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Spotlight on magical Mela
It is dusk in Lister Park and a little boy weaves through an avenue of trees festooned with colourful lights.
The charming image, taken by photographer Tim Smith at the Bradford Mela in 1991, is part of a striking exhibition tracing the history of the event and how it has evolved over the years.
As preparations for this year’s Bradford Mela – being held in Peel Park this weekend – gain momentum, the exhibition looks at performances and activities from the past two decades, from the early days of the Stage in the Lake in Lister Park to family fun events of today.
Called Coming of Age, it includes photographs of the Bradford and Nottingham melas, which were the first in Britain back in 1988 and became the template used by melas throughout the UK.
Bradford’s Mela is now one of the biggest of its kind in the country and over the years Mr Smith has captured images of every year’s event. He says the first Bradford Mela offered an introduction, nationally, to Asian culture.
“It was difficult to get the mainstream press in London interested in events held by and for the Asian community, no matter how big they were,” he said. “But if you said, ‘there’s 50,000 people singing and dancing in a public space in Bradford’ it’s a whole new ball game.
“The Mela was a slab of Asian culture picked up from the subcontinent and put in a park in Bradford.”
He added: “I’ve been to every one in Bradford since they started in a football field in Little Horton.
“This exhibition looks at the Mela’s history here and how it has grown to become an annual arts event and part of the city’s heritage.”
Running at South Asian arts company Kala Sangam’s Bradford gallery as part of mela fringe events, the exhibition includes posters, programmes and newspaper cuttings from years past, and behind-the-scenes images showing the work going into planning the event.
An accompanying book explores the history of melas in the UK through interviews with people involved over the years, including promoters and arts and cultural leaders.
Writer and anthropologist Irna Qureshi, who has written the book, also called Coming of Age, will be at Kala Sangam on Friday, July 13, to give a talk about the exhibition.
“Melas have been held in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years but are a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain,” she said.
“The term mela stems from the Sanskrit word for ‘gathering’. South Asian communities have held celebratory cultural events in Britain for many years.
“This concentrates on the development of two of the country’s most established and innovative melas, Bradford and Nottingham. They first took place within three weeks of each other during the summer of 1988 and have defined the annual summer event as a national institution.
“While their journeys started together, they have taken different paths. Bradford has emerged as one of Europe’s largest multi-arts festivals, attracting audiences of more than 200,000.”
The exhibition reflects both the community aspect of the Mela and the lively entertainment that flavours it; from classical dancing to Bhangra pop.
Images include a traditional Rajasthani dance performance by India’s Musafir dance troupe in 1999, with a pile of colourful, shimmering shoes piled high at the side of the stage, a Bollywood dancer striking a pose on Lister Park lake in 1992, and high-energy action from Asian hip-hop act Fun-Da-Mental.
Family fun is captured at a drumming workshop, and the tastes and smells of the mela almost leap off images of Indian food stalls creaking beneath piles of mouthwatering dishes.
A family is pictured enjoying kulfi ice-cream at the mela in 2003, and a group of young men are gathered in Peel Park in 2009, waving colourful flags.
Taking pride of place is a large photograph of a striking puppet, part of a performance by the Channi-Upuli Dance Ensemble from Sri Lanka.
“The exhibition is running all summer, throughout the mela season. We hope people will be inspired by this weekend’s event – which we are performing at – to come and see how it all started,” said Ajit Singh, of Kala Sangam.
- Coming of Age runs at Kala Sangam’s gallery, St Peter’s House, Forster Square, Bradford, until August 31.