Edinburgh Mela has gone from tiny gathering to key festival

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WITH just a handful of volunteers gathered underneath Meadowbank Stadium’s wet weather stand, the setting of the first Edinburgh Mela in 1995 could hardly have been more modest.

A self-funded, grassroots event, intended to celebrate the Capital’s Asian communities, it was considered a success after attracting a few hundred visitors.

The Mela would remain a low-key affair for the next decade, certainly compared with counterparts in the largest towns and cities of England.

“Back then it seemed to be a lot more insular – a much more localised, Edinburgh event,” remembers David Roberts, co-ordinator of the Leith on the Fringe festival, who attended the 2006 Mela.

“There was a stall selling burgers, and a beer stall. There was also a beer tent doing chips. I remember there was even a Dog’s Trust stall.

“There weren’t that many traditional Asian foods – you could buy samosas, and there were a couple of Asian sweet stalls. I’m originally from Leicester and there they’re used to big Melas, where you’d get hundreds of stalls.”

Fast forward to 2012 and it’s clear the Edinburgh Mela is catching up fast. Crowds of up to 30,000 are expected to head to Leith Links for this summer’s event.

The 2012 programme – launched yesterday – is surely the most diverse in the Mela’s history. Its offering ranges from Ghanaian and Japanese drumming to pyrotechnic re-tellings of Hindu legends and routines from champion breakdancers.

Those involved in the event are quick to stress its growth shows no sign of petering out.

For new director Chris Purnell, the Mela’s rude health and artistic scope were what drew him to Edinburgh from London, where he led the UK capital’s Mela for four years.

“The Edinburgh Mela grew out of a much smaller event with just a few bands in Meadowbank Stadium,” he says. “Now it’s regarded as one of the best melas in the UK.”

While admitting the Edinburgh event is only one of a number of similar festivals across Britain, he argues its unique qualities are apparent to anyone who comes to the city.

“It offers much more of a range of artistic content,” he says.

“In London, where I was previously, the event is huge – you can have up to 90,000 attending and there are a lot more stages, but it’s also a lot more Asian-centric.

“The Edinburgh Mela has gone from being an event which was set up by a small community in Edinburgh – mainly to celebrate its own culture – to being a much larger expression of the diverse cultures of the city.

He adds: “It’s been a gradual evolution. I like to think I have moved from the biggest mela in Britain to the best.”

Councillor Steve Cardownie, the city’s deputy leader, has been working with festival organisers since the Mela’s inception. He is keen to stress recent growth has not meant marginalisation of those communities from which the event emerged.

“We’ve become much more international now but the core of the event is still south-east Asian culture,” he says.

“Of course, that does not stop us from embracing groups throughout the world.

“A turning point was getting established at Leith Links [in 2010] – it’s been the best of all of the venues we’ve had.”

Previous directors agree the festival’s growth has been about more than just bigger audiences. They stress that, while the main programme has become ever more diverse, behind-the-scenes efforts to support the creative output of the Asian community and other minorities have continued.

“Certainly, the bar has been raised in terms of programming and audience expectation,” says Liam Sinclair, Mela director from 2007 to 2010, “but over the years there has also been what’s happened beneath the higher public profile – the artist residency scheme and our work with black and minority ethnic communities, for example.

“In the time I was there, two key things happened. One was around securing regular support and funding from the Arts Council, now Creative Scotland.

“The focus of that support was on how the festival could be a driver for work involving minority ethnic communities in the arts and creating opportunities for ethnic artists.

“We really pushed on that agenda and secured a residency programme. At one point we had five artists-in-residence.”

The festival’s engagement with minority communities is not just arts-based. For the Forestry Commission in Scotland, the 2012 event will be the sixth it has supported.

It too wishes to use the festival as a platform for reaching out to minorities and encouraging them to make the use of their country’s natural treasures.

“Our statistics show that very few people from minority backgrounds are accessing woodlands – one report in 2007 showed no recorded visits by members of minority groups to Scottish woodlands,” says Hugh McNish, health advisor for the Forestry Commission. “That’s something we want to change.”

Yet it is perhaps among performers and artists that the Mela’s strong growth is most keenly felt.

Dance Ihayami, an Edinburgh group, will collaborate with world-renowned theatre group Walk The Plank on a firework and flaming puppet-driven re-telling of the Rama and Sita story, one of Hinduism’s most famous narratives.

For development officer Karen Watts, who has performed at the Mela since 2006, this year’s offering is some way from the short, 20-minute productions her company put on in earlier years.

“It went from this small community feel to something with high production values,” she says. “It really takes itself seriously now and it’s putting itself out there as one of the main festivals in Edinburgh.”

The 2012 Edinburgh Mela runs from August 31 to September 2. www.edinburgh-mela.co.uk.

HISTORY

Mela is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘gathering’ or ‘to meet’. In the Indian subcontinent, the word is used to refer to events of all sizes, which can be religious, cultural, commercial and even sports-based.

In many rural communities in South Asia, melas, or village fairs, are still hugely important and have been held for thousands of years. They are traditionally an opportunity for families and communities to come together to celebrate.

As millions left South Asia in the twentieth century, the mela became a cultural practice that was exported to other countries around the world with immigrants continuing to hold gatherings in their new homes.

An increasing number of melas are now regularly held outside South Asia. Most take place in countries with large Asian populations, such as the UK and North America. However, melas have become popular even in societies with smaller diasporas.

Melas are traditionally community-owned events, although many gatherings held outside of South Asia attract funding from public bodies and are seen as having a bridge-building function.

Today, the word ‘mela’ has a loose definition and can refer to shows, exhibitions or fairs. A Mela can also be based on a particular art or skill. Many melas include food stalls, entertainment activities, shops and games.

Bigger brothers

• The Edinburgh Mela is one of 18 similar gatherings taking place across the UK. Other towns and cities to hold mela festivals include Glasgow, Cardiff and Oldham.

• While this year’s Edinburgh Mela is expected to attract up to 30,000 people, it is tiny in comparison to the largest gatherings in south Asia. The Kumbh Mela, a mass pilgrimage in which Hindus meet at the Ganges and Godavari river, was attended by 60 million people over six weeks in 2007. A gathering of more than 30 million people in 2001 was successfully photographed from space.

• Other notable melas include the Sonepur Cattle Fair, or Malegaon Mela, on the confluence of the Ganges and Gandak river. Lasting for 15 days, it includes an animal fair where dogs, buffalo, camels and even elephants can be purchased.