Friday, 13 April 2012

The Kabir Project, Bangalore
needs a 
Project Assistant

Candidates should be proficient in Hindi, passionate about music and inspired by mystic poetry!
Job Profile –
1.      Field visits and secondary research on the poetry, songs and oral traditions of Kabir and other mystic poets.
2.      Transcribing, research & curation of video and audio clips for upcoming Ajab Shahar web archive.
3.      Logisitics, program management & artist coordination for events & festivals
4.      Updates on project website and all web-based communications.
Location – Kabir Project office, Srishti School of Art & Design, Yelahanka, north Bangalore.
Salary – Commensurate with skills & experience

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Travels Through Song- Vipul Rikhi

Read Vipul Rikhi's beautifully crafted and heartfelt article on the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra, 2012. This year's Kabir Yatra was held in Rajasthan in and around Bikaner and was organised by Lokayan with the support of The Kabir Project. A seven day whirlwind of music, vichaar and masti, the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra featured 13 folk artists from around the country including some very special women folk singers from Rajasthan like Gavra Devi, Bhanwari Devi and Jamali Bai. This years Yatra also saw almost 200 odd urban yatris join us from both India and abroad! It was a magical journey into the heart of the deserts of Rajasthan wandering like jogis to the beat of the mystics.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Calling! Researchers/Editors/Animators

ajab shahar
Come into this colorful palace, this wondrous city
Oh, my swan, my seeker friend!
-         Kabir

The Kabir Project is creating a lyrical web city– an ajab shahar –where browsers can encounter songs, poems and conversations around the poetry of Kabir and other mystic, Bhakti and Sufi poets, in contemporary landscapes of music, spirituality, politics and the self.

We are looking for
Animators and Interactive Web Designers
to develop evocative web experiences around mystic poetry and music
Researchers and Video Editors
- to transcribe video/audio footage of songs/conversations
- to research into mystic poetry and music traditions
- to annotate, edit and upload audio, video and text content for the archive

Applicants should be inspired by mystic poetry and music and be fluent in Hindi. Ideal applicants should combine research with video editing skills, but both are not essential. Work entails a minimum a one-year commitment. Remuneration would be commensurate with profile of applicant.

Check us out at

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Parvathy Baul and the scorpion

One gurubitten to another :

When our eyes met, something happened.
something was said.
something was acknowledged.
but what?

She had long dreadlocks. my second thought when i saw her, 'why doesn't she comb her hair?'
and i realize, with a start, that she has done the equivalent of what I did long back
: shaving my head.
she had done away with combing her hair!

Parvathy Baul, the singing and dancing sadhak from bengal. I want talk to her about Shree Ramakrishna, one of my first obsessions.
'Yes, we shall talk about Ramakrishna. I love him.' she replies.

What more can one say about him after this?

I hear her story during an informal talk during a sleepy afternoon. ( Most afternoons were sleepy in Malwa, probably that's why I didn't feel the heat at all ).

Paravati: I have been with two gurus. The first one taught me seven songs in seven years. The second one taught me forty songs in a day. I tried running away to south India to escape being a baul. But I was hunted down and packed back to Calcutta.

Question: Why did you transit between two gurus?

Parvathy: Well, the first one told me to go to the second one. The second guru was ninety seven when I met him. He had no intention to take on one more disciple, let alone a woman disciple. First of all, he was so difficult to track down. I would reach a village and they would tell me, he has just left. Again and again. Finally, I had to bribe the women of a village with a song, so that they keep him till I come the next morning.
'I will have to check with my wife. If she does not like you, then the answer is no,' this is what the master told me when I met him and asked him to teach me.
I waited outside their house in the wilderness and was finally called inside for the verdict. As I get up to go inside, I realized that I was almost sitting on a scorpion.
'You can hang around for a few days. Only, we have no space for you inside the house. You will have to sleep outside. And we have no extra blanket either.'
They thought I would run away. But I had given my word to my earlier guru.

A guru is someone who gives you Chunawti. Challenge.

And so I slept with scorpions without a blanket for a month, after which I was allowed to sleep inside the house. After three years of learning songs after songs, my second guru passed away at the age of hundred. I asked him if he would like me to stay by his samadhi and sing and dance by myself, which I like the most. He said no chance, I have to go out and dance for the world. I have to tell them that one can go deep in something without fear.

You can ask me questions now, but keep them related to the Guru-disciple relationship. It's my favorite topic."

Question: How does one know when to trust a Guru?

Parvathy: Trust is actually a thing about yourself than the other. If you trust yourself, you will know when to trust the guru. It is very important to surrender to your art form, a surrender which has rigor and discipline. Its no use learning two songs from here, two from there. Immersing yourself totally in one tradition gives you a halo, an aura of protection when you are performing.

