The popularity of the Festival of South Asia on the July 13-14 weekend suggests that the annual event in the east-end of downtown Toronto has become a tourist attraction rather than the local street party it was in recent years. Does it stand to loose its roots the bigger it gets?
The Festival of South Asia celebrates the diverse cultures of South Asia. People of South Asian heritage, the diaspora, many locals, Canadians from across the country and visitors from abroad come to join in the festivities.
It’s the largest main street marketplace of South Asian goods and services in all of North America. The festival started in 2002 with around 500 people in attendance. For Canada’s 150th birthday celebration in 2017 and the South Asian festival’s 15th year, they had a goal of catering to 250 to 300,000 people over two days.
The festival is meant to “preserve and showcase our culture and heritage so that our coming generations can feel their existence and their identity, plus we give our fellow citizens value and the heritage of our culture,” says Chand Kapoor, the chair of the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA.
Over the years the event has become one of the largest street festivals in North America. The Gerrard India Bazaar BIA hosts the event and Tasneem Bandukwala, the BIA manager looks after and promotes the over 130 business in the bazaar area. For Canada’s birthday, they introduced a cricket pitch on the main strip, a giant-sized elephant sculpture on the sidewalk, the Bollywood Pop-up Museum, a Culture Alley, a colourfully decorated auto-rickshaw, and a beer garden, along with special programming.
Simrin RameshRaj, the creative director (AJ Media Entertainment) says, “every street is different. It’s speaking its own happiness and colours.”
People from different communities used to come here for shopping, for the prices, quality and the variety of goods like silk, fine jewellery, traditional designs, spices, for hard-to-find items like wedding saris and for the food. Now, says RameshRaj, “it’s become a tourism spot.”
The Gerrard India Bazaar caters to the new audience. Two years ago for the Canada-150 celebration, they provided 1200 minutes of programming and 350 artists on the main stage. It seems the size and variety of things to do at the festival hasn’t changed.
The festival website includes directions on how to get to Gerrard St. for people travelling from neighbouring cities like Mississauga, Buffalo and Montreal and the festival is listed in various travel guides. Last weekend’s event was enjoyed by people from as far away as Portugal, a stately-looking couple in African dress, people from uptown, from the west-end, from the surrounding Little India neighbourhood, and by people popping their upper bodies out of a window next door to take pictures of the main stage on Gerrard St.
From modern to traditional, you’ll find fun and fine jewellery, take-out foods sold from kiosks on the sidewalks or delicious restaurant meals made with fresh ingredients from the many businesses and retail outlets that form the bazaar, along Gerrard, stretching for seven blocks from Glendale, east to Coxwell Ave. A neighbourhood that was once referred to simply as Coxwell and Gerrard by the locals has turned into a vibrant community now known as Little India.
Dance or dine your way across South Asia with BollyYoga, a fusion of yoga with Bollywood dancing, or try sugarcane juice, mango lassi (smoothie), Kashmiri tea, the most amazing falooda and kulfi you’ve ever tasted, roast corn with traditional toppings, pav bhaaji, channa batura, Bombay burger, masala fries, dahi kachori puri, vada pav, and kathi roll, or a samosa, pakora, aloo tikki, paneer tikka, nan kebab, or biryani. Watch fire dancing and Bollywood music on the main stage, Cloga (Clowning with Yoga) for kids, buskers, and storytelling along the route.
Presentations of literary and visual arts, live music, dance, and fashion shows happen on the central stage all weekend long. Local performers join in to celebrate South Asian culture with as much enthusiasm and know-how as the programs designed to reflect Indian, Afghani, Pakistani, Bengali and Sri Lankan heritage and tradition.
Despite the growth of the audience and the inclusion of people from outside the local community, the festival still feels very much like it used to in the early days, with less room to move about. A bit of flare to attract more people isn’t such a bad thing. If the objective of the festival is to share South Asian culture and values with future generations and bring in customers for the businesses in the district, I would say they’ve met and surpassed those objectives.