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This year could well be a watershed moment in the life of Parramasala, often spoken about as a unique celebration of multiculturalism in Australia.
In March this year, Parramasala was almost facing liquidation, until the state government gave it a new lease of life with a lump sum funding injection. This in turn pushed the local Parramatta Council to put some of its rate payers’ money into the festival. With a few private companies offering sponsorships, a war chest of over $875,000 was raised to see these three days of festivities back on again.
Being 15% higher than last year’s revenue of $745,000, this was a wonderful opportunity for the event organisers to build on the previous year’s festival.
Yet the numbers attracted to Parramasala this year were smaller than in previous years, according to long-term attendees of the festival. The Saturday night festivities of 2014 had people crammed in Prince Alfred Park; this year the crowds were far less.
This in spite of the massive build up and promotion done by ABC 702, who broadcast live from the venue. That promotion is something which money cannot buy, one observer of multicultural trends in the community told Indian Link. With weekend presenter Simon Marnie in full flow for three hours, the broadcast was heard across Sydney and regional NSW and in itself gave much traction to the event.
What caused the masala to go bland this year? One observation is the inability of the event organisers to articulate what the festival stands for. Parramasala had always been about reaching out to the South Asian community across NSW, however it appears the message changed this year.
While discussing the festival on air, ABC radio hosts described it as a ‘South Asian’ festival of arts and culture. They spoke about food and songs and festivities from South Asian communities – Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and so on. But on Parramasala’s website, the festival is described as a “free, public celebration of the diverse and rich cultures which contribute to Sydney’s rich social fabric – a heady and colourful mix of music, dance, parade, theatre, food, film and heritage”.
And that is where the message got confused. A festival that started out six years ago (following the Indian student unrest in Harris Park/Parramatta) as a South Asian arts and music event, Parramasala now features Bollywood flash mobs and contemporary Kathak alongside Latin funk bands, French language chanteuses, brass bands, Bulgarian jazz and African dancers. Perhaps Parramasala is trying to become ‘Parramasalata’, to use a term coined by ABC’s Simon Marnie.
No doubt there was some wonderful programming this year, largely due to artists from overseas sponsored by Tourism India and the Indian government, but the stage performances overall, did not overly impress.
Parramasala has evolved over the years and now is more than just a South Asian festival. It has become a larger celebration of diversity in Parramatta and Sydney.
This is indeed wonderful, but will this new avatar be accepted – not only by the sponsors but also the public? The stall holders this year were largely South Asian, wanting to market to their target South Asian clients. Looking around Parramasala there seemed to be less South Asian attendance as compared to previous years, as there seemed to be limited reason to attend this year.
Parramasala has lost its unique appeal of what it set out to do; it can now be challenged as to where this extravaganza stands in the overall scheme of multicultural activities in the Sydney calendar.
Parramatta itself celebrates Laneways, its food and wine festival, and soon will have Lai Throng, its Thai Festival of Lights, and then Australia Day, which celebrates all things Australian, including multiculturalism.
Does a mishmash of what the event organisers presented over the three days of Parramasala this year, justify a spend of nearly $ 1 million, is a question which needs to be asked.
Going by the figures in the 2014 annual report, over 33% went towards administration expenses alone (including office running costs, salaries, superannuation, contractors etc.)
Parramasala is a wonderful festival of arts and culture – South Asian and beyond, and must be preserved.
The Board of Parramasala needs to urgently review and articulate its offering to the public so that the footfall decline this year can be reversed.
An independent review of Parramasala, and the reason why it is failing to connect, needs to be undertaken. A value proposition to its stake holders then needs to be presented so that long-term funding can be obtained, rather than the ignominy of going around annually with a begging bowl to fund this important celebration of our diversity.