A hand-woven sari is wrapped over her elegant attire of red and black, her hair is tucked away under a matching red cap. She begins to tell the story of migration of people and the exploitation of the poor by colonisers in Africa and Asia. The format is poetry. For every episode in the story, she picks up a different wrap from a wicker basket kept in front of her. This is literally poetry in motion; the eloquent words and expressive hands make the stories come alive. How did the paisley motif make its way to English factories, or diaphanous muslin come to adorn rich women of the western hemisphere?
Who's the storyteller? Meet Shailja Patel, poet, playwright, activist.
Born in Kenya to migrant Gujarati parents – her grandparents had settled down in the East African nation in the 1920s – Patel was educated in England and the US. Presently, she divides her time between North America and Kenya. She belongs to a new generation of migrant offspring, who are not afraid to articulate their thoughts, or "protest against the discrimination meted out even today," as Patel puts it. That's how her book of poems, 'Migritude', emerged, and she reads them out as a theatre performance.
For Patel, the concept of the spoken-word performance, built on the theme of colonialism and its effects on the colonised, was inspired by the Indian national dress, the sari. "My mother used to collect saris for years for my trousseau, as do many Indian mothers. Then she gave up the hope of my ever using them. But all those beautiful saris were lying in the box and I became curious about them. I then did some research and discovered that each sari, each weave, had a story to tell – of creation as well as of submission in many ways," she says. During Patel's research into the rich heritage of the sari – which included the book, 'Saris Tradition and Beyond' by Rita Kapur Chishti – she found that there are 900 ways of wearing this unstitched garment!
As she wraps a sari around her body, a third-generation migrant with a colonial legacy, she tells her story – of textiles, their origins, the untold tales of weavers and women. For some, it was a way to keep them bound; for others, it was way of expressing themselves. Patel takes her audiences on a journey back in time. "Personally, I'll never wear a sari in a way that restricts me. Look at Laxmi Bai, she wore a sari but also rode a horse in a battle," she says.
During her tryst with history, she also discovered that the imperialists had all but destroyed some of these indigenous products in order to sell their own machine-produced materials. The story of oppression, symbolised by the sari, can be found even today in the way migrants are treated as 'different' – as not belonging to the mainstream, just because they look different. The recent case of Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, being body-searched in Jackson, Mississippi, because she was wearing a sari, is a case in point.
"We overdress, we migrants. We care too much how we look to you. We get it wrong... We show up ridiculously groomed, bearing elaborate gifts. We are too formally grateful," says Patel. She coined the term ‘migritude’, to express this need for 'inclusion'.
Talking about how her cultural production evolved, Patel says, "We are of the generation who are not afraid to articulate the voice of the minority. Globalisation has seen huge movement of people from one country to another in search of work. But it has also seen a marginalisation of people in richer countries where they work."
Patel is not totally opposed to globalisation, and recognises its strengths. But she also points out that the better-off countries of the world have benefited from the cheap labour that came from Africa and Asia and that migrant labour must be fairly compensated. She also feels that Imperialism and its oppression of the colonised, should be verbalised and brought into the present context. An active member of 'Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice' - which works towards a just and equitable democracy in Kenya - she is also a part of the South Asian Playwrights group in the US.
It was during Idi Amin's rule in the seventies, that Indian migrants who had lived for decades in Uganda were unceremoniously thrown out of the country. Patel's family, like many others, left Kenya around this time, feeling that “they were not one of them." Today, however, she believes "Kenya is my home." Incidentally, writer Yasmin Alibhai Brown, who grew up in Uganda and now lives in England, has expressed the same sentiment in her autobiographical account, 'No Place Like Home'.
As a creative entity, what came first to her - poetry or activism? Patel replies, "It's a chicken and egg situation. Poetry and activism are both aimed at making the mind aware of things around you. My poetry is an aesthetic way to express my concerns."
Patel believes that an artist's job is not to blend unquestioningly into society but to create discomfort, to generate ripples, and hold a mirror to it. She has tried to do just this. Her performances have riveted audiences in Asia, Africa and North America. Noted literary theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, finds Patel’s work "vibrant, gendered, a wordsmith's voice," and calls Patel a "rare thing – an activist poet in prose and verse."
Patel's work has been translated into eight languages. Besides 'Migritude', she has written two collections of poetry: 'Dreaming In Gujurati', and 'Shilling Love'. Her poems are included in online exhibits of the International Museum of Women, the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Asian Poets Collection of the New York University.
A recipient of numerous award and fellowships, for Patel, however, 'achievement' has a different connotation. "To me, achievement is what I can contribute to society, use something intangible like poetry to help its growth,” she says.
At the moment Patel is working on her second solo woman show, 'Bwagamoyo', combining two Swahili words: 'bwaga', to dump, and 'moyo', heart. The name also refers to a place in Tanzania where slaves were herded together to be sent as slave labour across the seas.
Here is a woman who does not hesitate to raise some really uncomfortable questions and reveal some hard truths.
By arrangement with WFS