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An oral history interview with Neeleem Saha, the events coordinator of the Wales Puja Committee. Neeleem discusses his responsibilities within his volunteer role, goes into how he got involved, and discusses how the organisation has become a part of his life in Wales.


The Chronicle Project is a community heritage project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and run by VCS Cymru with the aims to document the history of volunteering in Cardiff, from 1914 to 2014.

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• We will now begin recording the interview with Neeleem Saha.
• The recording takes place on March 10th, at Radio Cardiff.
• The volunteer present is Lara Taffer and this recording is being collected as an Oral History and will be part of the Chronicle Project.
• A project led by VCS Cymru and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. LT = Lara Taffer (interviewer), NS = Neeleem Saha.

LT: Neeleem, would you introduce yourself?

[Neeleem Saha, introduces himself - 0:24 to 0:58]

NS: Hi, my name is Neeleem Saha. I was born in Calcutta, in India. And I spent my early years of education in, well growing up in India. I have lived in Britain for about seventeen years, fifteen years of which have been in Wales – nine years in Cardiff. I work as a software consultant, that’s my fulltime profession, and I am actively involved with the activities of the Wales Puja committee.

LT: And what are your responsibilities with the Wales Puja committee?

[Neeleem’s roles, past and present - 1:01 to 1:36]

NS: Officially I am the events officer of the Wales Puja committee, and I have been for the last couple of years. I have also been treasurer in the past, I’ve been secretary of the committee. But we’re a very small charitable group we do lots of cultural activities around South Wales and because we’re small we end up, all the volunteers end up doing a lot of everything. But yes, I’m closer to the events organisation and finances at this point in time.

LT: How many members, roughly, are there in the committee?

[Number of members on the Wales Puja Committee - 1:40 to 2:10]

NS: The executive committee has approximately, well somewhere between thirty and thirty-five members. I think our constitution says that we have a maximum of thirty-five, but I don’t think we have thirty-five at the moment. However, the definition of a general member is virtually anybody who visits our events. We call them all members. But the thirty-five is the executive committee members.

LT: Good, and what are some of the actual tasks and responsibilities that are comprised for your role?

[Describes the role of events officer - 2:20 to 3:35]

NS: As events officer, I’m usually, sort of, planning on the various events that we conduct through the year. So some of our events are the regular events, some of the Indian festivals we have and those are almost, like, well-oiled engines, they’re run like that. But I’m quite close to the organisation of virtually all of them. But we also have some events or projects that we do as one offs during the year. And sometimes its organising that, planning, looking for contacts, where, you know, we can organise, you know, to which we can organise those events. Any kind of public engagement which is required or meeting people, and that sort of thing. And obviously when your conceiving such events, you always have to think of what’s involved, logistics, it’s planning for that, being close to the finances. So even though I’m not the treasurer at the moment, the current treasurer, Dr Sinha who’s a very close friend of mine, we have to work together to its outside of things as well.

LT: What are some of the events?

[Description of the organisation’s regular events - 3:37 to 6:18]

NS: Our four yearly regular events are the Indian festivals of Durga Puja, which is based around the worship of Goddess Durga in the Hindu religion. But it’s not just a religious festival. There is a lot of cultural and other things that go on around it. Food being one of the most important things. Our cultural programmes are particularly very good. We have cultural programmes on every evening of the five-day festival. The festival takes place in the autumn, typically end of September, sometimes going up to the third week of October. It’s over five days but it follows the Indian lunar calendar, so the dates of the five days can vary each year. So that’s our most important festival.

Then we have another festival, called Saraswati Puja which usually takes place somewhere along the end of January or early February. Now this again is based around the Hindu Goddess Saraswati, worship of the Goddess. Saraswati is the Goddess of enlightenment, education and music. So, it’s one of those festivals where children and young people are particularly involved because it’s considered great for them. And again there are cultural programmes on the evening of the festival.

Then we have another festival called Kali Puja which is in typically end October, early November. And that is based around the worship of Goddess Kali who’s, you know, one of the Hindu Gods. And finally, we have something that’s not based on any religious event, per se, we have a yearly Diwali bash somewhere in Cardiff, the venue changes every year. But it’s just, you know, people coming in and having a good time, food, drink, enjoy some kind of entertainment. So those are the four regular events.

