Northern Ireland can't afford to lose Belfast Mela founder to racism
Nisha Tandon, founder of ArtsEkta and driving force behind tomorrow’s Belfast Mela, moved here from India with her husband, Vijay, in 1977. But the recent spate of racist attacks is making her think about leaving
We need more people like Nisha Tandon in Northern Ireland. She's the creative force behind the Belfast Mela: an international showcase of music, dance, art, and food from more than 30 nations around the globe, held every summer in Botanic Gardens.
The exuberant one-day festival provides a welcome burst of colour in the dog-days of August – even when it rains – as well as an opportunity to celebrate and affirm the increasingly diverse ethnic mix of our society.
Nisha herself – quietly spoken, but intensely driven – seems like a one-woman antidote to the miserable stories of racist hatred which have been coming out of Northern Ireland recently.
Since she arrived here from India 37 years ago, a young bride in an arranged marriage, she's been a cheerful, energetic presence: rolling her sleeves up, making things happen, bringing people together. "I'm a real social entrepreneur," she laughs. "I jump at chances and I will take any challenges."
That's why it shocks me to hear Nisha say that she may not be staying. She lets it slip quietly, almost at the end of our time together. She'd been talking about how welcome she felt when she first came to live in Belfast with her husband, Vijay, whose family first settled here in the 1950s.
It was 1977, a dark and troubled time, and Nisha was wary of what she might encounter, but when she arrived she was deeply relieved to find that people were warm and friendly, ready to chat and laugh, eager to hear stories about the exotic culture she brought with her.
As well as helping out with the family drapery business, Nisha worked as a freelance artist, going out into the communities to organise workshops and events. Later, she was the driving force behind the development of the Indian Community Centre in Belfast.
"I felt welcomed with both arms by both societies, whether I was working in Twinbrook or the Shankill Road, or wherever. People loved to learn about Indian culture – especially the religious differences and similarities with here – and what a woman's everyday life is like.
"I never looked back after that. I integrated into society, and I made my own mark. There was never any abuse, or anything like that. I felt highly respected in both communities."
Hearing her talk like this, I expect the answer to be a firm negative when I ask Nisha if she would ever consider leaving. But that's not what I hear.
"Yes," she admits. "I would. 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."
It's particularly sad to hear that Nisha is considering leaving Northern Ireland behind at the very time that her valuable work here is being fully recognised. This year, she was awarded an OBE for services to the minority sector, and she also won the prestigious UK Asian Women of Achievement Award for Arts and Culture.
Praising her efforts, the judging panel said: "Nisha is so self-effacing, selfless and as humble as can be. She has a strategic vision to help ethnic minorities get the recognition they need, as well as being a bridge between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland."
Both the OBE and the Asian Woman of Achievement Award were an official acknowledgement of the success of ArtsEkta, a project Nisha set up single-handedly in 2006, working on a laptop in her own front room.
Now ArtsEkta – Ekta means 'bonding', or 'uniting' in her native language – is Northern Ireland's leading ethnic arts organisation, with its own team of six key workers, a pool of 40-plus artists, and an impressive portfolio of arts, culture and heritage initiatives, including flagship event, the Mela.
"I saw that there was a desperate need for people to be educated about other communities," says Nisha. "I looked at my Japanese, Chinese, Columbian and African friends, and I realised that they all had some kind of cultural art to them.
"The Japanese people knew origami, the Chinese people could make lanterns, and the Africans had good rhythm, music and dance. You don't need a degree to share this kind of thing; all of it was in their blood. I knew I needed to give them a platform. And that's how ArtsEkta began."
There's a lot of pride in what Nisha has done in her adopted home. When she won the Asian Woman of Achievement Award, Dr Satish M Kumar, chairman of ArtsEkta, spoke on behalf of her many fans and supporters.
Describing her as "an inspiration to us all", he said: "This is a fantastic and well-deserved honour for Nisha and the culmination of two decades devoted to creating and nurturing quality ethnic arts engagement across our increasingly diverse communities."
Nisha is grateful to the people who help her make ArtsEkta projects happen. But she says that sometimes she comes across suspicion, or resistance, from members of her own community.
"They can't see a successful woman, it's as simple as that," says Nisha, shaking her head ruefully. It's clear that being a trailblazer – especially a female one – brings its own, sometimes surprising, joys and sorrows.
I suspect that Nisha has very little time to relax in her busy life: she's spoken before about her early starts, at 6am, getting in a round of housework before breakfast, checking her emails and making phone calls before she even reaches her desk.
But when she does get a few moments to herself, she likes to spend them in her garden.
"I love that: growing my own vegetables – peas, courgettes, aubergines and also some Indian vegetables, they're similar to radishes, and full of vitamin C, very good for you. Recently, I've been raising pak choi from some seeds that my Chinese friends gave me."
Growing the foods that she remembers from her childhood in New Delhi keeps Nisha connected with her first home.
"I went to a fantastic co-ed public school, and it was part of a very integrated society," she says. Later, she attended the National School of Drama in New Delhi, becoming a fully trained 'Bharat Natyam' Indian classical dancer.
She writes the unfamiliar word down for me in my notebook in flowing, cursive script, explaining that Bharat Natyam is an artform which stretches back over two thousand years. Now it's here in Belfast, courtesy of the South Asian Dance Academy, another ArtsEkta project.
Almost as soon as she's broached the prospect of leaving Northern Ireland, I can see Nisha thinking again. After all, it's been her home for so long, and she's invested so much time and energy in this place.
"There was a job opportunity in India, not so long ago," she says. "I was thinking of going for it, but then I thought – no, I'm still in the middle of something I've started here, and I want to finish it. I want to bring new opportunities to new communities, to build their repertoires. There's still so much to do."
Let's hope Nisha decides to stay. We can't afford to lose her.
A life so far...
- Born: New Delhi, India, 1957
- Family: Nisha lives in Belfast with her husband, Vijay, with whom she has three children: Sonia (33), Natalie (30) and Krishan (25). Her father, Rajinder, has passed away, but her mother, Usha, is still living in India, near Bangalore
- Education: A degree in Indian classical dance, 'Bharat Natyam', from the National School of Drama in New Delhi
- Career: Founder and chief executive of ArtsEkta, Northern Ireland's leading ethnic arts organisation
- She says: "It's all about giving more than you're taking."
- They say: "Nisha is making changes, both big and small, every single day – be it to the lives of individuals or on a much wider, political scale. Tactically, the work she does unites ethnic minority communities and gives them a voice, and through this she is making a significant impact on many lives." – judging panel of UK Asian Women of Achievement Award for Arts & Culture