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Photo by Prem Calvan Prashad
By Prem Calvin Prashad

The Play Street Pedestrian Plaza in Jackson Heights was treated to the Chatpati Mela street festival Saturday, a celebration of South Asian culture as well as the vibrant neighborhood it calls home.

Chatpati Mela is an annual event, organized by Chhaya Community Development Corp., a housing and civic engagement community group that has served the neighborhood since 2000.

The name “Chatpati Mela” derives from the snacks (chaat) served at such festivals and fairs (mela). In addition to food and live performances, activities included a fashion show, a children’s art booth and open mic sessions. A booth for henna tattoos, a type of elaborate temporary tattoo painted with a staining, plant-based dye, was also part in the festivities.

Henna tattoos are typically painted on the hands, arms and feet and “henna parties” are traditional before weddings, though its aesthetic appeal makes it appropriate for other occasions, such as festivals.

“We really envisioned the Chatpati Mela as an opportunity for our members to take on leadership roles in a space that they could both enjoy and take ownership of. Jackson Heights made sense because it is the hub of so many South Asian communities,” said Nahida Uddin, the community organizer of Chhaya CDC.

Living up to its name, snacks were plentiful at the event, including channa (chickpeas) served with a number of condiments, muri (puffed rice) and various puris (unleavened bread). Finger foods included some familiar snacks, including samosas, pakoras and idli. There was also popcorn and snowcones, for those less inclined to try the South Asian fare.

The menu highlighted the diversity of South Asia and Jackson Heights, including dishes such as shapale, a Tibetan fried meat pie.

Performances reflected South Asian diversity, featuring the Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts, Dance Theater of Nepal and Snow Lions, a Tibetan dance group. Perhaps the most well-received event of the afternoon was the Bhangra lesson provided by Dancing Reena, which featured enthused participants led by the energetic Reena, who taught them a variety of moves to rhythmic and spirited Punjabi music.

“The mela really grew in its meaning by serving to represent a pan-South Asian identity/community, linked through the common experiences of living in New York City and accessing focal spaces like Jackson Heights,” Uddin said.

“It provides the space to engage the South Asian community in challenges and issues they face, but it also highlights the community’s strengths in the performing and visual arts, as well as celebrates common endearments, such as the popular street snacks like chaat/chatpati.”

Chhaya CDC works for justice and fairness in housing as well as workforce development in Jackson Heights. Events such as these engage the community and promote a sense of civic pride through cultural events and places of free expression.

Chatpati Mela reflected this mission of civic engagement by attracting a diverse gathering of members of the community able to share and appreciate the culture of their neighbors.

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