Don't expect another Ramakrishna to come to you. Those days were different. To live in this world, the Guru has to pick up some dust off the earth. The same dust that makes your body, makes the Guru's body. And once you have accepted someone, he is like your own life. "

And then she looked across two rows of heads at me and said, 'Even if your Guru goes to a prostitute, do not shake in your adherence.'

Now I know what the look said.
the mad scorpion who bit her.
was the Guru.

( Posted by Manjushree Abhinav. Fellow Yatris, please send in your impressions soon. )

Thursday, 28 April 2011

on the road, in the song

Malwa Kabir Yatra, 2011.

Before I begin, let me apologize. I promised to blog live from the yatra. However, the whole experience was too overwhelming and intense for me to sit and reflect and find a laptop with internet and type. But I made notes, or rather, titles, and here is the expansion of some of them.

Kailash Kher: I am not an artist

Day 1, Luniyakhedi.
We have just arrived, and the heat hits us like a blast. An ice-gola fellow with a stall is standing in front of Prahladji's house, surrounded by thirsty people under the burning hot sun. I fight the temptation to buy a gola and go inside. Shantiji, Prahladji's wife, greets me warmly and offers me a khus ka gola. 'Khus beats the heat,' she says. How can I refuse?
I slurp on a green sweet ice and watch Kailash Kher give a bath to his cute little son, Kabir.
Night, Satsang. Kailash Kher shares the manch with Prahladji and Kaluram. Kailash tells us how a cd was once stuck in his car stereo for three months. Only that cd would play, again and again. Guess whose cd it was? Prahladji's of course.
He tells us that he has come here to listen, not to sing. He sings, nevertheless, but not before this disclaimer:
"I am not an artist here. I am a devotee who is calling out to the Lord. So don't judge my song, just sit back and enjoy."
As if you had to say that, Kailash.
When he got up and left, some of the villagers crowded around him, trying to touch his feet.
Kailash responded with a joke, 'What have you lost? Kuch khoya apne yahaan?'

I am amazed.
Day two: I have gone to pick up an artiste from Turkey, Latif Bolat. In the ride back from the airport,
Latif tells me about Turkey's kabir-like mystic, Yunus Emre. Latif is very enthused about sharing the Turkish dervish with India and taking Kabir to his country.

'Turkey needs to re-open itself to Indian culture, we have so much in common. In fact, Sufism started out with mystics walking all the way to the Indus valley.
He believes that Sufism was the direct result of the first Sufi, Mansoor's travel to Indus, mingling with the sadhus here, and then coming back.
"Analhaq! (I am the truth)", Mansoor answered, when the occupant of the door he knocked inquired, Who is there?' That he was hanged for this 'blasphemy', was another matter. A lot of Sufis caught the gist of this mahavakya and started singing and dancing.

Below is a translation of a poem Latif sings for us.

Seyyid Seyfullah Nizamoglu (16th C)

The Path of Amazement

I cannot say who it is I am

I am amazed, I am amazed!

I cannot call this self 'myself'

I am amazed, I am amazed!

Who is in my eyes seeing?

Who is in my heart enduring?

Who is inhaling and exhaling?

I am amazed, I am amazed!

Who is speaking with my tongue?

Who is listening with my ears?

Who is understanding with my mind?

I am amazed, I am amazed!

Who is stepping with these feet?

Who is tasting with my mouth?

Who is chewing and who swallowing?

I am amazed, I am amazed!

Who holds these riches in his hand?

Who is the one throwing them away?

Who is buying and who selling?

I am amazed, I am amazed!

Why is there life coursing below my skin?

Why are my eyes bloodshot from crying?

Why this religion, why this faith?

I am amazed, I am amazed!

O Seyyid Nizamoglu, hear this:

Everything comes from the One.

Abandon yourself to this mighty beauty

I am amazed, I am amazed!

The flying ghost
Day three, Lunikhedi, Prahladji's house.
We are all sitting on his first floor verhandah and having our meals when a sudden sand storm blew on us and our paper plates went helter skelter in the tornado.
Bhanwari Devi's ( the soulful folk singer from Rajasthan) son Kishan in conversation with a local, as I eavesdropped.
Kishan: Do you know how this sand storm arises?
Local : Of course I do. It's an angry ghost.
Kishan: Look where my paper plate is flying. High in the sky. Full power this ghost is.

When onions fell out of the camera person's dupatta.
Those of you who have lived in hot temperatures, specially in childhood, must be aware of the cooling powers of raw onion. Most of us have had to submit mutely to grandmothers rubbing onion juice on our feet to ward off a sunstroke. Since I was in charge of the medical kit, half a kg of onions were packed in my bag.
Whenever anyone complained of the heat, I would hand over an onion and tell them to either rub it on their bare feet or at least carry it with them. Even smelling an onion can stop a nose bleed. And that's how the onion fell out of the camera person's dupatta.

