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Alumni profile - Jaspreet Kaur, aka Behind the Netra

Since 2015, I have been performing my spoken word on stages across the UK, aiming to tackle issues related to gender discrimination, mental health stigma, the postcolonial immigrant experience, taboo issues within the South Asian community and much more. I have met lots of inspirational women from a range of different industries and backgrounds. This network of inspirational women is continuing to grow and we all support and guide one another.

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What did you study at Queen Mary and what are you doing now? During my time at Queen Mary from 2010-2013 I studied History. I then went on to complete a masters in Gender Studies and Sociology at UCL, followed by teaching training to become a History teacher in 2015. Since then, I have taught in two fantastic secondary schools in London, teaching History, Sociology and Politics. Whilst pursuing my career in teaching, I also began to explore my second passion, spoken word poetry. Since 2015, I have been performing on stages across the UK, aiming to tackle issues related to gender discrimination, mental health stigma, the postcolonial immigrant experience, taboo issues within the South Asian community and much more. Some of these performances and key note talks include the 2018 Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey, Theatre Royal London, Oxford and Cambridge University, London City Hall, the House of Lords, Trafalgar Square and Women of the World Global, as well as TED talks for TEDxUCLWomen and TEDxLondon.

From January 2020 I will be taking a short break from teaching to focus on my journey as a writer, poet and performer. I am currently working on my first book, a narrative nonfiction to be released in early 2021.

Why did you choose to study History at Queen Mary? I grew up with history books scattered all around my family home. My dad was also a passionate historian, mainly reading texts in relation to colonial history. As soon as I could read, I remember diving into some of these books and being fascinated by the history and narratives that defined so much about who I am. This passion and intrigue continued to grow as I entered secondary school, but I also felt that the national curriculum was quite constrictive and lacked diversity. When I looked in to the modules covered within Queen Mary’s History BA, I was excited to see the diverse and inclusive nature of the topics, themes and periods it aimed to teach.

I understand that you are a secondary school teacher by day and that you juggle other passions and roles such as being a poet and activist. How do you find the time to take on so much? This is one of the most popular questions I get during Q&As! I always say that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect balance’. Instead, what I try and encourage people to find is something that gives them a sense of purpose. When you find that ‘thing’, what you will find is that you do have the energy and excitement to do it all. You want to get out of the bed every morning. I feel that I am one of the lucky people who has found a purpose and passion, and thankfully those things also fund my livelihood. 

Your website states that you are better known as Behind the Netra for your poetry, can you describe the inspiration and meaning behind this name? I have always been a lover of linguistics and have grown up bilingual, so I would always have a fascination with the origins of words. Many South Asian languages have derived from Sanskrit so during my time at university, I would often look for the origin of words that I would come across in Punjabi, Hindi or Urdu. One day I came across the word ‘Netra’. Its simple meaning is ‘eyes’, but when I delved deeper into its meaning, I found that netra had thousands of different interpretations, one being that our ‘eyes are the window to our soul.’ That’s when I came up with the name Behind the Netra for my poetry and stage name. Essentially, my poetry attempts to explore and navigate what each and everyone of us hold behind our eyes, our netra. 

The long list of your awards and achievements show no sign of slowing down: the Asian Women of Achievement Award by Women of the Future in the Arts and Culture category, the ‘We Are The City’ Rising Star Award, shortlisted for the National Diversity Award for being a Positive Role Model and being voted one of the Top 10 Inspirational Sikh Women in the UK to name a few. How does it feel to have your work recognised in this way? The recognition and support I have received has been overwhelming. Currently, each of my awards and certificates sit on a mantelpiece at my Mum and Dad’s house. They are my biggest fans and biggest supporters, and I owe everything I have to them, so every time I win an award, I give it to them. My family also do a great job at reminding me to never let anything go to my head, they remind me of who I am and where I came from, and what my mission is as a poet, teacher, writer and activist – and to remain focused on that – not the accolades. I am really grateful that these awards and achievements have allowed me to meet lots of inspirational women from a range of different industries and backgrounds. This network of inspirational women is continuing to grow and we all support and guide one another.

Do you think the fact that you are from East London means that you have a different or unique perspective on London and the world in general? How do you think your upbringing has shaped your views and the work that you do now? I loved growing up in East London and do believe it’s shaped who I am today. As many immigrant families in East London, we grew up pretty working class. My first home was on top of our corner shop. And I’m proud of that fact. East London taught me how to ‘hustle’, how to hold my own and how to stand up for what I believe in. The diversity of East London is beautiful and I had always been fascinated in its unique history and the waves of migration that took place post- World War Two. I grew up with friends from all cultures, religions and backgrounds. East London taught me how to be frugal. It taught me style. Most importantly, I think it taught me how to listen and how to be empathetic.

Can you describe what a typical working day looks like for you? My typical day starts around 6am. I meditate, feed my gorgeous doggie, Heera, and take him for a short walk with my husband. I usually head in to school and arrive by around 7.30am. From that point the day is usually a blur – before my students arrive, I try and fit in a little lesson planning and marking. I’m then teaching until 3.30pm, and like many teachers, most of the time with no lunch break! Extra-curricular clubs, more marking and planning and then I head out of school around 5pm. If I have a show, I try to get a quick bite to eat with my husband and head to an event. Shows usually start around 7pm and end around 10pm. As you can imagine, on those days, I am exhausted! But the adrenaline keeps me going. Within the day I also have to try and find some time to update my social media, speak to friends and family and be a human of some sort.

Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Find something you enjoy. Find something that you are passionate about, something you truly care about. Something that provides you with a sense of purpose. Trust me, that will make you all the money you need and it will get you out of bed in the morning. Feeling fulfilled is key, there is no point pursuing a career that will give you all the money in the world but doesn’t make you happy.

What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? As well as developing my passion for history, I also met my best friend. She and I have stayed close ever since and she has been by my side during the happiest and most difficult moments of my life.

Do you have a favourite spot on campus? Ground Café! This would be my hang out spot and where I would consume about three cups of tea a day!

Do you have any role models that you look up to, both inside and outside of your field? My Dad is definitely my biggest inspiration. His kindness, intelligence and resilience are something that I truly admire. If I am ever going through any difficulties in my adult life, my Dad is the person that I go to for advice. He always knows the right thing to say, and it usually starts with “make yourself a cup of tea...”