Written By - Anisha Patankar
In a nation so deeply rooted in its rich, kaleidoscopic history, India’s contemporary social events more often than not, reflect proceedings of cultural past. From its very inception, the country has relied on social gatherings as a means of disseminating community spirit, and continues to do so today. Indian mela’s, or fairs, are one of the many mediums through which its people celebrate creativity, community, and togetherness. And while Indian fairs today have a lot in common with those preceding them, they have also evolved exponentially.
Indian fairs find their origins in religious festivals like Dussera, Diwali, Holi, and Onam, all of which are celebrated to this day. Indias oldest mela and an important pilgrimage for Hindus, The Kumbh mela, is said to have started almost two thousand years ago, mentions of which were first found in the written accounts of the Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who visited India during the rule of king Harshavardhana.
Outside of India, Indian indentured immigrants were settling into villages in Trinidad from 1845 to 1917. Slowly, their culture began to seep into and mix with that of the Trinidadian locals, and this caused heavy Indian influence on Trinidadian Carnival, which is celebrated to this day. Apart from certain religious elements, Indian costume, music, dance, and food were and are still very evident parts of Carnival.
Long after independence, in 1978, India was given a proposal by the British, who wanted to exhibit Indian antiques on a global scale. In 1980, a newly reelected Indira Gandhi had similar ideas to showcase modern Indian artistry. Thus, the ‘Festival of India’ was born. These fests included Indian art, sculpture, dance, music, food, textile, science, and anything else that would exhibit India's rich past and efforts in the contemporary age.
So, what makes the modern Mela so different from its predecessors? While technological advancements are hefty contributors, everything from food to entertainment has seen massive changes. For one, melas are now adapting to global culture when it comes to art, food, music, and dance. This allows artists to showcase their talents without being bound by cultural borders. In a more literal sense, melas are also expanding their state borders, as they travel from one city to the next, spreading the joy of Indian culture throughout the nation.
No matter what changes, one element has stuck from the very beginning: the importance of community. Whether it be large religious gatherings or small-scale fairs run by local groups, the relevance of melas will never dissolve, as long as people need each other, they need an outlet to share their belongingness. That outlet just happens to be a Kaleidoscope of tradition and cultures, food, art, costume, and music, all coming together to become the carnivals we love so dearly.