The fast slow down number
Makeshift band, the young manzil gang from Delhi, came up with a new, fast version of the song, 'Halke gaadi Haanko.' (drive slowly).
I quite enjoyed the beat, in spite of the seeming contradiction. Prahladji came upto Niraj on the stage and hugged him, saying that the lyrics are far more important than the tune, and as long as the song is heard, the purpose is served.

Niraj has promised to upload the song on his facebook page. My favorite of their songs was Ekela mat chod jo banjara re (dont leave me alone, o traveller). Niraj would half close his eyes and sway as he sang. Here is a link, to banjara, not so well recorded, but as Prahladji said, the lyrics are the loaded material.

on the road, in the song

We were two buses full. Both were overflowing with song. We stop for a chai. Its hot inside the bus, its not cooler outside either. As I walk back to the bus with the chai in my hand, I see Mooralala Marwada sitting on the road, in the shadow of the bus, happily humming a song by himself. Mooralala is always happy to sing.
I sit next to him, and am surprised to hear him sing, 'Jara Halke Gaadi Haanko'. We try to sing the whole song, and together we remember most of the words.
The next couple of hours in the bus are spent in learning this song by heart. Mooralala has a problem with the phrase, 'Bilakh bilakh kar chidiya royi, bichad gayi meri jodi'.
He would instead sing, ' Dagaj Dagaj kar chidiya royi, ...'
'Its bilakh bilakh, bhai. Crying her heart out.'
'Yes yes. Bilakh Bilakh kar, chidiya royi, chichad gayi meri jodi.'
Finally, I dig out a pen. 'Lets write it down, ' I offer.
He shakes his head, 'I cant even sign my name. If I was educated, I would have reached places by now. But never mind, its quite perfect, the way it is. No point in going faster. Let the road flow smoothly. Let there be spaces between us. If we try to compete, there will be a crowd. Jara halke gaadi haanko, mere Raam Gadi wale...'

Tujhe hai showk milne ka,
to har dum, lu lagata jaa

A song I know since two decades. Prahladji is busy, tired and always surrounded by people. But I get him alone on the fifth night.
'Please sing this song for me, Prahladji.'
'Which song? I don't know this song.'
I have recorded this song in his own voice on my mobile during the web archive editing work I do at the Kabir project.
I play the song on my cell and refresh his memory.
'Oh, this one?
Ok, I will sing it. Let me listen once more, I forget the words....'

...Two nights later, I hear this song on the speakers, and I run towards the stage, with tears in my eyes. The latter part of the song, however, has changed drastically. From Mansoor mastana, it is now Kabir who is calling out, suno bhai sadho...

Note: I would like to invite all of you who were in those buses, to write in your experiences, the high points and the low ones of the yatra, from your favorite music to how you felt when we were kicked out of the dharamshala after sleeping for less than an hour...

Monday, 11 April 2011

Saint Kabir's wedding night

Some things don't change, not over a few centuries. The flip-flop nature of the mind and the stilling, magnetic influence of art.

Makes sense? Yes, but so what, right? There are innumerable ways of saying something. I shall say the same thing now through a story. Tell me how you like it.

Tore Sang Jaaungi

Once upon a time, there lived a man called Kabir who weaved cloth for a living. You probably had to study his poetry in your Hindi books. Forget all you ever read. Imagine yourself to be here, in Kabir's house, now, in the fifteenth century.

Kabir lives with his mother, and mostly spends his time weaving cloth and singing his own songs to the beat of the loom.

Seeing his detachment from the worldly and attraction for the spiritual, Kabir's mother takes him to a neighbouring village on the pretext of getting some cotton and gets him married to a young girl. Kabir is neither overjoyed nor unhappy.

On the wedding night, when everyone else is asleep and they are alone, his bride suddenly bursts into tears.

'What? Missing your family? Want to go back?' he asks her.

'No. Never,' she replies.

'Ok. That's fine. Then why are you crying?'

'I am missing someone.'


Kabir walks to and fro in the small room, as his bride sits in a corner and weeps.

'You love him?' he asks her.

'Yes,' she admits.

'And he?'

'He also loves me.'

'Then why did you marry me?'

'My family forced me to. He is from a different caste.'

'Caste is all crap. We are all the same. Get up, wipe your tears. I will take you to him. We will reach early morning.'

The young girl can't believe her good luck. She thanks him profusely and they sneak off into the night.

