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Rutgers alumnus discusses, performs poetry based on Southeast Asian heritage

Purvi Shah, a Rutgers alumna, said her poetry touches on themes of gender and sexuality.  – Photo by Photo by Facebook | The Daily Targum

Purvi Shah, Rutgers alumna, poet and social justice activist, took the stage on March 3 at the Rutgers Student Center Multipurpose Room on the College Avenue campus and performed a poem with the help of dancers Aditi Dhruv and Kuldeep Singh. Kicking off this year’s Women’s History Month, Shah discussed the intersectionality of being a woman and Southeast-Asian.

Shah earned her master's degree at Rutgers for English and has since published her second poetry collection, “Miracle Marks.” “‘Miracle Marks examines how women are marked and the marks women make by delving (into) what it means to be a woman and what it means to be," according to Shah’s blog.

At the beginning of the event, Shah asked the audience “What are some of the marks you make?” There were posters lined up against the walls of the venue with post-it notes conveniently placed for audience members to use. The interactive event encouraged audience members to “jam out and mingle” with people they had never met before.

When discussing her inspiration for the book, she mentioned the story of 16th-century Hindu mystic poet Mirabai who was forced by her family to marry a prince, but she was determined to remain solely devoted to Krishna, a god.

Shah said her main performance, which featured an interpretive dance from Dhruv and Singh as she read her poem, is also based on cultural traditions. 

“(The main performance is) a piece that’s poetry and dance, which harkens back to South Asian traditions, which are lyrical — often rooted in song and an interplay of music, word and body,” Shah said. 

Shah said her Indian heritage helped her connect to the audience. 

“Within my family and community, sharing things about your family is not really something that people are excited about. I think there’s a lot of secrecy,” Shah said.

An aspect of Asian culture is keeping secrets, which Shah said impacted her. As a poet, she drew upon inspiration from her parents and conveyed what she learned in her public work.

Shah said her poetry also draws upon themes of gender and sexuality. 

“One of the things that I was thinking about is that for those of us who identify as Hindus and believe in reincarnation, what is to say that we are born, or reborn again, as the same biological kind of sex or gender?” she said.

Many of Shah’s poems focus on being a woman. Her work frequently references real-world situations that sparked her concern, such as a woman in a bad marriage who committed suicide after killing her two kids.

Outside of her poetry, Shah has also focused her activism on intimate violence. As the Executive Director of Sakhi for South Asian Women for eight years, she worked to increase language access throughout New York and championed the end of violence against women.

“She does such a great job of using her art to advocate for people,” said Akila Rayapuraju, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. Rayapuraju said she attended the event upon the insistence of her Douglass Residential College Global Village Creativity professor.

“I am so glad that we (came) because it’s probably an event that I would have come to on my own anyway,” Rayapuraju said.

Jane Keller and Zaynab Khan, School of Arts and Sciences juniors, were also part of the Global Village and came for the Public Policy class.

“(Shah) incorporates very traditional Hindu concepts and relates them back to modern-day ideas still around,” Khan said.

Khan said her favorite poem was one about summer because Shah incorporated how the word summer both in English and Hindi sounded similar in her piece.

Rayapuraju said Shah’s work provides representation for the Southeast-Asian-American community. 

“It’s just so hard to find that overlap,” Rayapuraju said. “One that kind of takes Western culture and merges it with South Asian culture.  It’s just so exciting to see something like that. I feel like it captures the Indian-American experience.”

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