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Spotlight on Springboard - Nasreen Akhtar Khan

Posted on 8 July 2016

Springboard is a new initiative at the Belgrade which aims to support up-and-coming theatre artists from across the Midlands through training opportunities, office space and assistance in developing professional productions for the stage.

Newly announced Springboard Companies include Noctium Theatre, a Coventry-based theatre company formed by graduates of Coventry University led by Artistic Director, Connor Nolan and Co-Artistic Director Jessica Coller. They are joined by HighTime, Coventry’s only professional opera company lead by University of Warwick graduates Felicity Green and Ben Hamilton and Strictly Arts Theatre, a Birmingham-based theatre company founded by Corey Campbell in 2014 alongside original members Reaya Sealey, Keiran Amos and Philip Morris. Joining them is Nasreen Akhtar Khan, an independent producer based in Coventry who is responsible for co-ordinating the theatre’s annual celebration of Coventry’s South Asian arts and artists, the Belgrade Mela.

In the first of our ‘Spotlight on Springboard’ blog series, proud Cov kid, Nasreen Akhtar-Khan shares her thoughts on Coventry’s rich history of celebrating South Asian arts and culture ahead of the Belgrade Mela this summer!

Bollywood beauties, desi dance divas, ancient arts and contemporary crafts…experience the best of South Asian culture, old and new come together this summer with the return of the Belgrade Theatre’s ever popular Mela!

Showcasing South Asian talent from across Coventry and Warwickshire, the Belgrade Mela will see representatives from Coventry’s diverse South Asian communities come together to celebrate South Asian arts and culture in a one-day festival taking place at the Belgrade Theatre on Saturday 23rd July.
First launched in 2014, the Belgrade Mela is the pet-project of Nasreen Akhtar-Khan, a graduate of De Montfort University, Leicester and a passionate advocate for South Asian arts in Coventry.

So what inspired Nasreen, an ordinary, working-class girl from Radford to take on the challenge of organising her first ‘Mela’ at Coventry’s premiere producing theatre back in 2014?

“Ever since my sister got married, I’ve loved organising. When I was deciding on what I wanted to do, I came across a degree in Arts Management at De Montfort University, Leicester and found out that one of the modules was in Events Management. From that point I was hooked and I’ve never looked back since.

“Being born and raised in Radford, Coventry, I was aware that, whilst we had a huge, resident South Asian population, there was very little in terms of a collective arts and culture offering in the city. Communities tended to stick within their own cultures and religions. The Sikhs had their own events, the Hindus had theirs and Muslim communities theirs. Also – I was aware that a lot of people were having to travel outside of Coventry to see the big names in South Asian music and arts. Not only that, I was very aware that celebrities always seemed to take their trade outside of Coventry to the big centres like Birmingham and Leicester.

“After completing my degree, I thought I’d like to do something for the Coventry South Asian community. I wanted to pull people out of their community centres and bring them into a theatre environment.”

Traditionally held outdoors, the word Mela (derived from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to meet’) is commonly used to describe a gathering of people. From commercial markets to sporting-events, arts festivals to food-fayres, the once humble Mela of rural Indian tradition has grown, across the years, into a multi-million pound industry, attracting some of the biggest names in South Asian talent from across the UK.

“Traditionally, Melas are a chance for communities and families to come together. With the advent of mass migration, Melas took on huge importance to new communities who wanted to bring something of their old traditions to their new countries. Today, Britain is home to a thriving Mela culture. Large or small, Melas are about celebrating what it means to be a British Asian today and about sharing the richness and diversity of South Asian culture in all its forms.”
But what inspired Nasreen to take the idea of the Mela and transfer it into a traditional theatre setting?

“It seemed like a natural fit to me. With a theatre, you’ve got so many great facilities at your disposal. It’s in a city centre location and it’s accessible.

“But aside from that, I was also really passionate about challenging some of the cultural taboos that exist within the South Asian community around attending the theatre, which is sometimes mistakenly seen as a white, middle-class activity. The Belgrade Mela is very much a community-wide event in which all South Asian religions, cultures and communities can come together as one to enjoy the best of their shared culture. By choosing to hold the Mela at one of the city’s premiere arts venues – rather than outdoors – I wanted to encourage better access to the theatre amongst Coventry’s South Asian communities. It’s also a great way for the wider Coventry community to find out more about the diversity of South Asian artists living and working in the city. We have some incredible talent here in Coventry. People such as Punjabi MC and Taz from Stereo Nation. It’s important that we take ownership of these artists and celebrate what’s great about our city!’

