Walking with Kabir

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I had set out thinking I would preach Kabir to the violent, misguided ones out there. But soon Kabir started speaking to me, in here.

My search for Kabir started in 2002. I was living in Ahmedabad when the Godhra event happened and I witnessed the anti-Muslim pogrom which unfolded in the state of Gujarat. Immediately Kabir seemed to call out, ‘Sadho, dekho jag baurana! (Oh seekers, see the world’s gone mad!)’. I instinctively felt, yes, this man is saying what I feel.

In 2003, I set out on a series of journeys, camera in hand, venturing into diverse socio-cultural, religious and musical landscapes, meeting with people who sing, love, quote, revere and make meaning of Kabir for their lives. Six years later some of these experiences found expression in four documentary films, several music CDs and books. But while I journeyed into outer worlds, at Kabir’s constant bidding, I also journeyed within – and the story for me didn’t proceed according to script. There were surprises and transformations Kabir had in store for me.

I had set out thinking I would preach Kabir to the violent, misguided ones out there. But soon Kabir started speaking to me, in here. Soon he started showing me the fissures in my own mind, the violence (gross or subtle) and the dishonesties I am capable of when I construct and defend my ego. He showed me how I subtly ‘other’ multiple categories of people in order to consolidate my identity and how this ‘othering’ keeps me locked in dualistic ways of perceiving myself and the world – ways that are ultimately violent and divisive. I saw how this inner reality linked with my outer one, how dishonesty and violence at the individual level unfolds into pogroms and war at the larger level, as we ‘other’ whole communities while defending our collective egos of sect or nation. This is not what I was expecting to find on these journeys – to find myself complicit in the social scenario I had set out to condemn, at least in some measure.

Buraa jo dekhan mein chalaa,
buraa na milyaa koi
Jo man khojaa aapna,
mujhse buraa na koi

I set out to find evil
and found no evil one.
I searched my own self
and found no one as evil as I.

In another famous couplet, he says –
Kabira khadaa bazaar mein,
liye lukaathi haath
Jo ghar baare aapna,
chale hamaare saath!

Kabir stands in the market,
flaming torch in hand.
Burn down your home,
then come walk with me!

The metaphor of a ‘home’ unfolds in deeper and deeper ways, but one immediate reading points to the walls of identity we build to separate us from them. Kabir pushes us out of these comfort zones, our carefully constructed identities and self-images, which quite like our houses, are material, located and very fragile. They need to be constantly defended and protected from the quakes and storms of change and time. We don’t have to jettison all our frameworks or forms, but surely we should be able to step out of them from time to time, and with a certain lightness, wonder and even humour, observe our own particularity within a multiplicity of others. Evidently, this is not an easy task, and it’s not surprising that Kabir claims his home is a tough one to reach.

Kabir kaa ghar shikhar pe, silhali si gail
Wahan paanv na tike papeel ka, kyun manvaa laade bail?

Kabir’s home is on a peak –
the path is slippery and treacherous.
The foot of an ant slips on it.
Oh mind, why load your bullock?

So, nudged by Kabir himself, each of the four documentary films journeys cross a boundary of some kind; both the physical borders drawn across our geographic realities as well as those etched in the treacherous terrains of our own minds. The film ‘Had Anhad (Bounded Boundless): Journeys with Ram and Kabir’ (probes the divides created by religion and nationalism and journeys from India to Pakistan.

Koi Sunta Hai (Someone is Listening): Journeys with Kumar and Kabir’ probes the boundaries we create in the realms of knowledge, art and music. The metaphor of ghar here slides into gharana, literally ‘houses’ of learning in Hindustani classical music. These gharanas often get encrusted with snobbery and exclusivity and we see in this film how the renowned singer Kumar Gandharva had the courage to ‘burn’ down his citadel of classical learning.

