversity".

Last year it drew the largest crowds to date: some 30,000 visitors crammed into Botanic Garden's shrinking perimeters, presenting Nisha with her greatest challenge yet in relation to logistics.

"We are certainly outgrowing our venue, but the problem is, there is no room left to grow," she reflects. "But, we try to add new additions elsewhere in the city."

Consequently, as well as the main Mela stage, which will feature music, dance, arts and performance from around the world, this year there is an early 'extra' at The MAC in Belfast (Friday, August, 25) when acclaimed Sufi singer Salam Sabri presents an evening of Indian Qawwali music dating back over 700 years.

No stranger herself to the classical heritage of the country of her birth, Nisha, who holds a degree from the National School of Drama in New Delhi, is a trained Bharatanatyam Indian classical dancer.

Dance and drama, she says were a "compulsory" part of her childhood while growing up in India and were taken more seriously than just a hobby scheduled into the after-school curriculum.

"My parents believed that every child should learn the arts, a bit like Irish parents, I suppose, and I was sent to music and theatre activities after school along with my brother, sister and cousins. It is seen as an important thing to do in India because the film industry there is the country's second-biggest earner after electronics."

Yet, despite her solid arts background, a new career beckoned in Northern Ireland when her Indian cooking skills began to get noticed and featured on several programmes broadcast on UTV. Around the same time, she also ran her own cookery school, taught Indian cookery at the former Castlereagh College and was in demand for cookery demonstations as far away as Carlingford and Ballymaloe House in Co Cork.

"I love cooking and I really enjoyed this new direction my life took in Northern Ireland, but, in the end, I had to give priority to the arts side of things," she relects. "I could see this was an important new direction which could really make a difference to people's lives because there were so many new immigrant families settling in Northern Ireland.

"The idea for the Mela festival came about 11years ago with the increasing population of ethnic minorities in Belfast and other towns and I felt it important for schools and Early Years education to teach children about diversity.

"I chose to use the arts as a tool to bring this learning into schools, community groups and youth groups. The first school we visited was St Paul's Primary School in west Belfast and after that we delivered our One World Day across the region.

"The festival may take place over one day, but outreach work continues all year round – and then we gather in a shared space to celebrate and showcase that learning.

"These are serious and important concepts, but diversity is a cause for celebration and so Belfast Mela combines craic, camaraderie and culture from around the world, mixed with a wonderful spirit of exuberance which Belfast has truly taken to its heart."

In celebration of her own culture and Hindu religion, Nisha makes meditating, chanting and prayers part of her daily routine – as well as regular yoga sessions each morning, and cooking up more creative dishes from her beloved Indian cuisine.

It is a busy life for the 2014 recipient of the UK Asian Women of Achievement Award for contribution to arts and culture, but her motivation ever remains simply to see a society in which we "continue to forge new friendships, increase our understanding of each other and find strength in one community spirit".

:: Belfast Mela 2017, Botanic Gardens, August 27 (12-6pm); full details of the global line-up at