The diversity of Jackson Heights, Queens, and its changing demographics from a largely South Asian locality to a “gentrifying” neighborhood makes a festival like Chatpati Mela even more important, say organizers at Chhaya CDC, who held the event July 15, on 77th Street.
Everything from a ‘Pani Puri Eating Contest’ to Bhangra classes, and awards for those who have significantly contributed to the South Asian presence, the mela reflected the diverse nature of one of the fastest growing populations of the Big Apple.
This year’s event attracted close to 2,000 people and was based on the theme – Strength in Unity. Among the prominent people who attended was Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, who praised Chhaya CDC’s work to promote tenant rights, financial empowerment and naturalization, adding it was “essential in our efforts to make New York City more open and more welcoming to all.”
Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya, told Desi Talk the festival was particularly important because “We have been observing since leading up to the presidential elections and after, that the fear among South Asians, and Muslims is very, very real. And this festival is an important symbolic and practical way of recognizing the contributions of these immigrants.”
Seecharan also said “There’s no other secular and truly inclusive festival like this in the city,” adding, “It’s very important to show our presence here.”
The performances and food from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the Maldives, as well as people of South Asian origin from the Caribbean, South America, and Africa were featured at the festival.
Community Leadership awards were given to artist and activist Rekha Malhotra – DJ Rekha – for being a pioneer in introducing South Asian culture and music into mainstream pop culture; the activist organization Desis Rising Up and Moving – DRUM – for advocating against discrimination and establishing Hate Free Zones; and the Shanti Bhavan Mandir – for being a sanctuary temple for immigrants who feel at risk of deportation.
Udichi – a Bangladeshi performing arts group; Rhythm Tolee – an award winning Punjabi band; the Dance Theater of Nepal; and bands like Versatile and Rabby who played popular South Asian music, performed at the festival. In addition, there was a lively bhangra dance lesson provided by the popular bhangra workout group, Masala Bhangra.