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Nottingham Arts Mela Returns to the New Art Exchange for Its 32nd Year

4 August 20 words: Alex Stubbs

As Nottingham Mela Network, in partnership with New Art Exchange, gets ready to celebrate the 32nd year of Nottingham Arts Mela in the UK, Alex Stubbs previews the exciting, eclectic online programme of cooking, films featuring South Asian diaspora worldwide, music, dance, debates, poetry and spoken word, family art workshops, murals, archives activated, morning raags and yoga…

Summer 2020 sees the return of Nottingham Arts Mela. Boasting a deeply interesting and important history, the festival’s inaugural outing in August 1988 marked the beginnings of what has grown to become a valued Nottingham institution now in its 32nd year. Though this annual celebration of South Asian art and culture returns under the haze of a global pandemic, its programme of events, workshops, and screenings are as strong as ever. Aptly titled Climate, Changed, the Mela finds itself dealing with the implications of a changing world and what increased social distancing – and, as a consequence, decreased social interaction – means for our everyday lives.

There are wider concerns for this year’s festival, too. Speaking with Sooree Pillay, co-director of this year’s Mela and a producer of the festival since 2015, it became clear that the festival would be a place for discussion and dialogue: “We originally were looking to explore not only the environmental crisis that we face globally but also the changing landscape in terms of Brexit and different political scenarios across the globe… The exploration of changing art forms and cultures as a result of shifts in the world we live in was something we felt was really pertinent.”

While this year’s festival may not have that same sense of gathering and celebratory atmosphere, it has still retained its meaning. Skinder Hundal, CEO of New Art Exchange, writes of the festival’s cultural importance: “The communities were taking ownership of their own destiny in promoting the arts and culture and making sure there is something there for the communities to enjoy and be proud of.” The Mela hasn’t lost that sense of connection, even when inter-person connection is challenging. For Sooree, that connection with the community is crucial: “I think this year we are trying to capture this moment in time, and create spaces for audiences to be able to participate in the discussion... It is important for us to continue to seek places to come together to share and express artistically and culturally our perceptions of our worlds today.” By connecting people across diaspora and community, whilst negotiating the boundaries of geographical separation we are faced with today, the Mela has been imbued with a revived sense of purpose. 

Through a programme of various workshops, talks, and events, the festival promises to educate as well as entertain. Online cooking workshops explore the history and politics of food while teaching participants a new recipe each Monday evening, and weekly interactive yoga sessions led by Kajal Nisha Patel encourage self-awareness. With lockdown still in place across the UK, workshops such as these provide a welcome relief from the current social climate.

One thing to look out for this year are the film screenings. Curated by Ritika Biswas and Ashok Vish, this year’s film screenings celebrate established and emerging filmmakers from global South Asian communities, with films from Jennifer Rainsford and Rohini Devasher already scheduled and more filmmakers to be announced. The film programme also reaches out to the wider community through its film call-out. Encouraging the submission of films either made by a South Asian director or those engaging with a South Asian narrative, the Mela’s film call-out is an opportunity to experience fresh and thought-provoking films.

In the curiously titled ‘Draw with Gagan,’ participants are able to see their thoughts come to life through illustration. Led by Delhi-based visual artist Gagan Singh, Singh draws personalised works based on the provocations he receives. Open to all, ‘Draw with Gagan’ showcases the inclusive and interactive nature of the festival through a light-hearted and creative channel.

The Mela also extends its reach further afield from Nottingham by engaging with South Asian communities across the globe through its weekly “Podcast Provocations”. Conversations from important voices across the generations guiding topics on the environment, politics, art, and culture are certainly an intriguing and welcome addition to the festival; with Nadia Whittome MP included in the mix of voices, the podcasts promise to be a highlight of the Mela.

As for the festival moving forward, there is an opportunity to build on this year’s digital platform. “This year we have been able to develop models in the digital realm which have hugely enriched the programming possibilities,” Sooree tells me, noting that the inclusion of a digital aspect of the festival has long been an ambition of the organisers. 

We can definitely expect to see more digital integration in the coming years, though Sooree makes it clear that the live festival is still at the heart of the Mela: “We will always strive towards a physical live festival, as this moment has been at the heart of the Mela in Nottingham since it began in 1988.” Even though the festival looks a little different this year, it is still very much alive and beating.

Nottingham Arts Mela 2020 takes place from 27 July to 23 August

Nottingham Arts Mela website

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