An unfamiliar Sikh Festival debuts in Tower Hamlets

Performers at the Sikh Festival. Pic: Shima Begum

Performers at the Sikh Festival. Pic: Shima Begum

The Holla Mahalla Sikh festival in Bethnal Green on Saturday (May 14) showcased some of the many rituals traditionally performed and celebrated by Sikhs in Anandpur, India.

Holla Mahalla was established in the 1700s and is a historical event that takes place a day after the Hindu Festival of Holi.

The director of Holla Mahalla, Darshan Singh, 30, from Bradford, described the festival as the “calling card for Sikhs to be ready for battle both spiritually and physically”.

The festival, which was showcased at the cinema and cross-arts centre Rich Mix, included the re-enactment of the famous sword fights from Holla Mahalla performed by Ajit Akhara a Gathka group from Southall established in 1985.

These re-enactments, or Gatkas, had spectators on the edge of their seats as men and children as young as seven engaged in battle with swords and sticks in an attempt to showcase their inner warrior, an integral part of Sikh culture.

One of the members Herrai Singh, 34, from Southall, who said he felt honoured to be part of the festival, joined the group in 1991. When asked about the danger of using real swords he said: “Everything we do in our daily live is dangerous, crossing the road is dangerous but it is about train and discipline, everyone is taught through a process, you learn first with footwork, and move on up until you use swords.”

This festival was initiated by the 10th Guru in Sikhism Guru Gobind Singh and features a range of sports widely celebrated in India, which includes horse stunts where Sikhs balance on two horses whilst riding and the famous sword fighting known as Gathka.

The festival, dubbed the Sikh Olympics, was introduced to leave a lasting impression on attendees as well the wider Sikh community living in Britain.

Works on display at the festival. Pic: Shima Begum

Darshan Singh’s works on display at the festival. Pic: Shima Begum

Singh also showcased his print exhibition at the event as well as video extracts from his travels to India to “capture some of the essence of Holla Mahalla”. He explained the importance of this Sikh festival: “When most communities travel [away from India] they would take a festival with them like Diwali or Christmas and we [Sikhs] have taken Vaisakhi but we haven’t taken this festival and it’s the only one that isn’t celebrated.

“It has stayed in India and that’s partly because you wouldn’t really get a health and safety certificate for some of the stuff we do. It’s very loud and very brash which is quite unfortunate because it is also a cool festival where we celebrate art and poetry.”

Singh was pleased with the level of interest and the turn out to his events. He said “It’s been really rewarding when people engage and show an interest especially with the exhibition and the documentary.

Visitors at the festival admiring the work. Pic: Shima Begum

Visitors at the festival admiring the work. Pic: Shima Begum

“People who attend don’t really know much about the festival and what’s interesting is a lot of Sikhs do not know that this is part of their culture.”

The exhibition is open until May 20 and is free to view at the Rich Mix.


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