Last year, I went to Belfast Mela for the first time and the experience stayed with me for some time afterwards. I had forgotten all about that feeling until Sunday and now I’m in that sweet, melancholy comedown again, but even more profoundly so this year – my first time volunteering at the festival.
Anyone who has visited or been a part of it will probably understand what I mean – you don’t truly start to feel it until after the fact, until you’ve returned home, but Mela really soaks in to the fabric of your consciousness and stays there for a while.
It’s not an easy thing to describe either, which is why I’ve had such trouble getting started on this final Mela Monday. The warm, wafting, exotic food smells, the beat of the drums, the lovely cacophony of a thousand different accents, 30,000 voices and music thumping out from four stages, seeing the smiles of grandparents, babes in arms, toddlers, children, teens, couples and everyone in between, the colours of the saris, kimonos, turbans and trinket stalls…
I could go on, but I don’t think there exist the words to describe the thumbprint Belfast Mela presses into your soul. So I’ll just tell you about my first Mela as a volunteer, share as many pictures and videos as I can without breaking the blog, and hope it inspires you to come along next year if you are yet to be a part of this life-enriching celebration of diversity and sharing.
Things were a bit hectic when I arrived at the artists’ and volunteers’ base at the bowling green in Botanic Gardens around 10.20am. I put on my purple volunteer t-shirt and before long, found myself part of a sandwich production line, buttering bread and slicing cucumbers to get food ready for hungry performers and workers.
It was here I met the glorious force of nature that is Roshni, Mela’s Head of Catering for the day, and my life is all the shinier and gigglier for it – I’m very much hoping we stay friends. I also bumped into an old pal Carole and her lovely boyfriend Chris, also volunteering, which was great, helping me feel less of a newbie/loner.
Not that there’s actually the time to sit around feeling lonesome as an ArtsEkta volunteer – it wasn’t long before my friends, new and old, were ushered away to other jobs and I found myself surrounded by a group of women in various states of undress. “You need to get this lot ready for the parade now – get stuck in!”
It’s not often I spend my Sundays surrounded by women my mum’s age asking me how to arrange traditional Indian garments – in fact it’s fair to say I have zero experience in this altogether. Thankfully, Rosh came to my rescue and we soon had the ladies wrapped, pinned, dressed and good to go.
A panicked-looking woman arrived at around midday with a walkie talkie. “The parade is starting NOW, everyone has to go to the Stranmillis Gates RIGHT NOW!”
So I found myself ushering a children’s community group through the park (which was already starting to fill with the public) and keeping them all relatively amused while the group leader located their t-shirts and props.
My day really started around 1pm, when I got into my costume and headed to the Maharaja Tent. This was to be my main role for the day – helping to meet and greet and look after visitors to the Mela’s newest arrival, a performance area dedicated to the Indian classical arts. Inspired by Indian royalty, palaces and places, this tipi-style structure had been decorated with Indian tapestries, lush coloured fabrics and soft lighting and was an absolute joy to be a part of.
Located right beside the Ulster Museum, our proximity to two of the park’s busiest entrances meant we got a lot of passing foot traffic, a huge amount of interest before we even opened, and enormous, snaking queues when we did, that barely waned all day.
We had six separate performances, with a brand new audience for each and an estimated 150 – 200 people piling in for each show, so we welcomed around 1,000 festival goers over the course of the day. Beautiful floating rangoli art welcomed them at the entrance, scatter cushions on the floor invited them to get comfy and stunning performances left them with some beautiful memories.
One of my highlights was the opening performance by Desi Bravehearts, a Scottish Bollywood/fusion dance group. Their energetic piece was laced with humour and flirtation, a brilliant way to start the day.
My absolute highlight of the day was our solo dancer from Kala Sangam, who presented one of the eight classical forms of Indian dance – Odissi. As she explained before her performance, her spellbinding dance told a story which forms part of the Mahabharata – one of the great Indian epics. With elegance, hypnotic expressiveness and perfect rhythm, she brought us the tale of one of the Pandava princes and his wife Draupadi. I only wish I had a video of this, because words just won’t do it justice.
She performed three times – once for our VIP reception at the beginning of the day and twice for festival goers; giving an extra performance at the end of the day in order for us to keep happy everyone who had queued to get in!
The Foundation for Indian Performing Arts brought us a beautiful Kathak dance and we even had a celebrity in our midst when Kuljit Bhamra took to the stage. Credited with bringing Bhangra to Britain, he has worked on film scores including Bend it Like Beckham and The Guru. He teamed up with singer Shahid Khan to deliver a wonderfully authentic ghazal, despite suffering technical problems.
ArtsEkta chairman Mukesh Sharma even took to the stage with his tabla (traditional Indian drum), joining a local singer and a sitar player to perform two specially commissioned pieces for Belfast Mela.
Before I knew it, it was 5.30pm, the tent was empty, apart from a few festival-goers who wanted a nosey inside, so I headed down to the bowling green to get changed, grab a bite to eat and maybe have a dander round the great lawn and have a listen to the headline act.
I just about got a mouthful of cheese sarnie and a sip of coffee before Rosh had us all right at the foot of the main stage, with DCS whipping the crowd into a Bhangra frenzy. And that craic really is infectious! That’s another thing about Mela – the South Asian cultures really don’t seem to do dance inhibition the way the Irish and British do and before long, I was boogeying away with the best of them, unscrewing those lightbulbs, hopping around with my hands in the air and we were even joined by ArtsEkta director Nisha Tandon getting her Bollywood groove on!
As I looked around, exhausted but energised, at the different cultures, costumes and colours around me, all dancing and grinning like there was no tomorrow, no need to ever give a damn about anything but having fun together right here in this gorgeous moment, I remembered the feeling I got standing in front of this stage, in this field last year – every summer, ArtsEkta creates a patchwork quilt of people in a park in the middle of Belfast and that is why my patchwork quill and I are so drawn to it and why we had to be a part of Mela 2012.
So there you go. That’s why Mela Monday of 2012 is coming to you in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning. It has taken me until this hour to be able to put it in writing and I probably still haven’t done it justice – but hopefully I’ve given you a little taste of my Mela.
A huge thank you to my fellow volunteers, especially my fellow Maharaja meeters-and-greeters Sonia and Darren McCourt, our lovely stage manager Robin McRoberts and our compere Tracey Dempsey. But my biggest thank you has to go to Mairead Quinn. Over the past few weeks, she has provided me with wonderful interviewees, pictures and contacts for my Mela Monday posts and has supported and promoted the blog with such energy – all whilst coordinating the volunteer effort that basically makes Mela happen. An absolute star and a pretty marvellous human being.
There will be more photos going up in the coming days as I get permission from the various photographers I’ve approached, but for now, enjoy the pics I have got. I hope to see you there next year.