“The best place in the world to spend this weekend,” announced a tweet from an enthusiastic visitor to Edinburgh during the last two days of August festivities in the city. And she was right. Where else in the world does one city host over 3,000 shows in 313 venues in which over 25,000 performers participate, and 4.2 million people from 70 countries attend, all over a single month?
Edinburgh has become the world’s leading festival city, attracting talent from all over the world. However, the term Edinburgh Festival exists only in the minds of those who visit and/or read about it. What is offered in Edinburgh each year is a panoply of art and cultural events and festivals, each organised separately by independent bodies that run separate programmes. The two original events — the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe or The Fringe — were established in 1947. The former was first set up as part of an effort at resuscitating the arts and to ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’ in the post-war years. Very much in the Scott spirit of defiance, eight theatre companies broke away from the main body in the same year to organise their own event, the Edinburgh Fringe. Both organisations thrived, with the latter now in its own right the largest of any similar event in the world.
Over the years, more festivals were added to the original two. Today, there are 12 major festivals that include festivals of films, books, science, the military tattoo, the Edinburgh Mela (to celebrate the city’s South Asian population), and many more.
Small though the city is, Edinburgh, with its population of just 500,000, is able to neatly swallow a shifting population that at any point during the festival season would be double its own population size. The crowds of tourists, festival audiences and participants disappear into theatres and auditoriums, under tents, into pubs and basements and church halls, only to emerge into the city’s streets and open spaces for refreshments and food. The Royal Mile — the thoroughfare in the old town that links the Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace — on a typical Fringe day is full of atmospherics, with groups flaunting their skills that include acrobatics, theatre, mime, song and dance.
South Asia, India in particular, made a splash this year with its participation in the festivals, especially the Fringe and the Edinburgh Mela, the latter a South Asia focussed cultural extravaganza.
The Fringe is an open-access festival with no curator or selection process and its popularity is reflected in the fact that the number of tickets issued between 2009 to 2015 has doubled from 1.5 million to 3 million.
South Asian comedy, a uniquely home-grown phenomenon in the United Kingdom, is very popular and gets concentrated at the Fringe where South Asian origin comedians of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent perform devastatingly funny and sharp, social commentary on the second-generation immigrant experience. They are mostly young, irreverent and willing to take on the one subject of great taboo and growing sensitivity, namely religion. Sajeela Kershi in Shallow Halal is an agonised agnostic who is fed up to the teeth of faith that comes in extremist wrapping, and offers a hilarious take on a family straddled across two societies, Britain and Pakistan. South Asian stand-up comedians are a growing tribe and the best present at the Fringe. There was Aatif Nawaz with ‘Muslims do it five times a day’, Neel Kolhatkar with ‘Truth be Told’, Hardeep Singh Kohli with ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’, Ari Shaffir with ‘This is Not Happening’, and Anil Desai with ‘Impressions of a Hindude’ among many others.
It was, however, the recurrent theme of Bollywood within the South Asian cultural offering that clearly made the biggest impact. The catchy songs, energetic dances, bright swishing clothes, along with the usual banality of the Bollywood romance, were a big draw not just for South Asians but also white audiences. One of the highlights of this year’s Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo — an annual event held at night, and performed by military bands from the U.K. and around the world with the lit-up Edinburgh Castle forming a dramatic backdrop — was the show ‘A Bollywood Love Story’ by Sanjoy Roy of the Delhi-based Teamwork Production. It involved a company of around 50 dancers from India and Scotland perform a 10-minute instant version of the girl-meets-boy-and-they-marry-very-quickly theme to great applause from the audience. A one-hour version of the same production was held at the Edinburgh Mela. Continuing the Bollywood theme was ‘A Ticket to Bollywood’, yet another production showcasing Indian dance.
Will South Asian participation and representation from the subcontinent change over future Fringe festivals? Neil Mackinnon, Head of External Affairs of the Fringe Society was cautious about making any projection. “Much of the Indian and South Asian work which comes to the Fringe, like most international work generally, comes because they have aspirations to take their work on tour after the Fringe, and for them the Fringe is a springboard to further international opportunities. The producer of the Ticket to Bollywood show has already told me that she intends to bring the show back next year to further exploit the opportunities that presenting the show at the Fringe can bring,” he says. “In terms of the themes and content of the shows, we always say that the role of the Fringe Society is to promote every show in the Fringe and we must stay strictly impartial when it comes to the content or the theme of the show.”
Edinburgh, however, looks forward to extending and enriching South Asian and Indian participation in its future festivals. Faith Liddel, Director – Festivals Edinburgh, stressed the ‘spirit of internationalism’ that informs the festival, and said that India was among the ‘key countries’ they seek engagement with. “This August we also welcomed delegates from India in Momentum, The Edinburgh Festivals International Delegate programme, which illuminates our festival’s essential role as a platform for dialogue, creative exchange and partnership development,” she said.