dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Published August 24th 2017
Summer festivals with Asian flavour
Birmingham's Sampad South Asian Arts is this year at the forefront of two of the city's biggest festivals. Utsav 2017, the Year of South Asian Arts, and Birmingham Weekender in September will attract crowds running into the thousands – and they place Sampad firmly at the heart of the city's cultural scene.
Founded in 1990 by Piali Ray, Sampad aims to champion and develop South Asian arts through its partnerships with other arts and community groups and this year's festivals are the perfect way to achieve that. The organisation is working closely with Birmingham City Council to support Utsav 2017, a year-long celebration of South Asian arts and culture.
In a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the partition of the Indian subcontinent and coinciding with the UK-India Year of Culture, Utsav (the Hindi word for festival) is offering activities for all of the city's communities to take part in throughout the year including performances, cookery and sports and featuring a mix of local talent and established international artists.
Piali says: "It's a festival for all of Birmingham's communities – it's a time to come together and share our stories. We can hold hands and be proud of the rich heritage of our city, while recognising the positive contribution made by South Asian communities."
During Utsav, Sampad is delivering The Partition Trail, a major project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which aims to capture personal memories from local people who were directly affected by the sweeping turmoil of the Partition of India in 1947.
Piali explains: "The Partition Trail project and exhibition which opens in November is exploring the past but within the context of the present generation. We're looking at its legacy in cities like Birmingham where there are Indian and Pakistani communities and exploring some of the related narratives from different angles. We still have people who were present at the time or who have recollections of that time from their parents or grandparents and we want to open up dialogues between different generations and examine shared heritage."
And she adds that its themes remain relevant. "There are lessons to be learned from the Partition. The refugee crisis we are seeing now echoes many experiences from that time. It's not something that just happened in the past, it also matters in the context of the present. That's why we're taking The Partition Trail to young people in schools, to help them better understand the experience of loss and displacement."
Also this summer Piali has taken on the role of joint artistic director for Birmingham Weekender along with Graham Callister of Birmingham Hippodrome. The three-day festival on September 22-24 features events across the city including a spectacular outdoor drumming-firework show, cabaret on trams, an orchestra recital in a multi-storey car park and internationally renowned Sufi singer Hans Raj Hans.
Piali says: "While the city is celebrating South Asian culture with Utsav, it is a great year to be involved in planning and organising Birmingham Weekender. The festival is another wonderful cultural highlight for the city. Birmingham is a very welcoming and open city with diversity in every kind of way and Birmingham Weekender will celebrate this. There are four key strands forming the programming – Birmingham as an international city, as a dance city, as a showcase for South Asian arts and Birmingham itself. The festival will appeal to people of all backgrounds and it includes everything from performing arts, visual arts, outside shows, queer arts, lots of spectacular shows and a colourful, lively Birmingham parade – including an amazing, life-size mechanical elephant!"
Sampad has long been involved in Birmingham Weekender's predecessors including ArtsFest and the 4 Squares Weekender. As a leading light in developing and championing South Asian arts, Piali's key role in this year's festival is a logical step. She says: "When Sampad started we were very much looking at finding a foothold for South Asian arts from the margins to the centre. South Asian arts has really expanded since Sampad was formed and it's now much more the norm – it's not just seen as an exotic art form from another place. That's not only in the artistic sphere but also in the social, cultural and educational contexts as well."
Piali remains alert to the evolving landscape for South Asian arts. "It's not just South Asian any more, it's British Asian - you are talking about a different generation of creators and audiences," says Piali. "South Asian arts used to focus more on the forms that travelled to this country when people of South Asian origin brought their culture here. Current generations who have been born and brought up in the UK can still reference their South Asian heritage, traditions and culture but it is perfectly natural and organic for them to be strongly referencing British culture too."
These cultural crossovers have informed many of the arts, education and outreach projects led by Sampad. These have involved women taking part in creative writing workshops to explore family lives and personal journeys for Birmingham > Brick Lane > Bangladesh. And Birmingham schoolchildren explored local peace movements during World War One in the Words of Peace project which culminated in a special event at the city's Peace Garden in July 2016.
Sampad's impressive range of activities include discovering and promoting future generations of artists."Sampad has played a key role in supporting and developing new creative talent and cultural leaders in Birmingham and beyond," says Piali. "We ran a cultural leadership course over four years and many of the people who were part of that are now in key positions at cultural organisations around the country. Our aim is to keep the story moving forward, so it's vital that we keep investing in these future leaders and practitioners.
And she adds: "We have built strong international partnerships in places like Canada, South Africa, Europe and the Indian subcontinent which means we can open doors for Birmingham and UK artists to a global marketplace, as well as helping to attract world-class artists to our great city."
Moving forward has also meant embracing digital technology to offer new artistic experiences. Sampad's digital showpiece for the London 2012 Festival, Mandala, broke new ground for South Asian arts, combining urban and classical dance and music with new technologies, helping the organisation to reach new audiences and boosting its confidence to continue to innovate and explore the potential of digital arts.
Since then, it has been encouraging artists and arts professionals to embrace digital technology as a creative tool. "With EU funding, we have been working with partners across Europe to offer exciting digital learning opportunities for creative professionals and more than 90 placements have been designed and initiated by Sampad," says Piali. "We were also a partner for Qawwali Shrine, which connected us with BEAST (Birmingham Electric Acoustic Sound Theatre) at the University of Birmingham, who took excerpts of Qawwali music and reworked it digitally to explore whether states of spiritual bliss evoked by the music could be measured and artistically represented using new technologies."
And she adds: "We worked in partnership with Birmingham City University on Maker Monday which was hothousing new collaborations between arts and digital practitioners. With these kind of activities, we are creating opportunities in a research and development context for artists to realise the scope and potential of digital."
And Piali believes Sampad will continue to play a leading role in taking the arts forward. "The future landscape needs to be shaped by the generations who are coming up now which is why we are so invested in nurturing talent," she says. "Our enduring mission is to encourage their vision and creative potential so that South Asian arts, thrive, break new ground and play a meaningful role in mainstream UK culture for the future."
For more information on Birmingham Weekender see here and for more information on Utsav 2017 see here.