In search of Kabir

Print edition : March 27, 2009
in Bangalore

Shabnam Virmani and folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipaniya. She has dedicated a great chunk of her life in the past five years to archiving the legacy of Kabir.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Come lets go to the Lords country Ill show you the city of the heart Come with me to the creators country Ill show you the city of my heart The city of feelings, the city of love Come to my country Ill show you the city of my heart.

PRAHLAD SINGH TIPANIYAS rich and beautiful voice resounded in the spacious Sophia High School auditorium in Bangalore. His song about the land of the lord, as conceptualised by Kabir, had the audience an eclectic group consisting of students, connoisseurs of classical music, journalists, artists, folk singers from the Kabir tradition and researchers of his Bhakti tradition mesmerised. Many in the audience could not understand Tipaniyas rendering of Kabirs verses in the central Indian Hindi dialect, but for a brief while they did visit Kabirs city of the heart.

Tipaniyas performance was part of the Kabir Festival Koi Sunta Hai (Someone is listening), a three-day event from February 27 that brought together for the first time four documentary films on Kabir made by Shabnam Virmani. She has dedicated a great chunk of her life over the past five years in journeying to archive the legacy of Kabir, the medieval Indian weaver-poet whom some consider the most important poet/philosopher of the Bhakti tradition in India.

The result, a series of four documentaries, Journeys with Kabir, compiles some very visible oral repositories of the cultural and political legacy of Kabir in the subcontinent. Apart from the screenings of the documentary films, the festival tried to discuss comprehensively the idea of Kabir by using other mediums. Performances by folk musicians from India and Pakistan in the Bhakti and Sufi traditions were the highlights of the festival. Purushottam Aggarwal, former chairperson of the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, spoke about his engagement with Kabir, and the cultural critic Ashok Vajpeyi led a discussion. Karnatakas own Sufi and Bhakti traditions were displayed at the event.

Mukhtiar Ali, a Mirasi folk singer from Rajasthan, performing at the Kabir Festival at the Sophia High School auditorium in Bangalore on February 28.-K. MURALI KUMAR

For a biographical researcher, understanding any historical person fully can be a difficult goal, more so in the case of a person like Kabir whose verse has been immortalised in the popular culture and the psyche of India. A second problem that can be encountered, as stated by Linda Hess, University of Stanford professor and researcher on Kabir, while being interviewed in one of the four documentaries, Chalo Hamare Des (Come to my country), is that there is no complete corpus of Kabirs work that a scholar can faithfully bank on. Kabir thrives as a living tradition in the subcontinent, and to derive some semblance of comprehension about his life and legacy, any research will have to rely on an interdisciplinary approach premising itself variously on historical, sociological and cultural-anthropological methods of analysis.

But this will still fall short of making sense of someone like Kabir, a legendary spiritual figure who provides sustenance for a diverse set of contemporary ideas. A significant population of the subcontinent, from Sindh in Pakistan to Bengal in India, has grown up listening to the poetry of Kabir. To engage with such multiple experiences, Shabnam Virmani has, instead of relying on any orthodox social science research methods, used her identity as a singer and a film-maker to search for a contemporary Kabir. Shabnam Virmani said she did not set out as a researcher to understand Kabir, but her search was a personal artistic journey.

Charlotte Vaudevilles authoritative work on Kabir, A Weaver Named Kabir, and S.A.A. Rizvis The Wonder That Was India (Part II), say that Kabir lived in the 15th century and was a disciple of Ramananda. The most common account of his birth is that he was born into a Hindu Brahmin household and was adopted by a childless Muslim couple in Varanasi. The name Kabir, meaning great in Arabic, itself is Muslim. It is used as one of the 99 names of Allah in Islamic theology.

Hindu sources have referred to him as Kabir Das. He is supposed to have constantly travelled and was in touch with both Hindu saints and Sufis. Kabir was married, and though he was unhappy being a husband and a father, he never preached celibacy or renunciation. Even the simple details of his life are shrouded in mystery, with a carapace of myths and legends constructed around his persona by hagiographers in later centuries.

Fariduddin Ayaz from Karachi, the legatee of a 700-year-old qawwali tradition.-K. MURALI KUMAR

What is not disputed is that Kabir was against religious orthodoxy, both Hindu and Muslim. His approach to life could be called humanist, in the sense that his poetry emphasises the dignity of all people. Rizvi writes that Kabir mirrored the spiritual movement which relentlessly fought against simple-minded Hindu and Muslim ritualism, die-hard fanaticism, and religious, sectarian, class, and colour distinctions.

Continuing his discussion of Kabir, he writes it was his [Kabirs] frequent identification of Ram with Rahim that went a long way to make the Bhakti movement a unique religious experience in the Indian subcontinent. Kabir declared in one of his couplets: I am not Hindu or Muslim/Allah-Ram is the breath of my body.

This world view in Kabirs verse was what motivated Shabnam Virmani. Her desire to journey with Kabir began when she was living in Gujarat during the anti-Muslim riots of 2002. There was an intense desire in me at that moment in my life to make peace with a world view which was dualist. I was searching for a world view that goes beyond this dualism, she said while interacting with the audience at the Kabir festival.

One of the four films, Had-Anhad (Bounded-Boundless), is about Shabnam Virmanis search for Kabirs Ram, as opposed to the Ram of the Hindutva forces. Her journey begins in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) and passes through Mukhtiar Alis house in a village in western Rajasthan.

