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I'm Heather McGarrigle and this is my blog - a colourful celebration of culture, crafting and creativity in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Mela Monday: A flash of inspiration

Rather than your typical wine n' nibbles launch party, Mela 2012 announced its imminent arrival by tapping cleverly into the current zeitgeist for flash mobs.

At 11am on Thursday morning, Cornmarket became the stage for an impromptu Bollywood dance piece, led by the girls at the South Asian Dance Academy.

As one of ArtsEkta's new volunteer recruits, I found out about this weeks ago when I was invited to take part. It was disappointing to be stuck in work while my fellow Mela workers Bhangra-boogied with SADA but also cool to be in on the secret. Well done ladies, you looked fabulous!

A fittingly flamboyant start to the festival countdown - I can't believe it's less than a fortnight away! And this creative piece of PR serves as a nice opener to this week's Mela Monday which is all about the arts, crafts and creativity of the event.

Last year, I spent most of my time in the Global Souk's Craft Village and it's back this year. Although Mela management are remaining tightlipped about this part of the festival - (I guess they want to retain a few surprises for you on the day!) - I dare say you can expect to see most of last year's favourites, as well as some new stalls - I can't wait to have a nosey. Here are a few pics I took here last year.

There will also be artworks and creations on display here from the ArtsEkta outreach programme. This ambitious project uses creative workshops encompassing a variety of world cultures to enhance the education and experiences of school children and community groups.

These groups will also be participating in the opening parade of the Mela and their workshop pieces may also be seen in one or two of the Culture Land tents.

Which brings me neatly on to Culture Land! This is the aspect of Mela I am most excited about this year, and I am hoping a lot of my volunteer time on the day will be spent here.

This gorgeously positive festival area is a global arts experience designed for kids. They'll receive their Culture Land

'passport' as they enter the first nation's zone (Will it be Ireland, Africa, India, Japan, or another...?) and this clever document will bring them around the world via a series of artist-hosted marquees.

In each they will be led in creating something inspired by the country they are 'visiting' (maybe an Egyptian head dress, some Japanese script). Once their passport is stamped, they take their piece with them and it's on to the next adventure.

It's such a clever, non-preachy way to open kids' minds to other cultures. Children love to play and they learn through playing, making and doing, so it really is laying the groundwork for a whole generation of well-informed, unprejudiced, tolerant people.

Vaishali Kokate is leading the Indian workshop in Culture Land. The mum-of-two moved to Northern Ireland two-and-a-half years ago, leaving a high-powered corporate job in risk management and looking for a quieter life. However, the self-confessed chatterbox has been anything but quiet since joining ArtsEkta as a Mela volunteer and working her way up to being an outreach spokeswoman.

She visits various school and community groups on behalf of the organisation, sharing stories about her beloved homeland and its stories and traditions.

Vaishali told me the Indian workshop at Mela this year is featuring rangoli for the first time. She told me: "It's a very traditional Indian practice, which uses coloured rice and sand to make patterned pictures. The kids absolutely love it, they love the colours and the textures."

"We'll also have Indian clothes for the children to try on - that's always really popular as kids love dressing up. There will also be a henna stall where you can get traditional henna designs painted on your hands and arms."

Although she is not a full time artist herself, Vaishali says artistic creativity is very much part of her culture. "Most Indian women are highly skilled in creative arts that may be totally unrelated to their jobs."

Indian culture is bursting with colour, which Vaishali says makes art a very accessible way of bringing India to life in her work. A great example is the sari workshop she was recently involved in for a women's community group in Lenadoon. The West Belfast women threw themselves into the printing, keen to create their own designs for the garments they were making.

The success of this workshop was reportedly the inspiration for the Sanskriti heritage project, which aims to explore the similarities between our own culture here in Northern Ireland and that of India. One-mighty export trades in textiles, emigration/immigration, defining of oneself through clothes and appearance - these two very different countries have a lot more shared history than we might initially think.

Personally, I am really excited about seeing more of the products of the outreach programmes at Mela 2012; it will definitely be a highlight.

Dragon dance at last year's Mela.

I'm really looking forward to seeing the results of the project's work with primary schools, focusing on the Moghul era in India, with a lion costume and dance to be performed during the opening procession to represent this. There is also to be a display of artwork by a young women's group, which will feature Henna Hands - showcasing this beautiful practice of skin decoration. These and other works will be housed in the brand new Maharaja tent, also featuring live performances.

If that has whetted your artistic appetite, check out the full festival programme on belfastmela.org.uk and plan your itinerary for the day. Leave a comment below; let me know if you're heading to Mela and what you're most looking forward to.

I hope to see you there!

Belle-fast

Mela Monday: Hands up!