The Ecosystem: MELA Arts Connect’s Heena Patel on Changing the Arts Agency Model to Expand Access to and Engagement with South Asian Performance
Canadian-born, American-educated Heena Patel always loved the performing arts, especially those related to her South Asian heritage. After an apprenticeship to a noted tabla master in India, she jumped boldly from engineering to arts administration. As she did, she saw novel ways to solve a long-standing problem: How to bring more artists and arts professionals of color, of non-European background to the table, to expand the kinds of artistic expressions presented on mainstream stage
Patel founded MELA Arts Connect and developed a unique model in response to this question, one that aims to support presenters and artists equally, in their search for connecting with new audiences. DubMC asked her how she got there, how she found her new role as a producer for Bollywood Boulevard, and how she recommends presenters approach South Asian arts programming.
How did you get started in the music management business?
Growing up, I was heavily involved in the arts. I’ve been doing Indian dance since I was three and always participating in and sharing Indian culture. My parents were very active in the Indian community in Toronto, creating and leading organizations and events to ensure that culture was passed down to the next generation. I got my bent for creating space for encounters with cultures from them - creating a cultural summer camp for kids in the community as a teenager to founding an education-based Indian dance company in college. After graduating, while international development work took me to India, I wanted to also use the time in India to connect more deeply with Indian arts and started to study tabla with my guru, Pandit Divyang Vakil (whom we call Guruji).
It’s at Rhythm Riders, Guruji’s school and music organization, that I had my first professional arts endeavor - as the booking agent and manager of Tabla Ecstasy, now called Talavya. Talavya is Guruji’s tabla ensemble, performing work that was grounded in tradition, yet very accessible. Work created with the intention of appealing to traditional audiences, while also expanding the audience for the art form. The group was amazing and I felt these guys needed to be heard. Given my upbringing in Canada and the US that seemed like the place to start.
I didn’t know what the term “agent” or “manager” meant at that time. I just knew the music, the art that I had fallen in love with had to be experienced, and not just by traditional Indian classical music audiences.
I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to happen, but I told myself that I’d figure it out.
At first it was all about learning the ropes, because I knew nothing. I had a sense of how the diaspora organized shows, but the mechanism behind shows presented by non-Indian presenters was completely unfamiliar territory.
I approached it like an engineer. What were the goals? What was the long-term plan? Guruji, his son, and I decided where we wanted the work to go. We dreamed up a list of venues and places we wanted to be. Guruji shared his insights into the business from his time as a performer (he had given up performing about 15 years prior) and Google became my best friend and mentor.
With lots of search queries, and asking questions, I ended up at my first conferences - SXSW and WOMEX. At WOMEX, considered THE gathering of the world music community, as I walked about the trade floors at conferences, I counted the number of South Asian artists represented...I only needed two hands! That struck me. The thing was that experience was repeated conference after conference, with the additional awareness that the same would apply to my counting of the number of South Asians arts professionals (not artists) attending these events.
How is this possible? I kept asking myself. Why is there so little South Asian work on offer in these places where people are supposed to be discovering art and in countries where the South Asian community is so large? After a few years of learning about the market and how it works, I started to get a good sense of the gaps.
You wound up founding an organization, MELA Arts Connect, which has a very different approach to working with programmers and presenters. How did you make that leap and how did you choose the model for MELA?
We kept adding artists, under the Rhythm Riders organization, as our goal was to share South Asian arts. We were already having conversations with presenters and venues, and we began to ask ourselves what we could do for other artists as well. An agency sounded like the answer.
But as we expanded, the questions I had at those first conferences would keep coming back to me. Was I really addressing the problems I noticed so many years ago? The more I worked with a growing roster of artists, the more it felt that the approach of a traditional agency was not going to be the way to address the larger questions, even if I could expand the number of artists on the roster to over ten or twenty.