But outside of these we tend to have art and cultural events, musical events, through the year but there is no fixed calendar for that. We try to organise a few events every year.

LT: And not all of these events take place in Cardiff do they?

[Event locations - 6:22 to 6:50]

NS: Our, actually, the three, three of the main four events, Durga Puja, Kali Puja and Saraswati Puja actually take place in Caerphilly, which is just outside Cardiff. Primarily because the venue we have there works perfectly for us, but other than that most of our events really take place in Cardiff.

LT: Do you remember the first event that you were a volunteer for? Or helped put together?

[Neeleem’s first attendance at the Durga Puja event - 6:56 to 8:22]

NS: Yes, it was interesting actually because before I moved to Wales, this was fifteen years back, I just moved to Pembrokeshire, in west Wales, from London, and this was about ten days before Durga Puja. Now, I come from a part of India called West Bengal, or Calcutta, where Durga Puja is the most important festival, and they say people from there, wherever they are in the world, they want to be part of the celebration somewhere.

So, obviously there was that longing that I wanted to be part of the festival somewhere and I had no idea that this festival was celebrated here in Cardiff. So, I did a bit of googling at the time and found that there was the nearest festival I could attend was in Cardiff, it was open to the public. So I picked up the phone, I got on the phone with a couple of the organisers whose names were on the website, got the details, and I came over, stayed over in Cardiff for a couple of days, attended the event, got involved in a few things. I was a visitor at the time, I wasn’t a regular volunteer or anything. It was absolutely fantastic to feel close to home almost in India, and finding this place.

LT: Good. Do you feel that volunteering with the organisation and attending these events helps you to get to know the community better?

[Volunteering and the community - 8:29 to 8:55]

NS: Absolutely. I mean, we moved to Cardiff about nine years back. We didn’t really know anyone in Cardiff before that. Most of our initial friends we made in Cardiff were actually made before we moved to Cardiff through this, through attending the events of the Wales Puja Committee. So it’s been very very rewarding really.

LT: Are any of your family members also involved in the activities?

[Volunteering and family involvement - 9:00 to 10:01]

NS: Well, you know, my family is my wife and my nine year old son. My wife isn’t an official executive member but she is reasonably involved in the activities. She’s also a vocalist and my son is quite into music as well. They perform every time, every year during the cultural programmes. So, yeah we’re involved as a family really. And the atmosphere during all our events is very very family orientated – we make sure that it is. So, we always have children in our events, we don’t have any events where it’s sort of adults only or anything like that. It is for whole families, particularly involving children as well as the elderly if there are any. We don’t want to exclude anyone, we want as many people attending as possible.

LT: While volunteering, have you met anyone who has greatly impacted your life? And can you tell me about them?

[Influential people - 10:08 to 11:46]

NS: It’s a difficult one to answer, but, well, not difficult but if I think who influenced me greatly that would probably be my father. Even though I say I’m from Calcutta, I actually spent all my schooling years in the south of India where Durga Puja is not the most important festival. However, just like here in south Wales, the Bengali community, to whom the Durga Puja is the most important festival, tries to set up something so that they can celebrate the festival as a community. So growing up in the hills of south India, near a famous town called Ooty, there were a handful of Bengali families who lived there and every year this festival was celebrated by them. My father was particularly involved in the organisation and the running of this festival for all the years that I knew him and that probably got me into volunteering. So if I say who, someone who’s actually influenced my life in that sense it’s probably my father. Even though I haven’t volunteered together with him, well unless I did a few things when I was a child and he was doing things.

LT: Do you think that volunteering has changed you in anyway?

[How Neeleem’s understanding of the concept of volunteering has changed - 11:52 to 13:06]

NS: Oh absolutely! You know, the first thing is when I thought of volunteering as an idea initially the concept was you’re just going and helping out somebody, with no particular benefit to you. But I actually found there is a benefit, and the benefit is not financial, it’s satisfaction. In whichever way you get involved in, so you’re sort of engaging with people and you make brilliant friends. So I think that’s the biggest thing, you know. Yeah, I think making friends, you know, engaging with people, it’s not just going and doing some work to help out, it becomes much more than that. I think that now it’s virtually ingrained in me to be part of the organisation and do things. I don’t always think of it as volunteering per se. I know I’m doing this interview for volunteering, or about volunteering, but I don’t think of it as volunteering – it’s almost something that I just do.