Mukhtiar Ali is a Mirasi folk singer, who regaled the audience at the festival with his splendid rendition of Kabir. In a dialogue with Shabnam Virmani in the film, he makes a reference to how the philosophy of Bhakti and Sufi saints is infused with the basic idea of love and how religious orthodoxy ignores this element.

Her journey in this first film culminates in Karachi in Pakistan where Fariduddin Ayaz, the legatee of a 700-year-old qawwali tradition, lounged on a mattress, chewing paan and expounding on Kabir. His bountiful chutzpah was evident even as he performed in Bangalore and said in an interview, I am not ready to compromise on Kabir. I know him from very close. I know him the way he is.

Tipaniya performed in his Malwi folk style, producing a distinct sound with his tambura and kartaal.-K. MURALI KUMAR

The second film, Koi Sunta Hai, charts the relation between Kabirs verse and Kumar Gandharvas compositions. Gandharva (1924-1992), a Padma Vibhushan recipient, explored the nirgun and shunya in Kabirs poetry. The nirgun that Kabir talks about is the formless Supreme Being as opposed to the sagun form, which is the visible manifestation of the Supreme Being. Kabirs stand against idolatry is evident in this strong emphasis on the nirgun. In one of his couplets he says: If worshipping a stone idol gets Hari then I will worship a mountain/ Better is the grinding stone, which grinds and feeds the world. Rizvi writes that Kabirs nirguna Brahma is the God of gods, Supreme Lord, primal and omnipotent.

It is not surprising that this strong identification with monotheism made some of his ideas similar to Islam and found some acceptance among the Sufis of the time, who called him a Muwahhid (a believer in the unity of God). Charlotte Vaudevilles work uses several later Muslim sources to point out how Muslim orthodoxy was unsure whether to qualify Kabir as a Muslim or a non-Muslim.

Apart from his emphasis on nirgun, Kabir also spoke about the concept of shunya, a second important tenet of his philosophy which refers to an esoteric state where there is a search for the void representing the state of ultimate reality. As one of Kabirs couplets says: I got attached to the One, that One was manifest in all/ Everything is mine, I am of everybody, there is no other in that space.

In the film Koi Sunta Hai, Shabnam Virmani shows how Gandharva, a child prodigy who lost his voice at the peak of his career, discovered Kabir later in life as he meditated upon the folk music form of Kabir. Gandharva, in a manner similar to Kabirs challenge of religious orthodoxy, challenged the orthodox understanding of classical music in India in his search for nirgun and shunya.

While Gandharva, through his music, provided a new form to Kabirs verse to live on in India in the 20th century, his politico-religious legacy was carried on by the Kabirpanth, a cult that was founded some time after Kabirs death. Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein (Kabir Stands in the Market), Shabnam Virmanis third film, investigates the sacredness of Kabir through the Kabirpanth, which recognises Kabir as a prophet.

Kabir himself, according to Aggarwal, who spoke at the Kabir festival in a lecture titled My Personal and Political Kabir, was against creating any cult around him. Aggarwal narrated a brief tale about Kabir in Anantdas work where Kabir, on realising that his epigrams were attracting a following, loitered around the city in the company of a well-known prostitute, pretending to be drunk, in order to ward off the attention he was getting. Kabir did not want to start a cult, asserted Aggarwal. In one of his couplets Kabir says: Look, O seekers, the world has gone mad/ If I tell the truth, they rush to beat me. If I lie they trust me.

American scholar Linda Hess with Shabnam Virmani. The former's personal beliefs seem to be a mix of Kabir's philosophy and the experiential element emphasised in Zen Buddhism.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Shabnam Virmani contrasts the sacred appropriation of Kabir by the Kabirpanth with the secular appropriation by Ekalavya, an activist group, which uses Kabir to convey its secular message.

The final film of the series, Chalo Hamara Des, knits together two experiences of Kabir. The first is of Tipaniya, a lower-caste singer from Lunyakhedi village in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. Tipaniya performed at the festival in his Malwi folk style, producing a distinct sound with his tambura and kartaal. He sang: A sculpted idol stands in the temple/ The mute statue never speaks/ The priest stands guard at the door/ Without his order wholl let you in? For Tipaniya, Kabirs egalitarian verse is perhaps a way to engage with his lower-caste identity.

But for Linda Hess the turn to Kabir was a reaction to parochialism in her Jewish community. Her own personal beliefs seemed to be a strange mix of Kabirs philosophy and the experiential element emphasised in Zen Buddhism. According to her, all of us are trying not to face death, and she finds some meaning for this in Kabirs poems. Kabir said: The golden-winged moth/ Its colour will fly away in the moment of death.

Aggarwal concluded his talk by emphasising two points: that Kabir primarily stood for an interrogation of rituals and that he endorsed a universal notion of values. One of these values, very simply and almost prelapsarian, is love. As Kabir said: The whole world reads tomes and tomes yet no one became a pundit/ The one who reads the two and a half letters of prem is the real pundit.

When Kabir died, ironically, his followers squabbled over whether he had to be buried in the Muslim way or cremated in the Hindu way. Two mausoleums, one Hindu and the other Muslim, mark his final resting place in the town of Maghar in eastern Uttar Pradesh. To quote Kabir: The Hindu says Ram is beloved, the Muslim says Rahim/ They fight and kill each other, no one gets the point.

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