It has just rained, the sky is clear. The moon is full. A bride and her groom are walking back to her village to meet her lover. But the groom is a poet, and before the song, he warms up with a doha,

'Laali mere laal ki, Jit dekhun tith laal. Laali dekhan main gai, to main bhi ho gayi laal.'
(As I sought the beloved, I began to see Him everywhere. I was so enraptured that I lost myself in Him.)

The terrain gets rocky and slushy. After a while, the young girl begins to tire. Her mood drops and she starts crying again.


'Slow down! I cant walk as fast as you,' she cribs.

'Why not? We are going to meet your lover. You should be walking faster than me.'

'Look at my clothes! Look at all this jewelry! Try walking two steps dressed like this.'

'All right, I get your point. Ok, sit on my back. We can't afford to slow down.'

So she climbs on his back and he carries her like a child. She is overwhelmed and can't stop crying. To soothe her, Kabir starts humming below his breath.

As he has intended, her curiosity is aroused.

'Can't hear you. Sing aloud, please,' she requests the master.

'Naiiharavaaaa humakaa na bhaaveyy, humakaa na bhaaveyy,
Naiharavaa... aaaaa'

Kabirs voice resounds in the dark night, lighting it up with melody.

Naiharwa humka na bhave

Sai ki nagari param ati sundar

Jaha koi jaaye na aave

Chand suraj jahaa pavan na paani

Ko sandes pahuchave

Darad yaha Sai ko sunave

Bin Satguru aapno nahi koi

Jo yaha raah bataave

Kahat Kabeera sunoh bhai sadho

Sapane na Preetam aave

Tapan yaha jiya ki bujhaave


(Most of you must have heard this song, sung by Kumar Gandharva, Shabnam)

(translated to English by Linda Heiss)

I don't like my native place.

The lord has a city of absolute beauty

where no one comes or goes,

where there's moon or sun,

no water or wind.

Who will carry this message?

Who will tell the lord of my pain?

I can't see the path ahead,

and going back would be a shame.

Oh beloved, how can I reach

the in-laws' house?

Separation burns fiercely.

The juice of sensuality

keeps me dancing.

Without a true guru

there's no one we can claim,

no one to show the way.

Kabir says, listen friends, seekers,

even in a dream my love won't come

to put out these flames.

The innocent girl's entire turbulence flows out.

For a little while after the song, there is silence. A deep, beautiful silence, a vast space where something happens. Something that can change a person's life. Kabir starts wondering if she has fallen asleep, when, all of a sudden, she starts crying again.

'Now what? You hungry?'



She is a fifteenth century village girl. But she finds her voice.

'Tore sang jaaungi.' I shall go with you.

He is a fifteenth century weaver. Who's just got wed.

'Pakkaa?' Sure?

'Sau takaa pakkaa.' Hundred per cent sure.

-written by Manjushree Abhinav, part of the team at the Kabir project. She blogs at

Watch this space for daily updates on the Malwa Kabir Yatra by Manjushree, etc.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Purushottam Agarwal's Kabir

My personal and political Kabir -- Excerpts from Purushottam Agarwal's talk

I came to Delhi as a student in JNU way back in 1977. Before that, I was reasonably exposed to Kabir. I am not one of those who discovered Kabir in M.A Hindi literature, or due to some politically correct film or slogan. I am one of those humble Hindi-speaking Indians, who grow up with Tulsidas and Kabir and Mira Bai, who learn a sakhi (couplet) or two of Kabir before they learn writing their names. But I started studying Kabir and other bhakti poets in a more systematic and academic way only as a student of literature, and the question which I have been asking myself, for many years now is: how did my engagement with Kabir become more than academic? It also became, over the last thirty years or so, more than something merely academic, and also more than merely political. In a very deep sense, my engagement with Kabir has turned into a very personal experience.

Since I started reading Kabir seriously -- and this I have been doing for the last twenty or twenty five years after my MA. I did my PhD work on Kabir and then went on writing, thinking, traveling, meeting Kabir panthis, critics of Kabir, admirers of Kabir and all that -- I have been always wondering: who is this man, Kabir? And I sometimes find him resembling myself so much, and yet at others, I fail to recognize him... The question which I have been asking is: why? Why do I fail to recognize Kabir, why do I want him to be confined to a certain set of situations? How does it happen that when Kabir is ridiculing or caricaturing a pundit or a maulana, I prefer to identify with Kabir and not with the maulana or pundit? I might have many things in common with the maulana or pundit!

I am part of the culture that goes on producing bookish knowledge in this country and throughout the world, without bothering to associate with the life out there. Even in a university like JNU, which is known to be a very progressive, democratic and forward-looking university, I do not think someone like Prahlad Singh Tipanya performed in JNU before 2003 or 2002, nobody knew about Tipanya before 2002, and we all were studying Kabir and bhakti traditions.