LT: That kind of gets to this next question, what does volunteering mean to you?

NS: Ah, I think I probably explained that but let me do it again.


LT: If you had to write a definition, how would you define it? Can you define it?

[Defines volunteering - 13:28 to 14:02]

NS: I think it probably, in one sentence, helping out with something that benefits communities of people without any personal benefit to you. Even though, as I said, there are benefits which are not financial or material. But those are outcomes, they’re, you know, satisfaction is a French benefit let’s say.

LT: Do you have any favourite memories of volunteering? Any events that stick out in your mind? Or meetings or…

[Current history project from the Wales Puja Committee - 14:17 to 15:55]

NS: I think one of them that’s very close to me at the moment is a project that we’re actually conducting at the moment. So this is sort of one of the largest projects, not one of the it’s the biggest projects that the Wales Puja committee have ever done. And this is, sort of, tracing the history and preserving the history of Durga Puja in south Wales over the last forty-three years. As well as looking at the traditional art form of clay image making in India, because all the Gods and Goddess whose idols are used during worship they’re actually made of clay and these are not dried. So they’re based on wet frames and then clay and other decorative materials are used to build these.

So we we’re actually going through this one year project where we’re doing a lot of work around capturing the history and preserving that, archiving the history of the festival. But we’re also engaging with a lot, a lot of educational institutions, like a few comprehensive schools in Cardiff and the Cardiff Metropolitan University, in learning about the festival and also the clay, the art of clay image making. So personally I’ve been very very close to this project. It’s fresh in my mind, I think it’s very important for me.

[Fond Durga Puja memory - 15:55 to 17:15]

But I think going back many many years, I have a recollection of one Durga Puja where my father was, sort of, doing a lot of the organisation. Where my father was doing something in the kitchen, I mean catering food is always a big part of our Indian festivals, and my dad was helping out in the kitchen. And he accidentally, I think while he was trying to break a coconut or something to use in something, he cut his hand rather badly. And he had to be taken into hospital, it was that bad. But quite a few people rushed him to the hospital and as soon as he was in there he said, “you don’t have to hang around with me just go back. I’m sure the hospital will sort me, make sure that the festival is running okay”. It’s not the most pleasant memory because he was obviously bleeding profusely, but when I think of it, it sort of reminds me of how important something becomes to you, you know, at a personal level I think. So yeah, those two.

LT: Has the organisation changed since you joined in any way?

[How Wales Puja committee has changed - 17:22 to 20:30]

NS: I think it’s fundamentally changed because I, I started coming to the events in 2002 and at the time most of the people who were attending the events or volunteering, running the events, were probably, what’s the right word? I won’t say old but they were slightly more senior. There were less young people involved, young members. That’s probably got to do with the demographic of the population here in south Wales, or at least the demographic of the Bengali population in south Wales because it’s predominantly the Bengali population who come to visit our regular festivals. Since then, we’ve got lots of younger members, not just in the executive committee but in the attendance as well. And this is not just the Bengali community, it’s the general Indian diaspora from south Wales who attend our events and our executive committee as well has a large number of people who are, sort of, in their thirties, I would say thirties and forties.

And there has been a lot of new energy that’s come into the organisation I think, there’s more sort of. And I don’t mean this in a bad way about members that are senior, they’re still actively involved, but they were limited at the time in how much they could take on because the membership was smaller. But now with a lot of new members coming in and there is that zeal and energy to do a lot more. I think that’s probably the biggest change. We’re doing many many more activities. The other thing as well is, we’re doing, we’re trying to do things a lot more professionally, without making it sound clinical – if you see what I mean? We try to do better, you know, simple things, like we try to make our events definitely run on time which didn’t always happen in the past, but then at the time it was a small number of people gathered to have fun for one evening. But now we have large audiences sometimes, we end up having two hundred and fifty/ three hundred people in a hall one evening, where there is cultural programme, you know, there are cultural programmes going on. We can’t afford to run an hour late because people have arrived at a particular time.

So that’s just one simple thing. We try to make sure our paperwork is all up to scratch, we’re in the electronic world today, we use a lot of Google shares and things like that. So, you know, we’re changing in that way.

