Around Town: Celebrating diverse culture

You needn’t travel to India to realize there’s more to the exotic Asian subcontinent than spices, spirituality and Bollywood, or to dispel clichés such as “Delhi belly” or that most Indians love cricket, practice yoga, eat curry and work in call centres.

A more realistic, and eye-opening, glimpse of Indian culture and more could be found this week at the India-Canada Cultural Association of Victoria’s fourth annual India Fest that continues from noon until 7 p.m. today at Centennial Square.

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“It’s a way to educate the mainstream community, and for our kids born and raised here so they’ll understand their culture,” said ICCA past president and event co-chair Sunil Bhatia midway through the “Mela,” an ancient, multi-cultural celebration.

At last count, there were an estimated 5,000 families of India descent living in the community, according to organizers.

“We talk about Canada being a melting pot of multiculturism, and India is much bigger. As you go province to province, village to village you’ll find 17 languages, 300 dialects and just so much diversity,” the affable New Delhi-born organizer said.

“If you want to showcase multiculturalism in the free world, that would be India. And who follows what God or Goddess gets translated into culture. That’s where the confusion comes in. Are you a Punjabi? Yes. Are you a Sikh? No, I’m not.”

Indeed, India Fest is nothing if not inclusive, with entertainment such as Punjabi folk dancing, Bollywood numbers and Indian karaoke complemented by belly dancing, Japanese Taiko drumming and Polynesian dancing for good measure.

“We wanted to revive the Folk Fest environment,” Bhatia said. “That’s why we have a lot of other cultures too.”

Authentic cuisine dished up at booths representing local Indian eateries such as Sizzling Tandoor and the Curry Lounge has been a popular Mela hallmark alongside the music, dance, art, fashion and palmistry showcased under the sun.

“It’s so good. I love Indian food,” said Heather Baker, 17, a student from Edmonton, as she speared a tasty morsel of butter chicken drenched in a spicy sauce with rice and papadam.

“We came last year and decided to return because we loved it.”

Farid Zamany showed up after work Wednesday to join his wife Trista and their daughters Lucia, 3, and 10-month-old Soraya.

“Indian food and Polynesian dancing. Hey, that works for me!” he laughed as Lilia’s Polynesian Dance Co. performed. “I’m here mainly for the food but at least I can admit it.”

Co-chair Sabba Sall said it was the success of the Victoria Greek community’s annual Greek Fest that inspired the association in part to present its annual Mela, the ancient tradition that dates back 6,000 years.

Sall, who was born in India and raised in Port Alberni, where his father was a millworker, recalls telling association members they needed to find a venue where they could showcase how proud they were of their culture while involving their children.

“When the kids get up there and dance they’re on cloud nine,” he said.

“We walk between two cultures — Canadian and Indian. We try to retain the best of both worlds. This is a good way to do it. It’s as grassroots as you can get.”

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