We were studying Kabir through the printed word, not the living word. Because Kabir in the universities is one thing; Kabir in the political life is another thing. And Kabir in the life of people like Tipanya and Kabir in the life of so many Kabir panthis spread from Bihar to Gujarat is quite another. And we, the academia, are hardly bothered with any of the readings and images of Kabir which are relevant to so many people. So this has been one question in my mind: Why? How we have failed, how have I failed to see someone who resembles me so much?

Kabir resembles me not because I am unique or I am great or I am a prophet in the making, but because he is an extremely ordinary person. It is remarkable to note that Kabir never claimed to be a dharm. I can say this with some authority. Kabir never claimed to be an avatar of any god or God with a capital G. Kabir always claimed to be a humble julaha from Banaras, and that is it. And sometimes he was quite ironic and satirical when referring to his social origins:

“Aaye hamare kaha kahoge hum to jaat kameena,
tahain jao jahain agar, path patambar agar chandan kasbina
Aye hamare kaha kahoge hum to jaat kameena”.

So he was quite aware of the fact that he is supposed to belong to a "kameena jaat". He always claimed to be a humble person, and with this humility, he also claimed to be a person who dared to question. This is true of any one of us. Only if we allow our real, to use the Kabir-ian expression, if we allow our sahaj self to speak out. Sahaj literally means something, which is given to you at your birth, and you do not allow it to speak out and that is why this question becomes pertinent.

Secondly, I also realized over the last so many years that Kabir also is not unique in the sense of being an aberration; he is unique precisely because of being situated; because of being a very striking presence in a continuous tradition. It is not as if Kabir one fine morning dropped from the sky, and then nothing happened. Before Kabir there was a living tradition of interrogation, a living tradition of emphasizing love as the primary moving force of life, and this tradition continued after Kabir.

In our university curriculum, we do not even know the names of people like Dariya Sahib of Bihar or Paltu Das of Awadh or Akha of Gujarat, and people like them. So Kabir is important or Kabir is unique, not because of being something out of this world but precisely because of being very much of this world, and also because of being part of a continuous tradition which continues even today. And I consider it to be extremely significant that Acharya Param Chaturvedi, one of the greatest scholars of bhakti tradition writing in Hindi has written a book called "Uttar Bharat Ki Sant Parampara" (Northern India’s Saint Tradition). This book starts with Gorakh Nath and the last sant about whom Chaturvediji has chosen to write is Mahatma Gandhi. According to Param Chaturvedi, Mahatma Gandhi is the last link in the chain of uttari bharat ki sant parampara.

So that is the second question I have been asking myself: Why we have made Kabir unique in the sense of being an aberration? He is unique, but not in the sense that there was nobody before him, and there was nobody after him.

Thirdly, I have been wondering, do we, the modern admirers of Kabir really try to understand? I am not saying appreciate, it is not necessary to appreciate, not necessary to agree with everything even Kabir stood for -- I do not agree with many things he stood for -- but do we try to understand the totality of Kabir? This is a question, which becomes pertinent particularly when we talk of Kabir as political. Kabir is sometimes projected as the great champion of Hindu-Muslim unity. To put it quite bluntly, the Hindu-Muslim unity as we know it today, Kabir has nothing to do with, because the Hindu-Muslim unity of today, implies acceptance of things as they are, without being critical of anything, and certainly without being critical of a tradition which is not yours. I, being a Hindu, am not expected to be critical of anything of Islam, and a Muslim is not expected to be critical of anything Hindu, and then we continue to be united in our acceptance of things as they are.

Any reading of Kabir would reveal that, in this sense, he never stood for the so-called Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Isai (Christian) or Hindu-Sikh or Sikh-Isai unity, no. He actually stood for an interrogation of all kinds of rituals, all kinds of formalism, including his own. In fact in one of his poems, he comments on people like himself. Tipanyaji would recollect that sakhi:

Shabad keh keh phoole
Aatam khabar nahin jana re!

This includes people like Kabir himself, like Nirgun Panthis. “Shabad keh keh” is associated with Nirgun panthis. So even if those people who claim to be Nirgun Panthisare not aware of certain things, Kabir will have no hesitation in critiquing them with equal vehemence.

So, friends, Kabir's criticism of Hinduism or Islam, or any religious tradition available to you including Nath Panthis, and in an indirect way, even the Buddhist and Jain traditions, to my mind, actually reflects a search for a fundamental connection with the cosmos without the mediation of organized religion. That is what Shabnam (Virmani) was talking about - spirituality without religion. Let me however add that spirituality is an extremely inadequate translation of what I believe. In Hindi I use the expression adhyaatma, and spirituality is an extremely inadequate translation of adhyaatma.