Nasreen’s first encounter with the Belgrade Theatre began – as it did for so many young people – not in the theatre – but at school.

“As a child, I remember travelling past the Belgrade Theatre on the school bus. One of my earliest memories is of seeing a poster for the comedian Russ Abbot in the window of the theatre. I remember thinking it was such a glamorous place. I also have fond memories of the Belgrade visiting my school as a child as part of their TiE tour of Coventry. Ever since that time, I’ve always known I wanted to be involved in the arts.”

Building on the success of last year’s event, visitors to the 2016 Belgrade Mela can look forward to a series of free workshops taking place throughout the day showcasing the best in traditional and modern Asian arts.

“Whether its shaking those hips to the latest Bollywood beats, learning to play the Dhol or trying your hand at classical South Asian instruments, all of the workshops that feature in the programme have been designed for people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy together – whatever their experience or ability.”
Workshops running between Midday – 6pm in the B2 auditorium this year include: An Introduction to Yoga, Learn Bollywood Dancing, An Introduction to Bharatanatyam Dancing, Learn to play the Dhol and Classical South Asian Instruments.

Stallholders from across the South Asian community will also be on hand throughout the afternoon selling traditional artisan crafts as well as a selection of sweet and savoury food. New for 2016, visitors will also be given the chance to relax and unwind in the Belgrade Café with free readings from classical Indian poems by Bulleh Shah and Rabindranath Tagore.

Not forgetting young visitors, this year’s family-friendly events programme will feature a range of free activities for children including face painting and a soft play area that will include ball pool, Didi cars and Happy Hoperz. For the first time, young visitors will also be given the opportunity to learn how to read and write the alphabet in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi or Gujurati, with free taster activities taking place throughout the day.

“We’re also really excited to play host to the premiere of a new, short Indian film this year as well as a new exhibition produced in association with The University of Warwick, ‘Colonial Hangover’ which explores the legacy of the British Empire in India and its impact upon Indian cultural identity today.”
During the evening, South Asian talent from across Coventry will take to the Belgrade Main Stage to showcase their various art forms in a highly original and exciting live show. So what great acts does Nasreen have up her sleeve this year?

“This year’s Belgrade Mela is all about championing new and emerging talent. I’m delighted to say that this year’s programme has a little bit of everything from classical Bharatanyam dancing to Dhol, Bollywood folk music to comedy – it’s a really exciting mixture of genres and styles.

“We have some fantastic local artists taking part this year including the Belgrade’s own Asian Youth Theatre who will be performing a masked piece produced in association with Vamos Theatre Company, one of the leading producers of masked theatre work in the UK today. Plus, we have repeat performances from Sneha Singh who’ll be exploring the use of folk music across Bollywood tradition and Masterclass Entertainments, who’ll be returning with another terrific Dhol set. As always, I have a few surprise acts up my sleeve so watch this space!”

With South Asian arts in the region currently undergoing something of a renaissance, and with Coventry’s bid to be named UK City of Culture 2021 in full swing, what does Nasreen see as the wider value of Coventry’s investment in the creative arts?

“I think events like the Mela are hugely important, particularly in today’s multi-cultural Britain. When I was growing up in Coventry in the 1980s, I remember it as a very open and inclusive place. South Asian communities lived together and socialized together. We used to leave our doors open for people to come in during festivals and religious celebrations. Gradually, as these communities grew and groups became more established, people ended up moving out of the city centre and into the suburbs which meant that that community spirit was lost.

“When the first immigrant communities arrived in Coventry, there was a thriving cultural scene here. Coventry was famously home to one of the first cinemas to screen Bollywood movies during the late 1950s. Places like The Ritz in Foleshill and The Savoy on Radford Road were focal points for the local community to come together and they attracted many of the big Bollywood names of the day. Organisations such as The Indian Cultural and Welfare Society did so much to bring the community together and maintain tangible links back to ‘home’ for so many.

“Today especially, it’s so important for young South Asians to know where they come from and to see themselves and their culture represented on stage in all its diversity. Not only that, it’s about encouraging and embracing cultural dialogue. It’s about opening up South Asian culture to other communities in the city and giving them the chance to learn more about South Asian history, culture and tradition. Over the years, culture has played an integral role in defining who and what we are as a city. It’s an exciting time for the arts right now in Cov and I, for one, am very proud to play a small part in shaping the cultural landscape of the city!”

The Belgrade Mela Coventry will take place on Sat 23 July. The free daytime programme runs from midday– 6pm. The evening event runs from 6pm – 9pm with tickets priced at £10.75 and £12.75.

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