It seems to me that to grapple with the problem of divisiveness we must not only ‘tolerate’ difference, we should make friends with it. The film ‘Chalo Hamara Des (Come to My Country): Journeys with Kabir and Friends’, shows a friendship between a rural Dalit folk singer, Prahlad Tipanya and an American scholar, Linda Hess, a friendship between the Kabir of rural Malwa and the Kabir of an American scholar-translator who practices Zen Buddhism. The film subtly evokes this cross-cultural friendship, strengthened by their porous ego borders and openmindedness. As that film traverses the physical landscapes of rural India and North America, it is really traversing hearts and minds, crossing bridges of understanding, despite difference.

Kabir haldi peeyari, chuna ujjwal bhai
Ram snehi yun mile, donon varan gavai

Kabir says, turmeric is yellow
Limestone a brilliant white
Two lovers of Ram met thus –
both shed their own colours

So I decided to walk over to ‘other’ sides that made me uncomfortable. Coming as I did from an agnostic family background and having been inspired later by the leftist ethos of social activism in my 20s and 30s, I had a deep mistrust of religion, rituals and gurus. When I ventured into the religious contexts of Kabir, I was uncomfortable, startled and deeply disoriented to discover my response – first confusion, and then a creeping empathy.

It was this uneasy tension in myself that became the underlying quest of the film ‘Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein (In the Market stands Kabir): Journeys with Sacred and Secular Kabir’. It probes the ironies, compulsions and contradictions that unfold in the life of Prahlad Tipanya who, while being part of the activist secular group Eklavya, also decides to join the Kabir Panth as a mahant (cleric of the sect). The film tracks the opposing pulls of the individual and the collective, the spiritual and the social, the contrasting calls of autonomy and social authority, as he tries to conscientiously translate the ideas of Kabir into his own life practice.

Given my mistrust of the culture of gurus in our country, I was surprised on these journeys at being given the gift of a guru. Prahladji, the charismatic village school teacher and folk singer from Malwa, Madhya Pradesh, drew me to him precisely because he didn’t set himself up as a guru. He often says that our true guru is beyond boundaries and found within ourselves, arising spontaneously in the house of our own experience. He resists and upsets the practices of hierarchy, ego massaging and knowledge politics that mark so much of the culture around gurus. He carries his insights with lightness and shares them with a playful ease and deeply inclusive humility that shows me that he is a true sadhak (seeker) himself. I marvelled again – this is not what I expected to find.

The Kabir films and festivals that are currently unfolding around their screenings and live music concerts are a small effort towards experiencing Kabir in an integrated way, without fragmentation. They try to bring the socio-political, material world, with its dilemmas and choices together with the spiritual world, the deep inner realms of meditative stillness and the insights of self-knowledge they hold for us. The films and the festivals do not offer us music as temporary escape into elevated spaces free of the muck of reality. They constantly weave between the sublime and the mundane, the spiritual and the political.

There was a moment during the Bangalore festival of Kabir in February- March 2009 when it felt like this truth was realized. The context was the growing jingoistic mood in our country four months after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Despite the pessimism and lack of help from many quarters, our team had secured visas for our Pakistani singer friends to join other Kabir singers from Malwa, Rajasthan, Kutch and Karnataka at this festival. I think this was achieved through our sheer will and commitment to recall the voice of Kabir as a shared cultural heritage across the nation’s borders precisely at that moment in history.

It was the last day of the festival, the final concert of qawwali by Fariduddin Ayaz from Karachi and the 1350-seat auditorium was packed to the brim. When he burst into the famous Rajasthani folk song ‘Padhaaro mhaare des (Come to my country)’, the moment crackled with a
tragic beauty. ‘Let us go to that undivided land,’ he said, ‘that country beyond India and Pakistan, that undivided mind space where we all belong, where Kabir is calling us…’ Many in the audience were weeping.

I would like to talk about a few other things these journeys taught me, things that didn’t seem at first directly connected with Kabir. As a convent-educated, English-speaking person, I found myself connecting with my own native language universe in ways I didn’t anticipate, and certainly with a joy that I didn’t expect. I would spend hours on long-winded road journeys to remote village concerts with folk singer friends, squabbling with camaraderie over word meanings. I would find myself poring over song texts with a medieval Hindi dictionary in hand, transcribing and excavating with the excitement of an archaeologist, the meanings and nuances of the words and poems. This labour was way beyond the needs of my films and sometimes I’d be overcome with a sense of unreality. When the sounds and textures of these non-English dialects began to enter me, I realized they were filling up a void that I wasn’t even aware existed.

