When The Community Relations Council (CRC) first supported the Belfast Mela, the multicultural festival was attracting crowds of around 5,000 people – by 2021, 150,000 virtual guests had attended, and by 2022, over 60,000 were enjoying an extended eight-day celebration of diversity across Belfast.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when the event went online, it broke all previous attendance records with over 150,000 people worldwide celebrating this global showcase of cultural diversity.
The Community Relations Council initiated support of the Belfast Mela with funding through its Community Relations / Cultural Diversity Small Grants Scheme and this support has continued right up to the present day as CRC finds innovative ways to highlight multiculturalism across the region.
Launched by ArtsEkta in 2007, the same year the power sharing government reformed in Northern Ireland, Belfast Mela was created to celebrate our diversity and provide a shared, inclusive space for all communities to express their own cultural identity. Founder and social entrepreneur Nisha Tandon says: “You must look beyond 2007 to understand why ArtsEkta was formed.
“In the wake of the peace process, the region saw an influx of European nationals start to settle here, but this period also saw an escalation of race hate crime.”
This escalation in racial hatred had spurred Nisha to set up ArtsEkta in 2006, responding to what she felt was a need for an educational outreach approach to dealing with these difficult issues.
So, one year later Nisha came up with the idea of holding a Mela in Botanic Gardens. Mela is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to meet’.
Nisha Tandon - ArtsEkta
“We delivered Belfast Mela in Botanic Gardens with approximately 500 people in attendance. The event was completely multicultural as fitting to the ethos behind it. On the day we had various exciting demonstrations, including dancing, music, food, cultural and interactive activities followed by a small-scale procession with around 50 children participating.
“The Mela provided a platform for emerging cultures to be showcased for example Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as highlighting the established cultures of the Indian, Chinese, African and Jewish communities.
“This is how the event gained its name. The intention was for minority groups to take ownership of this cultural celebration, and I can happily say that we succeeded, now the event is bookmarked in the annual events calendar.”
“Whatever we were doing, we were doing of our own accord. The festival started to grow from 500 to 1,500 to 2,000 attendees. In 2008 we had over 5,000 people coming to our event,” Nisha says.
The funding we received from CRC in 2011 really helped the event to grow in profile and in size as new communities joined in.
“This financial support and guidance from CRC has helped us tremendously with BAME artists, allowing them to run their individual programmes which were showcased on our community stage and in other zones of Botanic Garden,” Nisha says. “It has also been crucial in winning support from other funders and strategic delivery partners from the private sector. The CRC funding in the early days gave confidence to other funders to show their support and this enabled us to grow the Mela.
“Today we have over 30,000 people in attendance. Due to the COVID restrictions on live events through 2020 and 2021 we offered a virtual festival experience. This worked brilliantly as we reached an audience over 150,000 from across the world. We registered our biggest audiences in India and America.
“As the festival has continued to grow, we have continued to expand our offerings,” Nisha explains.
“We now offer a health zone, a children’s zone, a quiet zone and a food vendors area. Our main sponsors are technology businesses who enjoy taking part in the event. We have provided small businesses with opportunities, whilst creating a fantastic, top class artistic programme that features international artists and a platform for local artists to develop,” says Nisha.
“There are also opportunities for upcoming local groups to start their own businesses, so there is a wide range of options that could happen on the day to create a shared atmosphere.
In the first year of the pandemic, the Mela programme went totally virtual, which Nisha admits was very difficult to do.
“We also did the Mela Culture Box so anyone who registered to be part of our virtual audience would be able to get a Mela party box allowing them to have a party at home,” she says.
“That was a complete success. We had over 150,000 people from around the world who were watching, and we were sending our Mela party boxes to each of the virtual attendees, which was great. Last year we did 75% of the event live with Covid restrictions in place and we got positive feedback; the other 25% was virtual and we received great feedback from that as well.”
The board of the Mela is drawn from a diverse background, including representatives from the Chinese and Indian communities, as well as crossing the Catholic/Protestant divide.
“They have been the driving force behind the scenes along with the staff who are from multicultural backgrounds, the volunteers and the artists – the whole team has been amazing,” explains Nisha.
“Unfortunately, the Mela cannot combat the entire problem of racism and hate crime. These massive issues will not be solved overnight, and we will continue to work with CRC and other statutory organisations to formulate the most effective approach to tackling these issues,” Nisha says.
“The future dream of the Mela and ArtsEkta will be to grow the intercultural learning and celebrate each other’s cultures and create more shared and welcoming spaces, and the support of CRC will be integral to this growth.”
From a one-day event back in 2007, the Mela is now a week-long event with a host of artistic and cultural elements, but Nisha is keen to develop it further.
“My goal is to give more opportunities to people of different cultures; I would love to hear from them. And you can be sure we will be pleased to give them opportunities – that’s what we do,” she says.