Adhyaatma in Indian tradition does not mean things pertaining to the other world. It certainly does not mean the spirits with whom you could talk with through the help of a preacher. Adhyaatma etymologically means to go beyond yourself. In the eighth chapter of Gita, the question is put to Lord Krishna: what is adhyaatma, what is Brahma, please tell me? The answer, which is given by Krishna is actually a quintessential understanding of the entire Indian tradition. Krishna says: swabhavo adhyaatmo muchayate - your very nature is known as adhyaatma.

And this, quite interestingly, takes my mind to two nineteenth century European philosophers. One is Feuerbach and the other one is rather unexpected, to many of his admirers, Karl Marx. You don't associate Karl Marx with anything spiritual, but then again that is our problem, not Karl Marx's. In 1844, Karl Marx wrote certain things which were published very late, in the early twentieth century only, under the title "Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”. Marx was under the influence of Feuerbach those days, and in that manuscript Marx makes some observations which are strikingly similar to this definition that your very nature is spiritual: swabhavo adhyaatmo muchayate.

Marx says in the manuscript that just as your physical activity gets alienated and becomes labour, becomes a commodity to be sold and purchased in the market, similarly, your basic essence, the essence of your being human becomes alienated in the form of religion and becomes a commodity, becomes an activity imposed upon you from an outside agency, divine or diabolical.

This is Karl Marx in “Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”. Again, in the same manuscript, Marx goes along to point out that the essential difference between animal and human is precisely this, that a human being is conscious of ‘being’. An animal is not conscious of its own being. Therefore the relationship with cosmos on the part of the animal is organic but unconscious. The human relationship with the cosmos is inorganic because it is part of the cosmos and yet aware of the difference, and therefore this relation to use Marx's own expression is ‘spiritual’, and it is this spiritual essence which gets alienated through the agency of organized religion, and man gets alienated from his own nature.

You see, when I was a Marxist I never bothered to read the “Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts” because when you follow a certain ideology, you do not bother to read the seminal texts. The interpretations given by the authorized interpreters are sufficient. If you are a good Hindu, you should never bother to read the Gita yourself. Whatever swamiji says is fine. Similarly if you are a good Kabir Panthi, never bother to read the Bijak hymns yourself, just follow what Tipanyaji says. After all he is the guru, whatever he is saying must be true of the Bijak. So, similarly, when I was a Marxist formerly, I never bothered to read the “Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts”. But when I read it, I realized that here is the crux, the key to understand not only Kabir, and I repeat, not only Kabir, but many like him, and not only in India, but throughout the experience of human civilization.

People like Kabir are making a fundamental statement through their poetic praxis. I reiterate the words: poetic praxis. People like Kabir are re-making essential points through their poetic praxis. The point is this, very simply, that you cannot be spiritual if you are not at the same time human in the sense of being laborious. Labour and spirituality, your physical and mental activity, they must complement each other, neither is the alternative of the other. And this comes out so clearly in Kabir.

Basically the point he is making throughout his poetic praxis is this - that, in the first place, you have a certain universal notion of value. Certain values are universal despite the fact that because of the colonial modernity, and because of various problems of modernity, the expression, the term “universal” has become universally suspect these days. The moment you talk of something universal, you are being something rather unacceptable. This is postmodern identity politics - nothing is universal. But I think there is something universal.

The very fact that I am concerned with something taking place in the Middle East -- I'm not a Palestinian, I have never visited Gaza, and I do not think that I will ever visit Gaza in my life but there is something which pains me there. That is universal. My friend Lorenzen has written about a singer in 1930s, a Christian singer, singing in the churches of South Carolina, Blind Willy. David Lorenzen has actually compared the compositions of Blind Willy with Kabir line by line, and they seem to be translations of each other... “God is not there on the pulpit, he is out there, outside the church, go and find him.” This is Blind Willy singing in the thirties in South Carolina, and he obviously had not even heard of Kabir. There are many like him.

Kabir has a most poignant line, which I think expresses his fundamental concern as a poet:

Bhitar kahuo to jag mei laje, bahar kahoon to jhoota,
bhitar bahar sabar nirantar, mein ke vidhi ke to ghambira

If I describe Him as residing within myself, then I am dismissing the existence of everything which is outside, so I cannot say this. If I say that He is outside, that He is residing outside, then I am denying my own experience. I know I am telling a lie, so bahar kaho to jhoota... How to describe that indescribable: bhitar bahar sabar nirantar, mein ke vidhi ke to ghambira?

The profound truth which I want to convey to you is this -- that He actually resides in the continuum of inside and outside. In our own idiom, in our own political idiom we can say that the profundity of our modern concerns, actually reside in the continuum of personal and political. It is very easy to condemn every political thing or every discourse of power or everything connected with power. The point is, am I part of that discourse, that structure in a personal capacity or not?