As I ventured into the life of Kabir in the community, I began to experience a strange tension with my technology. The presence of my camera seemed to separate me from the action and relegate me to being a passive observer. It was not long before I began to steal chances to relinquish the camera, pick up the manjiras (cymbals), clap and join in the singing in a room full of sweaty bhajniks (devotees) totally intoxicated on the nasha of Kabir.

Being part of the making process seemed more vital and important than consuming what is made, in my case, ‘recording’ it. It seemed imperative to be fully enveloped in the live pulsating music, to allow it to infiltrate your very pores and have the poetry literally enter your body by singing it. As one singer puts it in one of the films, ‘Ham baani ko loot liye, baani ko kha gaye! (I looted this poetry, I ate up the words!)’

Another not unrelated experience was to leave my middle class city world to enter the villages, to experience a direct contact with nature, with the tactile physical world. If we’re in a closed car the outer world whizzes by in a vague and muffled manner. But if we walk there is a sense of experiencing the land directly. We sweat in the sun, stumble on the rocks, hear the birds, taste the dust, feel the breeze. For me these experiences became inseparable from the experience of Kabir. They were not irrelevant to his poems, their life force. To walk barefoot for three days in the village of Damakheda, to eat only once a day and like it, to eat on the earthen floor, to sleep on hay, to eat food plucked straight from standing crops in the fields, to wade through rivers with camera on my shoulder, to relinquish the desire to cordon myself off from the experience of the tactile, physical world around me.

Our middle class lives deliver to us mediated experiences that come to us through books, TV, radio, music CDs and the internet – technology that can certainly deliver powerful experiences, but that can also circumscribe our lives, cut it off from immersion in a vital life force that exists in nature, in the tactile experience of sound, music and earth. We get alienated, we become watchers of spectacles, far-removed, we become phlegmatic; we don’t participate.

I realized how the meanings of the songs changed when they entered and inhabited your whole body. I realized how too much learning and scholarship can actually be an impediment to intuiting the wisdom of Kabir. Often I’d meet an ‘illiterate’ villager who seemed to silently
‘know’ so much more than the voluble pundits of Kabir lost in the maze of their own erudition.

Kabir urges us to receive this knowledge by taking the plunge, through direct immersion and participation, through a full body experience, by implicating the self with a searing honesty and making it vulnerable. What we all find easier to do, however, is to cling to the safety of the coast, be observers, do a cerebral reading and, with our faculties of self-preservation in full throttle, keep ourselves once-removed, high and very dry.

Likhaa likhee ki hai nahin, dekhaa dekhee baat
Dulhaa dulhan mil gaye, to pheeki padi baraat!

You can’t read or write about it.
It must be seen and experienced.
When the bride and groom unite,
the wedding party pales

So I was not surprised to discover recently that one of the root meanings of the term bhakti is ‘participation’. I am not surprised that it is the folk music of our villages – with its democratic and inclusive spirit – that has nourished the bhakti traditions in this country. In the best tradition of the all-night village satsangs (devotional gatherings) and jagrans where this poetry flourishes, transmits and is practiced, many boundaries begin to blur – those between singer and listener, between singer and song, between self and other, between self and God.

Laali mere laal kee, jit dekhun tit laal
Laali dekhan mein gayee, mein bhee ho gayi laal

The redness of my beloved is such –
wherever I look I see that red.
I set out in search of red,
I became red myself

‘Dhai Akar Prem Ka – The Kabir Festival will take place in Mumbai 14th – 23rd January, 2011.
The above article contains excerpts from the original article published in the Seminar Magazine. The complete article is available on www.kabirproject.org Shabnam Virmani has inquired into the contemporary resonances of Kabir through a series of journeys over the last six years through films, music and books. The project was seeded at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore where it continues to be located, and is supported by the Ford Foundation, New Delhi.