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September 2008


A festival of Kabir


Four documentary films, three live concerts, two morning satsangs and one midnight jagran presented the 15th century mystic poet Kabir to a wildly enthusiastic Auroville audience.

Mukhtiar Ali and Prahlad Singh Tipaniya leading the all-night jagran at SAWCHU. Shabnam Virmani, director of The Kabir Project breaks into spontaneous dance.

Can you name a 15th century mystic whose poems are sung today? Europeans will shrug their shoulders. Indians won't. They will immediately mention Kabir, the poet whose poems even now, 600 years later, in common parlance. Nearly every north-Indian is familiar with the signature line kahai Kabira suno bhai sahdho – ‘Kabir says, listen brother sadhu!' and his poems and sayings are in Hindi textbooks.

It was the initiative of the Bharat Nivas group to organize a festival of Kabir. They invited Shabnam Virmani, the director of The Kabir Project of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore , to present the world-première of her project in Auroville. Shabnam willingly complied. Together with American Kabir scholar Dr. Linda Hess she presented her four films on Kabir. She also brought folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipaniya from Malwa in Madhya Pradesh, Hindustani Thumri singer Vidya Rao from New Delhi , and Sufi folk singer Mukhtiar Ali from Pugal in Rajasthan to present three evenings of music of unbelievable intensity.

“Kabir was born in Varanasi into a class of weavers recently converted to Islam,” writes Linda Hess in the introduction to her translation of the book The Bijak of Kabir , the sacred book of the Kabir Panth, the Indian sect devoted to Kabir. “He learned the family craft, probably studied meditative and devotional practices with a Hindu guru, and developed into a powerful teacher and poet, unique in his autonomy, intensity, and abrasiveness.

“Kabir emphatically declared his independence from both Islam and Hinduism and vigorously attacked the follies of both. While living in the holiest Hindu city, he attacks in his poems the kingpins of Hindu society; and living in a country which was then ruled by Muslims, he saw fit to ridicule the religion of the emperor. Kabir's abrupt and jagged style is a technique to jolt and shock people into facing things, to push them over the edge into an understanding that they fear and yet profoundly long for. It also corresponds to, and tones the mind up for, the actual experience of a sudden, unifying insight.

Mukhtiar Ali

“If Kabir insisted on anything, it was on the penetration of everything inessential, every layer of dishonesty and delusion. The individual must find truth in his own body and mind, so simple, so direct, that the line between “him” and “it” disappears. Kabir is a nirguna poet, who sings the praises of the impersonal and formless God. Yet, in many of his verses, Kabir sings about Ram – not the anthropomorphic Ram, the deity of popular Hindu mythology, but the Ram within each of us.” Sri Aurobindo would call this the inner divinity.

In the six centuries since his passing, Kabir's poems have grown in number, finding expression in other languages and new metaphors. Stirred by the truth expressed in the poetry, scores of anonymous poets, seekers and singers have added to this body of verse. Others, known as ‘poets of the Kabir tradition', composed songs inspired by Kabir which subsequently became part of Kabir's growing repertoire. The poems of these saint-poets are still being sung by thousands of rural bhajan mandlis (singing groups) in all night satsangs – spaces where the spiritual and musical fuses to create a moment of immersion in the truth expressed in these songs.

Prahlad Singh Tipaniya

“While there is evidence that both Hindus and Muslims were ready to assault Kabir physically during his lifetime, they have since his death been ready to assault each other over the privilege of claiming him as their own,” writes Linda. “A famous legend about Kabir shows his Hindu and Muslim followers massed for combat after his death, each side demanding to take charge of the body. But before the first blow is struck, someone removes the shroud to discover that a heap of flowers has replaced the cadaver. The two religious groups divide the flowers, and each goes off to bury or burn its half according to prescribed rituals.”

The legend has relevance even today. Kabir songs are sung all over north India by Hindus and Muslims alike, by folk and classical singers, and in Pakistan by singers from the Sufi tradition. Apart from travelling to various parts of north India , the Kabir project team also visited Karachi where two Sufi singers shared their views on Kabir. “Our perspective, our very way of seeing began to drift,” writes Shabnam in her book Kabir in Pakistan . “Fixed ideas of nation, identity, self, other, us, them, this, that, yes, no, began to melt.” This encounter was powerfully recorded in her first film Had-Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir . The Pakistani qawwal singer Farid Ayaz, who sadly could not make it to the Kabir Festival, summarized his relationship to Kabir as follows: “To say that I am Kabir's ‘fan' would be rubbish. The word doesn't do justice to the sacred bond, the feeling of utter devotion that a lover has for his beloved, a disciple for his guru. Call it chahat (longing), call it uns (love)!”

Love-devotion, perhaps better called by its Indian equivalent bhakti , was also a major element in the live performances in Auroville. Prahlad Tipaniya exalted with the intensity of his songs; Vidya Rao intensely moved the being with her refined vocalisations of Kabir's poems in classical Hindustani Thumri style; and Mukhtiar Ali, who took care of the last evening, aroused the audience with the fervency of his emotion. In true Indian tradition, the festival was concluded with an all-night jagran in the SAWCHU building. While the rains poured down, Prahlad and Mukhtiar took turns in delighting the audience.

Vidya Rao

Does the message of Kabir have relevance today? “Yes,” says Linda. “Since the 1980s, there has been a marked tendency by secular groups to appropriate Kabir, because he spoke so trenchantly against sectarianism, hypocrisy, violence, and caste, especially untouchability. His voice can be potent in supporting what today we call pluralism, tolerance, the equality and dignity of all.”

For religious groups, such as the Kabir Panth and other Kabir sects, Kabir is a divine figure, and they heavily defend the way they regard him. In the 1980s, for example, an Indian television producer tried to do a serial on the life of Kabir. After the first few episodes, he was slapped with dozens of lawsuits instigated by Kabir organisations for whom Kabir is a divine incarnation. They objected to the fact that Kabir was portrayed as a human being who grew up with his family in a normal way. This shut the serial down.”

Kabir doesn't belong to any religion. The Sufis from the Islamic world claim his voice with as much passion as do Hindus in India . But this is not palatable to some people. Says Shabnam, “At the end of a showing of my film Had-Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir in Godhra in Gujarat , the audience declared the film anti-nationalistic and anti-Hindu. I have a distinct feeling that when I show this film in Karachi in November this year, orthodox Muslims will be equally upset.”

Prahlad confirms. “Some of my colleagues recently were singing Kabir in a place in Madhya Pradesh where Hindu fundamentalists hold sway. They sabotaged the programme. They fear that the voice of Kabir threatens their Hindutva ideology. They even want to erase Kabir from school textbooks, because his voice is too uncomfortable.”

“But none of these attempts is bound to succeed. Kabir thrives in the oral tradition of Indian and Pakistani singers and his voice is simply too great to be erased,” says Linda confidently. Judging by the response of the Auroville audience, her observation is spot-on.

The Bharat Nivas group must be complimented for bringing Kabir to Auroville, revealing aspects of India that few Western Aurovilians know exist.


The film ‘Had-Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir' shared 1st Prize at the One Billion Eyes Documentary Film Festival organized by the Prakriti Foundation in Chennai, two days after the Auroville festival.

Photos courtesy Kalakendra and Srishti Bangalore


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