If something is to be done, if some moral position is to be taken, it has to be taken consistently both in the bhitar and bahar.

Most of our young friends get attracted to Kabir because of his supposedly iconoclastic views. Yes, of course, he was very iconoclastic and he was very aggressive and sometimes he could express things in a most satirical and almost in a manner which would hurt the sentiments of all and sundry in today’s India. And sometimes I feel very, very happy for Kabir, and I thank God that he was not writing in the twentieth or twenty first century characterized by backwardness, by all kinds of sectarianism, all kinds of violence. Kabir was of course forced to leave Banaras for some time. Had he been writing in 1920 or 1990 or 2009, he would have met a more severe punishment for hurting sentiments. So sometimes I feel very happy for Kabir that he died five hundred years ago.

What actually attracts most of us to him is his so-called iconoclasm. This iconoclasm would not have been possible at all in the absence of a very, very humble search for love. Kabir is basically searching for love. Kabir's fundamental concern is love not demolition. He should not be read as some kind of demolition expert or bulldozer let loose. He criticizes people quite categorically, absolutely, but if you read him in totality, he is a poet who brings tears to your eyes, Because of his yearning, because of his agony. And what is he looking for? He calls it Ram, he calls it Govind, he calls it Karim, he calls it Madhav, Keshav and what not. All the names of God, employed by Kabir in his poems are actually nothing but an attempt to name love, and nothing else.

And while I read Kabir, I am always reminded, in fact, that there was another remarkable discovery or route to discovery. Roland Barthes, the famous structuralist philosopher, is known as the father, one of the fathers, of what we call post-modernism and post-structuralism today. Roland Barthes, has written a most moving book. In fact it is not a book, rather fragments or jottings which have been published, put together, called “The Lover's Discourse”. And the opening sentence of that book really strikes you like a bolt, the opening sentence of the book is: "The lovers’ discourse is spoken by many in this world, but warranted by none." Everybody wants to talk of love, nobody wants to hear the talk of love, and nobody wants to act on the talk of love. Everybody wants to talk of love: I love my motherland, I love my religion, I love my faith, I love my ideology, and therefore I am willing to die and I am willing to kill. So this discourse is spoken by many and warranted by none...

I request you - go through Kabir, in his own words, and his most moving English translation is available by our common friend Linda, which is also important because Linda is the only Kabir scholar so far who has taken Kabir the poet seriously. Otherwise Kabir has been reduced to a social reformer, a revolutionary.

Sometimes I fear that the revolutionaries of the twenty first century do not have faith in their own resources, therefore they sometimes turn Jesus into a revolutionary, they sometimes turn somebody else into a revolutionary and sometimes they turn Kabir into a revolutionary. If you want to do revolution, you should do it on your own premises after your own resources instead of appropriating the popular figures from the past. Anyway, so if you read Kabir through translation or Kabir in his original, basically he is a poet of love. And if you read you will find his logic is very simple. It is a sahaj logic, commonsensical logic. Common sense not in the philosophical sense of the word, but in our very general sense of the word. If I can relate with my Ram through love, if my Ram has no problem in talking to me with love, or through love, why the hell in this world can I not relate to my fellow human beings in the same way? That is the fundamental question Kabir poses to himself, that is the most fundamental question.

If you look at the work, it will be very, very difficult - to my mind it will be impossible - to make a distinction between a spiritual and political Kabir. Spiritual in the sense of adhyaatmik. When I say the word “spiritual”, please first translate that in your mind to Hindi, Sanskrit, Kannada, whatever, into adyaatmik. Don’t take it in the sense in which it is used in contemporary English.

So this is, to my mind, my way of approaching Kabir, my way of reaching Kabir, that you cannot really make a distinction between spiritual and political, you cannot make a distinction between universal and specific. You can be conscious of the specific manifestations of the universal. You can be conscious of political moments. But you cannot say, like I find many of my friends telling me, that look here, we are interested in Kabir only so far as he is critical of Hindu bigotry or Muslim bigotry or of caste order or of Brahminism or of Brahmin supremacy and all that and the rest of Kabir we are not concerned with. Of course you can do that. I mean nobody can stop you from doing that but I think you would be doing a bit of injustice to the poetic praxis of Kabir.

Last point, friends, I would like to make is about this poetic praxis itself. You see we have to distinguish between those who want to use poetry or any creative expression in order to create a political message, and such people certainly have also created great poetry, no doubt about it. But then there are people whose political or social message is almost a by product of their poetic, their creative concerns. They are not doing it deliberately. They are not doing it with a kind of pre-determined agenda. Kabir is not criticizing all kinds of organized religions in order to create a religion himself, in order to create a separate panth himself.

