ave you ever sliced a heart on a curve? Which piece would you keep?”

Performance poet Shailja Patel asks these emotionally piercing questions during her one-woman show, Migritude. Wearing black leggings and a long-sleeved tee, Patel fans out an ambi-decorated sari tied around the waist and slung over the shoulder of her tall yoga-sculpted body. She proceeds to create an imaginative, fictional history of a heart that was sliced on an S curve, one half discarded while the other half went on to become the beautiful ambi of India—the shape of half of a heart, mangos, and the multicolored paisley embroidered on silk saris, pashmina shawls and cotton kurtis. Patel bleeds this fictional history into the factual history of the ambi’s evolution from an innocent and beautiful decorative symbol to its imperialist reincarnation as a “paisley.”

Shailja on Tour

Shailja Patel has been touring with Migritude as a “work-in-progress” since 2005. The complete show premieres in November, and Patel will tour with it in 2007. For more information on upcoming Migritude shows, visit her web site.

Patel herself coined the word “migritude”—a combination of “negritude” and “attitude”—to celebrate the dignity of outsider status. As a South Asian growing up in Kenya, a South Asian student in England, and now a woman of color in the United States, Patel know all about living as an outsider.

And it’s these experiences that have led to Patel’s success as a poet and performing artist. Excerpts from Migritude, which has received funding form the National Performance Network, have aired on both NPR and the BBC. Patel has played to packed houses around the world and has appeared at New York’s famed Lincoln Center. She has won numerous poetry awards and is even exhibited online by the International Museum of Women.

But Patel’s accolades don’t distract audiences from her performance, which moves from the ambi on the sari to the sari itself. She sits on a red, battered suitcase carrying 18 saris her mother carefully packed for her wedding trousseau. Patel explains that, traditionally, when a South Asian woman left her family home, she moved to her husband’s family household and lived out her days as a wife, daughter-in-law and future mother. She quietly displayed her family loyalty and honor in her in-laws’ household through the saris she wore, which had been collected and packed into a suitcase by her own mother for new life beginnings. Each sari expressed the colors, patterns, motifs and textures of the family she came from; each sari told a story about the life she left behind for the life ahead.

Shailja pulls her saris out of her suitcase.
Shailja pulls her saris out of her suitcase. ANG Newspapers

Tired of waiting for her daughter’s wedding day to come, Patel’s mother gifted the saris to her pre-marriage and has left the rest to fate. For Patel, each sari expresses the life patterns and motifs of the women featured in Migritude. She transforms these extravagant silk saris into charged political and social symbols.

“They are the containers for political, economic and personal histories expressed through Kenyan, Korean, Indian, and Iraqi women’s voices,” Patel says. “Saris can be a worn a dozen different ways and come in a hundred different shades and a hundred different textures.” She especially appreciates how the sari fits the contours and shape of each body around which it is draped, the cloth conforming to the individual body, concealing and revealing it simultaneously.

Patel describes the ambi’s evolution from an innocent and beautiful decorative symbol to its imperialist reincarnation as a “paisley.”

Leslie Rodd, a librarian at the Oakland Public Library in California, has organized public performances for Migritude. “Whenever she has appeared at library events, the room falls still for her. Powerful words of blood, rape, death, wrenching sorrow, haunting regret, language discarded and misunderstood,” says Rodd. “I have seen people moved to tears by Shailja’s performances. And standing ovations. Shailja Patel bears watching. She has some very important things to say.”

Another piece in the show moves from the saris themselves to those who presented them to her—her parents—and the inner-workings of her heart. “Schilling Love” depicts the emotional and financial sacrifices her parents made to secure a quality education for Patel and her sister in a political climate where South Asian-Kenyan families in Nairobi suffered discrimination. The poem unleashes a deeper unspoken love for family, a love that is not expressed in words, but shown and acted upon through sacrifice. Patel says that it’s her love poem to her parents.

She especially appreciates how the sari fits the contours and shape of each body around which it is draped, the cloth conforming to the individual body, concealing and revealing it simultaneously.

Rodd has seen Patel perform “Schilling Love” and closely identifies with the content: “We all have parents who have sacrificed too much for us, unreasonable definitions of success, hurtful stereotypes that we haven’t found the words to express.”

Shailja Patel

The emotional landscape of Patel’s childhood in Nairobi and her international migrations also directly feed her current work. Her experiences growing up as a South Asian girl in Nairobi plunged her into the complicated and painful web of race politics. The colonial British empire’s strategy of divide and rule in Africa alongside official segregation laws led to a post-independence Kenyan government that labeled the migrant South Asian-Kenyan community the source of societal woes. As a result, the experience of immigrants living as outsiders is a central theme in Patel’s work. Given the status of South Asian immigrants in a post-9/11 era, Patel emphasizes how important it is to provide that alternative voice and interpretation of history.

Asian American arts organizer Samantha Chanse says, “I’ve been fortunate enough to see Shailja perform several times—certainly unforgettable. She conjures up an electricity in the air and effortlessly has her audience thinking, not just passively absorbing. She has a no-mercy approach to addressing what most categorize as ‘political stuff’ as well as the intimate and very personal, and it’s no understatement to say that she inspires.”

Though she’s an emerging artist, Patel has the maturity and the patience to trust that Migritude will take shape as it is meant to through her own nurturing and encouragement.

“I have learned how to let a piece go through its toddler stages not asking it to walk when it’s crawling. Learning how to let go and trust is key,” she says. Chanse believes Patel has alread advanced past that stage: “Shailja is a force to be reckoned with.”n

Meeta Kaur is a northern California creative writer who concentrates on fiction and creative nonfiction.
Published on October 2, 2006.
Photography: D. Ross Cameron.
Comments are closed.
  1. October 11, 2006, 3:21 pm Ali Yahya

    I was on the instant forcefully touched by the painting message on the wall at the top and the opening two lines. Which piece would I keep? I would want to stitch back the two and nurture the heart back in its loving space and interlace it tenderly with other hearts. Yes, societal, to be precise male, arrogance, domineering and abuse has to be fought out so that hearts get weaved with others instead of being ‘sliced….on a curve’.

  2. October 21, 2006, 11:12 pm Bhavna Agnihotri

    Shailja is definitely “a force to be reckoned with”. She inspires us all time and time again.

  3. November 29, 2006, 5:25 am shambhu nath

    Bhojpuri -geet
    Jab ghar se nikala dhua ham heran lage kuan
    Hiya too baithi batoo ,,
    Her dala u.p bihar ,,
    Hiya too baithi batoo ,,
    Gharwa me duarawa pe hera
    Her dala nadiya aw naar
    Hiya too baithi batoo ,,
    Khetwa me hera bagiya me hera
    Her dala bhadari talaw
    Hiya too baithi batoo ,,
    Kaki se poonch dadi se pooncha
    Her dala sara jila gaon
    Hiya too baithi batoo ,,
    Dilli hera banaras hera
    Her dala haryana Punjab
    Hiya too baithi batoo ,,
    Jab ghar se nikala dhua ham heran lage kuan
    Hiya too baithi batoo ,,
    Her dala u.p bihar ,,