20 February 2024

Kiamasala Indian festival organisers hope rain won't stop play again

| Karen Lateo
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Person dressed in costume for Indian festival

Kathakali, the ancient storytelling dance drama of Kerala, will feature in the Kiamasala festival this weekend. Photos: Supplied.

Tom Oxley casts his eyes skywards, taking in the pall of grey rain clouds covering Kiama. It’s not an encouraging sight.

Weather is the biggest stress factor for Tom, co-director of Kiamasala, the Illawarra’s first Indian cultural festival, running on Sunday (25 February).

Well, technically the first, as Kiamasala’s debut last November was postponed because of – you guessed it – rain.

“I’m not looking at the weather forecast,” Tom declared. “The chance of the BOM [Bureau of Meteorology] getting the coastal forecast correct, even seven days out, is minute.”

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Set on Kiama’s Black Beach promenade and the adjoining Old School Flat oval, Kiamasala is very much an open-air, fair-weather event.

“With the exposed location, you never know from one minute to the next what to expect. Last year, I decided that we would make a weather decision three to four days out from the festival,” Tom explained.

Postponement notices went out to dozens of performers, more than 10 food stalls, sponsors and dignitaries.

“We wanted to ensure stallholders didn’t have any wastage with food, didn’t have staff commitments, or travel plans,” Tom said.

”The same for performers – people were able to rearrange their weekend, rather than have it washed out.

Indian dancers in colourful costumes

Australian Bhangra dancers will join the Indian cultural mix at Kiamasala.

“It wasn’t an easy call, but when you consider the thought of everybody sitting down in Kiama Harbour with 60 mm of rain, it was the right call.

“It sprinkled a bit on the day, but in the lead-up to that we’d had so much rain that the oval was inaccessible. You couldn’t have driven on there with four tonnes of staging due to be delivered the day before. It was definitely the right call to make.”

The revised date resulted in “a bit of attrition”, with several performers unavailable and food vendors dropping out. Yet Tom is confident he’s found strong replacements for all, offering a packed 10 am-4 pm program.

It includes performances by drumming group IndOz Rhythms, Bollywood-style dancers BollyOn Australia and the Nachle Dance School, sitar and Punjabi dhol players, henna artists, plus market stalls.

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The street food has been curated to avoid duplication and ranges from Nepalese Indian momo dumplings to meat and vegetarian curries, skewers, pastries and wraps, to a surprising “fusion Indian chow mein”, which is reportedly all the rage in India.

The dignitaries attending the opening of Kiamasala make a daunting list, should Tom have to again postpone: India’s new Consul General, Dr S. Janakiraman; University of Wollongong vice-chancellor Patricia Davidson, Federal Member for Gilmore Fiona Phillips; and Kiama Mayor Neil Reilly, as well as a host of sponsors.

While the cash-strapped council granted $10,000 to kick off Kiamasala, Tom generated a further $20,000 from businesses, many of them Indian entrepreneurs based in the Illawarra.

The decision to hold an event billed as a “Festival of India” did generate some puzzlement in the seaside community. To Tom, it made perfect sense.

“Lots of people in Kiama have a connection with the subcontinent, whether it’s travel, food, music or even yoga,” he explained.

Man in front of a temple

Indian tourists make up Kiama’s largest visitor demographic, according to festival co-organiser Tom Oxley.

“The sights, the smells, the sounds are something we are all interested in. It’s infectious in terms of the music and the contrast to our own culture.

“And, anecdotally, our largest visitation demographic in Kiama is the Indian community, and the same with migration to this area.”

Kiamasala’s association with the University of Wollongong has opened the event to the 3000 Indian students currently studying there, with heavy campaigning to recruit both visitors and festival workers.

It’s also been marketed heavily to visitors at the Buddhist Nan Tien Temple in Berkeley and the Hindu Sri Venkateswara Temple in Helensburgh.

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Tom views Kiamasala as the start of a long-term project, with the potential to replicate the festival in other regional areas high on Indian tourists’ lists.

“It can be picked up and moved elsewhere,” he said.

He is already in talks with Wollongong City Council to stage “Illa-masala”, depending on Kiamasala’s success, which will be difficult to quantify.

“If we get 500 or 5000 people attending, I’ll have no idea,” he said. ”I’ve got no way of gauging it at all. That’s the beauty of it – it’s definitely not measured on its headcount.

“That’s something we should be encouraging within the events space, that not everything has to be about numbers and KPIs.”

An Indian meal

Vendors will serve a tempting menu of Indian street food at Kiamasala.

Kiama takes pride in its growing reputation as a “festival town”. The annual KISS Arts festival recently reported a crowd attendance of 18,000 over its two-day run last October.

The upcoming Kiama Jazz & Blues Fest hopes 5000-6000 visitors a day will bop into town for the 8-10 March event. More than 100 performances are scheduled, though not all concerts are ticketed, so organisers admit these figures are a guesstimate.

“I think there’s a number of reasons to visit an Indian festival in Kiama – no different to anyone’s reasons for visiting Kiama,” Tom said.

“Good food, it’s accessible, nice scenery and a friendly place to visit.

“It’s a new festival – we’ll be happy no matter what.

“The bigger picture is economic: it is about promoting this area as a friendly place for migration and a friendly place to do business.”

Kiamasala: Festival of India 2024 is on Sunday, 25 February, from 10 am – 4 pm at Kiama Harbour. Entry is free. Tom will make his call on the weather three days before the event at the latest, so check Region Illawarra for updates, or click here to visit the website.

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