I'm sure Tipanyaji will not agree with me, but as a student of history I have to say that Kabir's panth was established at least a hundred years after Kabir's death. Kabir never established a panth. In fact in one of the most moving biographies of Kabir written by Anantha Das at the turn of the sixteenth century, which is supposed to be the earliest biography of Kabir, Anantha Das records an incident which is indicative of Kabir's nature.

Because of his poetic performances and because, Anantha Das informs us, because of his miracles, Kabir became very popular, very revered in the city of Banaras and people used to throng his residence throughout the day, and he got fed up. He did not get sufficient time for his music and or for composing poetry or sufficient time for having dialogue with his Ram. He got fed up with the popularity. He was getting a lot of press, so he was not very happy with it. So, how to get rid of it?

Anantha Das informs us that Kabir took some water in a bottle and joined the company of the most famous, the most well-known prostitute of the town, took her around and wandered with her in the city of Banares throughout the day, behaving like a drunkard. By evening the entire town was convinced that he was a rascal not a godly man, and people stopped bothering Kabir and Kabir was extremely happy after that. So such a man is a most unlikely candidate for establishing a cult or a sect or whatever, and that is why to my mind he could speak the truth. You see I realized that if you are too popular you cannot speak the truth. If you have a following to maintain, then you cannot speak many truths. If you have a position to maintain you cannot speak many truths. I cannot speak many truths today, which I could have spoken two years before. It is as simple as that and Kabir realized it in his own way.

Friends, if you read Kabir as a poet you will realize that he talks about poetry himself. Updesh (teaching) is only a byproduct of his engagement with his Ram. He is basically trying to talk to his Ram. He is basically trying to live out his idea of love in his relationship with Ram and his relationship with the world. Whatever comes out has a certain component which is attractive to us because we are beset with some problems in which we find Kabir can be used as an associate or as a tool. Let me repeat I have nothing against that. My only point is that please do not reduce Kabir only to a social reformer or only to a prop in our political activity. Kabir is, and many poets for that matter are, much bigger and much more complex than that. Kabir makes some very interesting moral statements as well, which are the statements of his self-confidence and which are the statements of his method.

I would just like to quote two sakhis to you and that is it. One is about his understanding of his poetry and his bhakti and his social location and his social vocation.

In one of the sakhis he says:

“Pinjar prem prakasheya, antar bhaya ujaas,
Mrig kasturi mahi base, bani phooti bas"
I had the illumination of love within and it illuminates my outside as well.
It makes my words, my poetry, as fragrant as musk.
“Pinjar prem prakasheya, antar bhaya ujaas,
Mrig kasturi mahi base, bani phooti bas"
So it is the love that makes it possible...

The second sakhi I would like to read before you is about his notion of the relationship between him and his God. As you know we are supposed to follow God. We are supposed to worship God and we are supposed toplacate God in many ways. Here is a person, who, in his very humble, confident and almost defiant way, says:

"Kabir man nirmal bhaya, jaise Ganga neer.
Peechhey laga Hari phire, kahat Kabir Kabir".
My mind has become as pure as the water of Ganga.
I do not go after God anymore, he comes after me.
I do not say “Ram Ram!” or “Hari Hari!” or “Krishna Krishna!” or whatever. He says “Kabir Kabir!” because I have turned my mind as pure as Ganga jal.
"Kabir man nirmal bhaya, jaise Ganga neer.
Peechhey laga Hari phire, kahat Kabir Kabir".

Friends, I have great faith that all of us, if we take it seriously and strive hard, I am absolutely sure, in personal as well as political terms of our life and activities, all of us can force God to follow after us. The only thing is that we turn our minds as pure as Ganga jal.

Ganga jal not of today, but of fifteenth century...!

(These are excerpts from a transcript of a talk given by Prof. Purushottam Agarwal on 28 Feb 2009 at “Koi Sunta Hai – A Festival of Kabir in Bengaluru”, organized by the Kabir Project at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology along with the support of several partner organizations in Bangalore)

-- Prof. Purushottam Agarwal is a renowned scholar and has written extensively on Kabir, including a book ‘Kabir: Sakhi Aur Shabd’ and an essay ‘In Search of Ramanand: The Guru of Kabir and Others’. As a consultant to Oxfam he has organized several interfaces of scholars, artists and activists, including one between Kabir Panthis (followers of a Kabir sect) and scholars of Kabir. These events probed the question of social identities and a dialogue on “spirituality without religion”. Prof. Agrawal is former chairperson of the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and visiting professor at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Cambridge University.

Prof Agarwal, along with Dr Linda Hess (several references to whom are made in this talk) and others, is an advisor to the Kabir Project. Other references are to Prahlad Tipanya, a renowned folk singer of Kabir from Malwa, Madhya Pradesh, who features extensively in the four Kabir films, and is a close friend of the Kabir Project.