Adding to this questioning was my experiences at conferences - in the expo halls, in a booth as an agency with culturally specific artists on my banner, where I kept feeling that I was trying to fit “square peg” artists into round holes. I would see folks walking by my booth, and could almost hear them making decisions on what would fit or not. I kept wondering what reference point they had in that process. What’s the lens? Was it not eurocentric and/or programming for an audience that was largely white? How did these lenses mesh with multicultural make-up of the country?
While I wasn’t a presenter, I understood their reality. If you’re programming a series, global music is maybe 1-2 artists a season. If you’re a dedicated global music series, then maybe it’s 10 artists a season. It’s difficult to find the time to truly educate yourself about the nuances of every culture you want to present. And even if you had the desire to, where were the resources to learn?
Amidst all these questions and observations, it became apparent that something had to be done differently. I shifted my mindset of my ethnicity being a disadvantage (as a minority in the industry) to it being my agency, whose power could be used to advance South Asian performing arts.
I had deep cultural competency and networks in the South Asian arts community and in the presenting community. I wanted to bring them all together and MELA Arts Connect was born. One of my strengths is connecting the dots, with MELA, I connect the dots through the arts.
MELA is part cultural consultant, part community engagement consultant, part diversity advocate, part booking agent, part artist development, all in one.
There are many gaps in the market - from artist education and development to the nature of doing business in the arts and hiring practices. We can’t fill in all the gaps on our own, but given the interconnectedness of the issues, it was important that our work was all-encompassing. The model emerged from the needs.
MELA’s vision: to seed and nurture the ecosystem for South Asian performing arts and its practitioners. On a practical level, that means working with presenters to bring more diversity into their programs and teams (consultancy); connecting presenters and artists for performances based on mutual fit (booking agency); providing artists with resources to build sustainable careers (education); building a database of South Asian performing artists (resource); creating conduits for more South Asians to become a part of this industry as professionals (advocacy and recruitment).
We’re working on building out a database of practitioners of South Asian performing arts based in North America as well as touring from the Indian subcontinent, encompassing dance and music, across the diversity of South Asian genres, including, but not limited to classical, folk, crossover, and Bollywood. We still do the work of a booking agent, but it is only one part of the larger equation.
Recently, you’ve taken the plunge into producing work yourself. Can you talk about that process and the production you’ve created?
I used to be a choreographer, dancer, and tabla player. My performing career took a backseat when I went full-fledged into the business of the arts, but creative in me, of course, did not disappear.
Through my work with Rhythm Riders and MELA, I’ve gotten a chance to really understand the performing arts industry, see broad patterns and understand interests and underlying changes that are occurring. Becoming the producer and co-creator of Bollywood Boulevard was the result of the perfect storm - the right idea, the right team, the right skill set, the right time, and the right opportunity.
Bollywood Boulevard brings the history and artistry of Hindi cinema to the stage through live music, dance, and multimedia. Bollywood has made a deep impression on me, as it has on countless other South Asians around the world. It was wonderful to see the huge spike in global interest in Bollywood, but as someone who always thinks about context and education, the interest at times felt a bit more on the surface. I felt a more meaningful presentation of Bollywood was needed - something that would capture it’s sustained, multi-generational impact and influence and also give more context for newer fans.
The creation of Bollywood Boulevard is the perfect example how things come together when the timing is right. While I was thinking of what ways to deepen understanding of Bollywood, Jill Sternheimer of Lincoln Center, also had this vision of presenting something South Asian that was intergenerational, meaningful, and had widespread appeal. A common friend connected us and you can say the rest is history. In Jill and Lincoln Center, we found an incredible partner, through my artist networks, I found the perfect co-creator Rushi Vakil, and together we put together a team, including additional commissioning partners and creatives, based in the US and India to make this larger than life production a reality.