LT: Is there a certain hierarchy of the executive board?

NS: Well…

LT: I don’t know if hierarchy’s the right word but…

[Structure of the Wales Puja Committee - 20:43 to 22:37]

NS: No, I see exactly what you mean. I mean, I think the right word to say is no because we have eight trustees. The trustees have their trustee meetings every, twice every year I think that’s what they’re supposed to have. I’m sure they have that, I’m not one of the trustees. But then amongst all the other members we’ve got a few people who are, sort of, the post holders, like a chair person, a secretary, a treasurer, we tend to have two cultural officers, two catering officers, and they’re all elected every year by the executive committee.

I’m the events officer, this is not an elected post, it’s somebody who is nominated for a period of five years. So even though we’ve got these formal posts which we’re required to have as a registered charity that’s not how things work per se. So it’s not to say that the treasurer alone does all the things money or that the events officer does everything events. Lots of our members, who are not post holders, sometimes do more than somebody who’s a post holder. So it’s whoever can chip in and do something.

There’s a lot of energy in the organisation, that’s the best part of being a volunteer here. I should probably mention that we do not pay a single member of staff. We don’t have any members of staff – that’s the right phrase. Everybody holds a full time job, almost, we’re all professionals. We do this totally on a voluntary basis. LT: And you said you’re elected for a five year period? Or not… NS: No, nominated. LT: Nominated… NS: Nominated by the committee. LT: And are you in the middle, are you coming to the end, have you just started? Or… NS: I’m trying to think when I was nominated because the current chair person, Dr Sandip Raha, he, he was the events officer before me. I believe it’s about two, well yeah, I think it’s coming to about two years now. So I haven’t been the events officer for two years yet. So, early days.

LT: Can you be nominated for, like, two consecutive terms for example? Or is it five and you move onto a different role?

NS: No, there’s no set rule at all. It’s, it’s sometimes…It’s, it’s… Our committee is very very friendly and believe it or not even though we say they’re elected, in the last eight years of me being part of the committee we’ve never had a single election because it’s almost been unanimous.

LT: It’s like ours…

[Election of the committee members - 23:46 to 24:50]

NS: Exactly, yeah, well you know what I mean. I mean, you know, formally we’re supposed to have an election and that process needs to be put in place but what usually happens in the background is people talk about it, and someone sort of says, “well why don’t you be a secretary for the coming year?”. And if that person accepts then this person probably tells the other members he or she is accepted the post, what do you all think? And usually that person gets nominated. We haven’t had a situation where two people have been nominated, out of the, you know, out of the meeting room, out of the formal meeting room discussions have taken place.

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think there is a need restriction on me being nominated for another time. But whether or not I want to do it after five years because it’s a lot of work, I don’t know. But we’ll find out.

LT: What motivates you to be a part of this organisation, to volunteer for it?

NS: As I said I don’t, I don’t think of it as volunteering per se – It’s just become part of, so much part of my life, my family’s involved. For me, if I think of it, I’m thinking, well it’s my festival because I celebrate it every year. I’m not just volunteering to help someone else celebrate. So, it is mine. It’s almost like me organising an event home. So…

LT: How do you think volunteering, or that the organisation, how it impacts the wider community? Or how does it contribute to the Cardiff community, or the Welsh community?

[Volunteering and the impact on the community - 25:43 to 30:12]

NS: Do you mean as in our organisation and volunteers? Well I think first things first the way it started off, I think the biggest benefit it brought to large sections of the Indian diaspora, who live in Cardiff and the surrounding areas, and actually we have members coming from the south west of England, west Wales, mid-Wales. So, we have a fairly spread out demographic. It gives them something that they’re emotionally close to and have missed since probably migrating from India – if they are first generation migrants. So, it gives them that sense of, you know, being many thousands of miles away I still have my community, I still have my festivals. Moving on, for the second generation of children of Indian origin, so my son is born and bred in Wales, even though he has never seen one of the festivals being celebrated in India he pretty much knows how its celebrated. Well maybe not such large scale, but he knows these festivals, ins and outs, he knows what happens during the festival.

