Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Kalpana Tanwar's Story: A Guest Post by Kalpana Tanwar

Here is a guest post by Kalpana Tanwar who is trained in process oriented psychology and teaches at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. Kalpana was part of the Kabir Project's four-day engagement with psychology teachers at a recent Refresher Course at Delhi University. She shares with us a story she wrote up as part of her presentation.


After seeing all of Shabnam's films on Kabir, I was wondering if I knew him any better. And since I am devoted to story telling, I thought, why not write a Kabir story of my own. So here goes.

Once upon a time there was a Kabir. When in his mother’s womb, she learned to lay her hands on her belly, and it was as if she suddenly knew what to do. Difficult decisions and complicated issues, frustrations and disappointments, all fell away to reveal simple truths.
After Kabir was born, his mother continued to know! Over the many months of Kabir’s gestation, she had got into the habit of accessing the deepest part of her inner knowing self and wisdom. After his birth, without even knowing it, she continued to connect with this inner source.

Kabir grew up and became - Kabir. He took to wandering and seemed to follow where ever his feet would lead him. His simple musical instruments played his fingers, and words found a way into his mouth. And when it all came together, Kabir went into a state of bliss. His lips moved to the words that flowed into his mouth and his breath resonated with the wind and the waters, and his feet shod a steady rhythm. He sang, he walked, and even as he moved he moved all those who heard him.  And his simple words, born of nature, carried on the wind, which lifted them high up into the air. There his words perched on the backs of birds and flew high up and far away, travelling  to distant lands, where they spawned more and more Kabirs.

So it seemed that where ever you were, and however far away from home you went, you would always meet a Kabir. And if you did not, it became easy for the traveler to become a Kabir himself.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Binding Love- Beyond Boundries

by- Ojasi Mehta

The hot summer afternoon of 9th April , a small room laced with a shelf of books and "gaddas" on floor and walls occupied with several colorful posters , a tv and dvd player and 10-15 curious young people - it was the office of Pravah Jaipur Initiative and we all were called up there for a movie screening - a documentary movie on Kabir. Everybody was chatting in low voices , I was sitting quietly as I was new at this place and knew no one particularly. I was quite excited about the movie but was afraid too as it could turn out very boring but I was wondering what others are talking about and not until the movie finished and some people confessed , I got to know they were also anticipating that movie would spoil their precious summer afternoon sleep. But guess what? After watching movie , everyone was in an ecstatic state , upon being asked the experience of movie , no one even could express the joy in words.
The movie was- Had Anhad , made by Shabnam Virmani under a kabir Project. It begins with a question - "Where I will find Ram?" And the first landscape is that of Ayodhya - Ram janm bhumi... but does she find Ram there? Some shopkeepers are interviewed by her and it is very realistic to see that what people actually think about Babri Masjid Case. It is a war between Ego and Belief. A war on God's name - to find God or save God- but does God reside in temple or masjid? God would be pleased by such wars? Such questions take her from Ayodhya to Madhya Pradesh to Rajasthan and finally Pakistan. Through Kabir she tries to find all these answers . She meets different people in her journey who are either local singers (folk singers) of Kabir or related to Kabir in one or the other way. Finally she goes to Pakistan where she feels most closest to Kabir and his philosophy.

Who is Kabir by the way ? - An incarnation of Vishnu ? A fakir or saint? A poet of Bhakti movement? A revolutionary man? Why not go back and see him first as a man... but something definitely makes him different from an ordinary man and that's his knowledge of Self .
Had-Had Karke Sab Gaye,
Per Behad Gayo Na Koi.
Kabir had crossed the limits between Soul n Bramha. There is one fine example in movie to describe Kabir's position that one who is in ship says- "Shore is coming" , One who is on the shore says - "Land is coming" but for one who is above both , no one is coming and no one is going - Kabir was like this.

