Belfast Telegraph

Mela draws record crowds: Sun shines for annual celebration of Ulster's multi-cultural heritage

By Rebecca Black

This year's Belfast Mela was the biggest yet – sending out a strong message to the racists.

An estimated 25,000 people attended what is believed to be Ireland's largest celebration of minority ethnic communities.

ArtsEkta director and Mela founder Nisha Tandon said she was overjoyed to see such huge numbers of people turn out to create a record-breaking event at Botanic Gardens.

"I was absolutely delighted to see so many people coming out to join us and enjoying themselves so much," she said.

"At one stage I was watching Lithanuian dancers in front of the Ulster Museum and a local family were saying how wonderful it was to see Lithanuian culture on their doorstep. And that's what Mela is all about.

"This year we had a lot of people from Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia as well as Indian, Chinese and African people.

"It was a fantastic mix. I even said to the Lord Mayor: 'are there even this many people living in Belfast'?

"Now for the clear-up and to start planning next year's event."

There were long queues before yesterday's official noon start time waiting to get into Botanic Gardens to enjoy the festivities of the eighth Mela.

The event started with a carnival-type opening parade through the grounds of the Belfast park including a lifesize model elephant, 16ft Chinese dragon, Dhol drummers and Bollywood dancers led by Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon resplendent in an Indian-style dress and bindi.

The great lawn was packed as the crowds basking in sunshine took in performances from Irish dancers, a Bollywood brass band and south Asian dancers, as well as world-class acts such as Son Yambu and the Sonia Sabri Company.

Headline act Malkit Singh may not be well-known in Belfast, but he is a superstar among Punjabis and drew crowds from as far away as Dublin.

This was the Birmingham-based star's first performance in Belfast, and Ms Tandon said he was blown away by the crowds.

"He was saying he had never seen crowds like that, and so sophisticated and warm in their reception," she said. "He loved Belfast."

A world food market included delicacies from 20 different nationalities while those seeking a more mellow atmosphere enjoyed yoga and meditation in the World of Wellbeing tent. One of the new features this year, the Fantasy Forest aimed at children, was also packed, with parents as well as youngsters enthralled.

Lord Mayor Ms Mallon praised the large turnout, commenting: "Belfast is proudly multi-cultural and we are all the better for it."

Junior ministers Jonathan Bell and Jennifer McCann were among those in attendance at the event organised by ArtsEkta and praised it as the "real face of Belfast".

Mr Bell said: "Year after year the number of people coming to Botanic Gardens to enjoy and experience the pageantry, passion and panache of the Mela has increased.

"We are a city united, united in celebration and united in enthusiasm. This is the message I want the world to see."

Ms McCann added: "The vibrancy of the Mela represents all that is positive about our multi-cultural society."

Festival-goers united in urging organiser to defy the racists and remain

Don't go, Nisha.

That was the message from the crowds who turned out to enjoy Northern Ireland’s largest minority arts festival in Belfast yesterday.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed on Saturday that Mela organiser Nisha Tandon does not see her long-term future in Northern Ireland.

The director of Arts Ekta and founder of Belfast Mela has been living in Northern Ireland for 37 years, but said the recent spate of racist attacks had made her reconsider whether she wanted to remain here.

Ms Tandon’s remarks come after Alliance MLA Anna Lo said she had reservations about staying in the province, and even felt fearful walking along the street in Belfast.

Ms Tandon said: “If there was any opportunity, I'd move. Why? I've been living here for 37 years, I've brought my three children up here, and I've never regretted coming to live in Northern Ireland.

“But after all the racist attacks, I have started asking myself — do I want to be here, long-term? I don't think so.”

But the response from the crowds that attended Belfast Mela was to urge Nisha to stay.

Eva Grosman, an anti-racism campaigner, said Nisha did incredibly important work. “It is hard to hear that someone so established and who does such important work could leave,” she said.

“It is especially frustrating if you are working in this sector trying to bring communities together. But I think Nisha will stay.”

Arts Ekta board member Jeremy Adams also backed Nisha.

“I hope she doesn’t (leave),” he said. “Racist attacks don’t reflect the majority of people of here.”

The views from others attending Mela yesterday were the same.

 Michael Duff (23) and Jemma Greenlees (23) from Belfast said it would be “horrible” if Nisha left, describing Mela as a great event.

David Moore (28) praised both Nisha and Mela for bringing so much positivity to the city. “It is great for promoting equality and fighting racism,” he said.

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