So it helps him with identifying himself as part of, well as coming from two backgrounds. So he knows the Welsh background, where he’s growing up in, but he also knows his Indian heritage. So, that’s the, that’s the big benefit for me. So my son is knowing about both the place that he’s growing up in, which is Britain or Wales, and he knows about India, where my family’s originally from. The wider benefit, is also helping these communities come together because sometimes it almost feels with all the crazy things that are going on in the world today that community groups live in their, sort of, kettles almost, isolated from what’s happening in other communities or being aware of how other people live. And I think, that’s not right. People should know more about each other. Irrespective of which part of the world we’re from, you know, what language we speak, what’s the colour of our skin, which religious faith we follow, our general human nature or tendencies are very similar. So, it’s brilliant to know about each other’s cultures and traditions. And I think we actively try and to do that, engage in such a way that we’re not just an organisation who conducts two or three festivals in a community hall, closed doors, nobody else comes, have a party and go back home. We’re trying to do a lot more. So we want people to know about our culture, but we also want better integration to take place between members of our, you know, members of the Indian diaspora with the local populations. And I think we’ve been particularly successful in that because of projects, like the one I described where I’ve been involved in the, you know, preserving the heritage.

The amount of interest we’ve had from educational institutions, and other local organisations, like People’s Collection Wales. The HLF, who funded the project, are absolutely delighted that we’re carrying out the project in the way we are. So the engagements have been amazing. So, I think that community benefit, is probably longer term the biggest benefit over and above what it brings to the small Indian diaspora that we have here. So I hope that answers your question.

LT: Are there not any similar kind of groups in this area that do the same kind of thing? Are there kind of…

[Interaction with other Indian organisations - 30:23 to 32:38]

NS: Yes there are. There are, I mean, quite a few organisation who celebrate different Indian festivals or do art and cultural events but I think the interesting thing is India is a very large country and there are twenty-nine states, I believe. And, we’ve got many tens of languages, hundreds of languages that are spoken across the, you know, length and width of the country. So there is large variations of culture there as well. So, I think, you know, I’ve only been here in Cardiff for nine years, and Wales for fifteen years, but I think if I try to think of what might of happened twenty-five/thirty years back when some of these organisations started, where there were people from different geographical regions of the country, and they probably wanted to celebrate their particular festivals, have their particular traditional things going on. So organisations evolve that way. Our particular organisation started of largely with the Bengali community but as happens, time, as time goes, these people make friends with people from other communities, as in the Indian diaspora itself, so more people from other communities attend your events. And so our community members, not our community members but the members of the Wales Puja committee, probably go and attend some of the events of the other similar groups.

We actually have a lot of communal working these days, so when we’re putting up an event we always let the other groups know and invariably we have people coming from those groups and joining us in our celebrations. So even though there are separate organisations we, we tend to work together a lot with our events.

LT: I think most of my questions have been answered, is there anything we didn’t talk about that you’d like to add? Did we hit all the points on your sheet?

NS: I’ll have a look at that.

LT: Ah, Any frustrations or disappointments while volunteering?

[Frustrations whilst volunteering - 32:59 to 35:01]

NS: I think sometimes, we want to do a lot as a committee. We want to do really nice events. Personally, I like to do something that will be bigger, wider but we’re small, our means are limited. Our logistical, we have logistical limitations. We have man power limitations because, you know, we’re all full time workers, we can only do so much. We still have our families, and work and everything. So sometimes, despite our longing to almost conduct bigger events for the community we can’t for those limitations. Funding can be a problem, but we’ve been quite lucky because we’ve benefitted from grants from the arts council quit a few times in conducting our events.

We’ve put up three, three events over the last eight years called the ‘Indian mailer’ which was conducted in St David’s hall, in the centre of Cardiff, and they were like a five-hour event, free for anyone to attend on an open stage. There were cultural programmes, Indian cultural programmes as well as Welsh and British cultural programmes, dances, music, and there were stalls, arts and crafts, that sort of thing. People were just enjoying themselves, but, you know, those events we didn’t raise any money through conducting the event itself. But the arts council kindly, you know, gave us grants to conduct those events. And our current project with the Durga heritage is funded by the HLF. So, you know, we’re quite lucky in that way. So…

LT: Anything else you’d like to add?

NS: I think that’s it for me really.

LT: Good. Thanks for your time.

NS: Brilliant, thank you.

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