My First Mela

I attended my very first UK Mela at the tender old age of eighteen in the summer of 1988.

Negotiating oversized Rajasthani string marionette puppets through St. Pancras Station whilst guiding a bicycle, carrying a costume, parathas and rucksack, turned a few heads.

Mela legend Parbinder Singh, a youth co-coordinator and cultural activist from Nottingham had a steely determination to make and create an outdoor celebration of South Asian culture – to inject confidence and inspire young people, to make the private public and to bring families and friends together.

When the call came to perform my puppet theatre show, I jumped at the opportunity – I had spent my summer holidays in Nottingham and had many family and friends excited that a Mela was coming to town. More importantly, I’d never performed the show to anyone!

What resulted, was a powerful moment of public celebration of a community who had been largely invisible. Nottingham along with Bradford became pioneering moments for UK Mela. The cultural landscape was changing for the diaspora – a changing and challenging political backdrop of Benazir Bhutto becoming the first female leader of a Muslim country, whilst closer to home Margaret Thatcher became the longest serving Prime Minster of the century. A growing confidence in numbers of public gatherings and celebrations was emerging and Mela, along with Carnival, was the public face of it.

And so, a hybrid cultural event began, a combination of intercultural, intergenerational desires. Multi art form, music and performance, a food fiesta, Mela became a showcase for all things powerful and positive.

Parbinder’s vision and legacy lives on in the London Mela, his values are true today as they were for the very first UK Mela. 30 years on, over 30 UK towns and cities have some form of Mela celebration.

And for those marionettes? Well, way back in 2003, at the very first London Mela, we created giant stilt walking marionettes, which have gone on to become a contemporary symbol of Mela. We continue to carry on that legacy of entertaining and education.

Ajay Chhabra
Co-Founder and Artistic Director
London Mela

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