While Rushi and I had the skillset to create this show, neither of us had actually made something of this scale. Instead of bringing on seasoned experts onto our team, we chose other creatives with similar credentials - those with the ability, but not the experience of this scale. We knew what an opportunity this was to prove our capabilities and wanted to share that platform with as many people as possible. We ended up with our entire team (performers and creatives, in India and US) being under the age of 35. Aside from being incredibly talented, the thread that bound us together was a love for Bollywood and personal impact that Bollywood had on each of our lives.
The passion and drive to prove ourselves could be seen throughout the process and especially on stage at the premiere, which took place this summer in front of over 4000 people at Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
It was hard, it was exhilarating, it was a way to showcase what the next generation of creatives are capable of. It was a very personal way for me to share my cultural experience and in the process, add more connective tissue to the ecosystem for South Asian performing arts.
What do you suggest to presenters who want to explore South Asian performing arts and include more artists in their programming?
Presenters I’ve worked with broadly fall into one of two categories. The first are those that want to have their programming reflect the diversity of the community they are in. The other set of presenters are those who want to present more global perspectives, even if their community isn’t diverse.
For presenters seeking to engage audiences from a particular racial or ethnic background, I cannot stress the importance of learning about the community and making them a part of the process. Don’t make decisions in a silo. The act of putting something that is culturally specific on stage, doesn’t mean the audience will come. With any culture or community, it is paramount to recognize that they are not monolithic. For example, telling me that someone is Indian, doesn’t actually tell me a whole lot about them. Are they Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamilian? (These are all regional Indian identities that are much more reflective of the cultural leanings of a person.) When working with a presenter that wants to engage the South Asian community, the first thing I do is research the community - the type of programming they already do within the community, talking to community leaders, etc. If the community members are already engaging with a presenter in some way, have a conversation with them. involve them, give them ownership. All of these things take time, but it an important part of the process to set yourself up for long-term success. I recognize that it can seem daunting, but you start asking and listening, you’ll be surprised at how many allies you can find.
When bringing global arts to a series or community that is not diverse, the place to start is by asking what are you already doing that resonates? Where do your audience’s interests lie? South Asian or culturally specific programming doesn’t necessarily mean you need to present the most traditional or oldest art form from culture in the most traditional way. Finding the right access points for your audience to engage with the unfamiliar is important. There are always ways to make those connections. For example, Western classical music presenters have traditionally been the ones to shy away from global music because of the highly Eurocentric nature of their programming and patrons. For them, the place I often suggest starting with is the work of artists that blend western classical with South Asian music traditions thoughtful ways, such as orchestral music that has glimpses of Indian classical ragas. The form of presentation, an orchestra, is familiar, as well as the musicality of the work to a large degree, but there are hints of something different.
We always try to start with the “easy” wins or successful engagements to build confidence for everyone involved. MELA’s vision is for the long-term. We want to nurture a sustained interest from presenters, organizations, communities in South Asian arts and there are no shortcuts for that.
Starting or growing culturally-specific programming takes commitment, work, and some risk-taking, but the rewards are immense. My number one suggestion is to not be afraid to ask and acknowledge that you don’t know. The worst thing that will happen is that someone will say, “Sorry, I can’t help.” The best thing that could happen is they will open up a world to you.
About Heena Patel
Heena Patel is the founder and CEO of MELA Arts Connect, a multifaceted organization whose mission is to nurture the ecosystem around South Asian performing arts and its practitioners. Over the years and through MELA, she plays a diversity of roles including that of a South Asian programming consultant, producer, booking agent, artist manager, and advocate for diversity in the performing arts on and off stage. More recently, she's donned the cap of producer and artistic director of the larger than life stage show Bollywood Boulevard. A sanitation engineer turned tabla player and performing arts entrepreneur, she started off in the arts as a dancer and choreographer of Indian dance. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Heena now splits her time between North America and India. Heena is an APAP Leadership Fellow, ISPA Fellow, a board member for NAPAMA (North American Performing Arts Manager and Agents), and proud member of WOCA (Women of Color in the Arts).