Dhol Drums

My week with GemArts Masala Festival

GemArts recently hosted a student placement, Liam Scarth, who helped during the planning, delivery and evaluation of GemArts Masala Festival in July 2016. Liam, a 2nd year BA Acting Community Theatre student at East 15 Drama School in Southend, identified GemArts as an organisation he would like to work with as part of a placement module within his degree course. Listing his main passions as teaching, working with younger people and bringing communities together, Liam was the perfect fit for a placement with GemArts, and he contributed a great deal to the team during an exciting and busy 3 weeks with us. Before completing his placement Liam wrote this great review of GemArts Masala Festival which we’re delighted to share with you.

Masala Logo (Pink) Resized 600 px

For one week Gateshead and Newcastle became a melting pot of cultural activity, as GemArts served up a delectable dish which they had been cooking up for some time. The festival recipe started with a good dollop of inspiring short film, next they poured in a hearty helping of musical artistry, a dash of perfectly palatable poetry, a sprinkle of elating exhibitions, a good handful of performance art, seasoned with wonderful workshops and topped off with a sensational finale. The temperature was set to that of an Indian summer, and then GemArts served up the mouth-watering Masala Festival to a culture-hungry public.

Masala Festival launched on the 11th July with ALIVE! a ground-breaking evening of short films curated by independent producer Bobby Tiwana. ALIVE! celebrated being South Asian and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The beautifully selected, and composed films touched on universal themes such as that awkward first kiss, or the loss of childhood innocence, along with more individual experiences such as dealing with certain stigmas, and stories of hope. It had such a profound effect on people it raised heated debates in the Q and A. What is my identity? How do we find a place of belonging? Rousing speeches from the panel provided new ideas and thoughts for the audience to take home.

GemArts Masala Festival ALIVE post show ID BT photo Anna Miller Little Elephant GemArts Masala Festival launch photo Anna Miller

The festival barrelled on with two mind blowing musical performances; Manjula, a Leeds-based band mixing sounds from across the globe, and Shri Sriram with new project Just a Vibration, where Indian Ragas met British Brass Band. On subsequent nights these two groups had the power to transport you to new continents. One moment I was in a Newcastle or Gateshead venue, the next I was bathing in the heat of the sun, in a South Indian garden. Audiences sat humbled, soaking in the rich melodies.

Masala Festival also introduced us to the varied work of three prolific poets. Identity, politics and mythology; were our themes for the evening. Moniza Alvi, Amali Rodrigo and Arundhathi Subramaniam, although under the same publisher; BloodAxe Books, all had their own take on the themes. The audience came together to listen to poets describing vast journeys, spiritual awakenings, and cultural norms. With every word I understood a little more of countries over the water, and with every hour during the festival I grew fonder of our varied world.

There were also plenty of chances to get your hands into the mixing bowl and take part in Masala Festival yourself. Poet Arundhathi gave an enlightening workshop at Culture Lab before her reading. Artist Emma Sheridan worked with primary schools in the local area, introducing them to beautiful Indian visual arts. Emma inspired children in one school to create bright, colourful silk paintings based on the tale of The Magic Fish. These then filled the sky, on flags and banners, for the Mini Mela finale. Yoga sessions were available to those who wanted to embody the true spirit of South Asia, and DOGA (Yoga for you and wor pooch!) added a quirky extra. For the more energetic few, Bollywood Dance offered people the opportunity to get their booty on the dance floor, or Trinity Square floor!

GemArts Masala Festival silk painting in school photo Anna Miller GemArts Masala Festival Monks of Majuli and students photo Anna Miller

For a real taste of South Asia, Ury Restaurant’s cooking demonstrations shared Keralan cuisine secrets. For those who prefer to skip the cooking but enjoy the eating, Ury Restaurant also provided delicious food at the Mini Mela finale on the Sunday. No one missed out at this festival, all were catered for!

GemArts had yet more treats up their sleeve, as Turbanism a photography exhibition opened in Gateshead Central Library. Photographer Rehmat Rayatt travelled to Rajasthan to document the world of the Turban, and the unfortunate demise of the turban culture. The exhibition didn’t create a feeling of demise, as vibrant colours sprang from the frames, filling the gallery with majestic shades of orange, red, purple and yellow. Alongside the photographs, a selection of turbans sat patiently on display. Upstairs continued on a more personal storyline with images documenting her grandfathers’ love for photography and their family’s migration.

On Saturday Sage Gateshead became the host to India’s sacred arts as The Monks of Majuli, gave audience members a once in a life time opportunity. This was the Monks first visit to Britain, and Gateshead was their final stop on a month long tour. In the pre-show discussion, we were enlightened to Georgie Pope’s PhD work and the pilgrimage of the Monks to see their sacred Assamese tapestry in the British Museum. Drumming, dancing, singing, acting, costume were all elements of the performance offering. All audience members were truly awe stricken by the event. After giving a standing ovation, and wiping some joyful tears from their eyes, audience members left in bright chatter and all in agreement they had witnessed something truly special.

GemArts managed to top off this jam packed week very successfully. The Mini Mela brought the new Live Garden to life on the final Sunday of the festival. With the Newcastle Quayside Market bustling not far away it felt like the perfect day for Sunday celebrations with people from all backgrounds gathered in the sunshine. GemArts filled the garden with free arts activity for all ages, punters could choose from: face painting, henna art, Rangoli art, kite making, elephant model making, sculpture painting or to browse the wares of local jewellery makers. Indoor workshops offered a chance to find your rhythm with Dhol drumming, Bollywood Dance and mini movers classes. At 11am and 2:30pm the square exploded into bright colours and sound as the Dhol drum dropped a beat for local dancers to throw some Bollywood shapes. They were followed by a procession of banners, flags and sculptures held by the eager, paint covered hands of local bairns, all on their way to watch the performance of The Magic Fish. ATMA Dance Company adapted the story of Vishnu, where he comes to save the Earth from the demon No-Knowledge. With a powerful, invigorating and uplifting message, young and old alike went away with a spring in their step.

GemArts Masala Festival Mini Mela Bollywood Dance procession photo Anna Miller GemArts Masala Festival Mini Mela Magic Fish banners crowd photo Anna Miller

So there you have it, a mix and blend of the finest South Asian arts and culture squeezed into this review. GemArts Masala Festival served up a vision of South Asian culture today, and with plans for an even bigger and tastier celebration next year, to mark the 70th Anniversary of India’s Independence, I think we all better settle down, tuck in our napkins and get ready to chow down on some more wholesome worldly experiences.

Written by Liam Scarth, student Placement with GemArts between 4th July and 22nd July 2016

Images: GemArts Masala Festival credit Anna Miller

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