How inspirational Nisha grew up with art in her heart

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There’s something electric about Arts Ekta founder Nisha Tandon.

She has a unique, galvanising personality that makes you just want to get up and do something.

What that something is I don’t know just yet, but after my interview with her, I felt moved, energised and excited. It’s a truly special skill she has.

There’s some people in life that have it; the real ‘ X factor’ and when you meet Nisha you realise that she’s one of those people.

I’m not talking about the Simon Cowell style of X Factor, although I’m fairly sure she’d give the Britain’s Got Talent judges something to talk about with her dancing abilities.

No, I’m talking about that special quality that someone has that turns them into a force to be reckoned with, fuelled by passion and driven by an ambition to succeed.

In 1977, as The Troubles raged throughout Northern Ireland, 19-year-old Nisha arrived in Belfast from New Delhi, India.

It wasn’t necessarily her choice of international move, but as her culture dictated at that time she married an Indian man living in Northern Ireland through an arranged marriage.

Back in India, Nisha had gained a degree from the National School of Drama in New Dehli and trained as an Indian dancer.

Having already toured the country in dramatic productions she was no stranger to the stage.

However, on arrival in Northern Ireland, opportunity for an Indian woman to enter the arts was scarce.

“I was always into drama but being from a minority ethnic background in those days, there were no opportunities of that kind” said Nisha.

“There were no open doors for people who wanted to be part of this industry. The qualifications I had were not compatible for foreign people. It was very insular. So I never ever got around to doing what I wanted to do.

“There was nothing one could have done, I had to leave my life in New Delhi behind, it was an arranged marriage and the culture in those days is so different to what it is now. If I had to reverse my life it would be totally different.”

However, landing in Northern Ireland wasn’t going to stop Nisha, now 58, from pursuing her ambitions. And while it took many years for her to integrate herself into the Northern Ireland arts community, she now holds a formidable role at the head of the leading ethnic arts organisation in the country.

“It was a bit scary when I first came to Belfast,” she explained.

“I didn’t know anybody and everyone I spoke to would say ‘don’t go into this area, don’t go into that area’. So after dark and winter days you were just sort of staying at home or doing nothing.

“In saying that I was very lucky that I landed here in August and I got a part-time job in September. It was after I discovered that there was a multi-cultural resource centre that I just started to go and do a little bit of voluntary work over there.

“That’s how I came to know a lot of other people who were living from different backgrounds in Belfast.

“Everyone I spoke to was so enthusiastic about my culture and my background. The one thing I always got asked was ‘how come you can speak such good English?’.

“I had to explain that it was my first language because we are taught from day one in New Delhi.

“I was fortunate enough to go to public school and got a good education.”

A lack of opportunity and rife civil unrest didn’t dampen Nisha’s spirits. As well as bringing up her three children Sonia (33), Natalie (32) and Krishan (27), she found the time to carve a career for herself in the arts and voluntary sector.

Nisha said: “Back then one of my good multicultural friends introduced me to some coffee mornings where we would talk about our culture and we would bring snacks and things like that of Indian background.

“From there I always remember my first cookery demonstration, the cultural demonstration was in Dairy Farm on the Stewartstown Road and I still remember Anne Rodgers who was fantastic, she gave me the opportunity and I never looked back.

“People said to me, ‘don’t be going into that area it’s the heart of the troubles’. From there, I went across to the Shankill Women’s Group and travelled all over Northern Ireland.

“It was talking all about the Indian culture and because I was a dancer as well we could show different aspects.”

Eventually Nisha became the Arts & Development Officer at the Indian Community Centre in Belfast which gave her a unique ability to work directly with the community in North Belfast.

However, her time at the centre came to close and naturally her idea for Arts Ekta was born.

But it hasn’t been without its challenges along the way.

She said: “After leaving the Indian Community Centre, Arts Ekta was just an idea, I thought I needed to do something for people coming to Northern Ireland from other cultures, especially women.

“I wanted to give them a little bit of an opportunity.

“In 2006 I started in my own back room, I had someone from Japanese, Chinese, Indian and African cultures and I introduced them into St Paul’s Primary School in Belfast.

“Our programme was called Journey Around The World. Eventually we created the Belfast Mela, which takes place this Sunday in Botanic Gardens.

“What we wanted to do was teach people about other cultures through the medium of art.

“Now when people see the Mela and what we have achieved they don’t realise that there are always challenges, we are always struggling with things like funding. We will always be second class citizens in Northern Ireland. There are challenges I face every day in my work, we will never get the platform we should be given. But you have to keep at it.”

Nisha’s unwavering determination to be heard is admirable. Whilst many things irritate her, nothing deters her from achieving her end goal of supporting both ethnic minorities to integrate into Northern Ireland society, and helping local people understand those with differing cultural backgrounds.

Like many people in the voluntary sector, she gives a lot of her personal, free time to the work as well as putting in a working week.

“I’m passionate about what I do, I’ve put voluntary hours in but you have to if you want to succeed.” she said.

For Nisha, she believes the importance of creativity and the arts within family and community units is very often ignored in Northern Ireland.

This is one of the biggest cultural differences she found between India and Northern Ireland.

She said: “Art is in the heart of every household in India, from the minute we are born. We are brought up within the arts in every direction whether it’s school or at home.

“I remember my dad sending us every Saturday to a little children’s theatre and we would spend all day doing arts, dance or music and that was where we used to go for our music classes and dance classes.

“It’s a totally different way of education with much more interaction in the arts in India.”

Nisha believes expanding the arts in Northern Ireland, rather than cutting them, is an important part of the country’s future.

“It’s very important to remember our history and what is our past because you can never forget your past. But you have to think of the future of this country, to give people a better future you have to invest into the areas where you should be investing.

“I think that education plays a very important role and that is from early years that education should be done right and that is how countries flourish.

“The creative industries are on the rise and you don’t have to be an artist or dancer to use creative flair in a job. But we do have to encourage this from a young age.

“After India’s war 70 years ago when we got our independence, our creative industries began to flourish. There is massive growth in computers, clothing and more and that’s because children were nurtured to be creative.

“Creative investments are very important, but if we keep on cutting the investment in the arts and the investment in things which will bring more tourism, which will bring people to more activities, we are never going to achieve what we want to achieve.”

Nisha’s quest to improve the arts in Northern Ireland hasn’t just been recognised locally, although the popularity of the Belfast Mela at Botanic Gardens every year certainly helps that.

In 2014 she was awarded an OBE and last year she was named UK Asian Woman of the Year.

“They were something I never expected, but I was very thankful,” she says.

“I just want to keep on going and bring some innovative and fantastic projects to Northern Ireland.

“Whether I am heard or not it doesn’t bother me. I do get criticism because I speak how I feel. But I will just keep doing what I want to do, and if I’m still here doing it next year then happy days.”

The Belfast Mela, launched in 2007, is set to feature a carnival of international cultures, food, music, dance, arts and performance from around the world, tomorrow (Sunday) at Botanic Gardens in Belfast.

Over 25,000 people are expected to attend the event. For more information log onto www.belfastmela.org.uk