When one knows himself , his own soul , from this knowledge one can embark on the journey of "search of God". And why kabir is relevant today? There are various reasons like his dohas and songs contain the eternal knowledge about "soul" , "god", "life", "love" but the most prominent voice of his dohas and songs are - "Humanitarian" which today in the world threatened by terrorism , existentialism , depression and loss of faith on God, we need to understand badly. He teaches us to see everyone as human and worship one God whom he called "Ram" - his Ram is not Dashrath's son Ram , an incarnation of Vishnu but his Ram lives in everyone's heart and if we love everyone , we are worshiping God.

Sakal Hans Mein Ram Viraje,
Ram Bina Koi Dham Nahi.

Ram resides in every soul,
There is no abode without Ram.

Through the screening of this movie , Pravah whose motto is - "Me to We" and whose Focus is on both "self" and "society" , tries to help us to see "what we are" , "who we are" , and "What we can do for our society and humanity?"

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Reflection on Self-exploration through Kabir Workshop conducted by- PRAVAH, Delhi

by Gopal Singh Chouhan

For me personally it was blessing to be part of the Self-exploration through kabir workshop organised by Pravah, Delhi from 29-1April, 2010 in Jamia Hamdard University, Delhi. It helped me to understand the essence of Kabir’s philosophy in deeper way. Having discussion in diverse and harmonious group is always meaningful to merge into focused themes and left a deep impact. Long discussions during three days workshop have also helped me to understand myself, improve my personal knowledge about Kabir and ability of knowing.

Kabir is not only about poetry, music, singing, philosophy but he emerged in various forms when we take him into the voice of self-dialogue, self-dualities, self-identities and in thousands of layers of self itself. In the process of joining kabir with highly motivated passion of knowing self and others as well it is more seems to be realistic and practical in all spheres of physical and metaphysical world. There is no more Nirgun and Sagun distinction when Kabir rejects social taboos, superstitions, Hindu rituals and Muslim doctrines. At the same time Kabir is able to reveal Love, Philosophy, Mysticism and his unbending love for the Supreme and that’s the beauty of Kabir’s poetry.

All designed session went well but the discussion on hall mark of Kabir’s poetry that he convey in two line DOHA were really influencing. I think that was the guiding part of the workshop when the whole group needed to open up the discussion surrounding different themes. The group able to reveal his mysticism, spirituality, death, soul, the conscience, the sense of awareness and the vitality of existence in a manner that is unequalled in both simplicity and style. We came to know that kabir says not much, but between the lines, he tends to shake up the entire universe.

Is kabir really simple? His simplicity is not all the difficulties? Does he talk about complexity in his two lines verses? Yes, he urged us to see ourselves stark naked. What does mean following kabir? Knowing one’s inner self or realizing one self? Accepting oneself or becoming harmonious with one’s surrounding?

There are so many questions unanswered after the workshop but I am really thankful to organizer that they gave me the chance to take away so many questions for self-exploration. I would also love to thank all participant who made this event very successful with their immense support and specially Ashraf and Ravi who encourage us to do this workshop.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Koi Sunta Hai..

Text: Arati , Photos: Hari

It was early night in Bagli - a crowd had gathered in curiosity and anticipation - a film was about to be shown - in the town centre, in fact in midst of its chowraha (cross roads), and for free!

The muddled confusion of rigging the white cotton sheet across a rickety central stage, setting up laptops, projectors, missing extension cords, multi-pin plugs, while kids ran around with their lollipop ices, women sat in relaxed groups to gossip, and men sombre and plumed in their colorful turbans of oranges and yellow - all gathered on tarps laid across mid-roads.

When all was set, someone called out to shut the street lights. A spindly ladder was conjured up, set against electric pole and a person climbed up, skinny and steady, to reach for the wires, identify and 'yank it off'! And the movie began...

I have seen Koi Sunta Hai before, twice. I find it more hauntingly beautiful, more internally 'disturbing', and even more sorrowful, compared to Shabnam's other movies. I especially like the very beginning of it. This time, I was sitting with some children grouped in a clump - obviously friends, on one side and another cluster of women at first huddled in a circle, on my other side. In the informal, or really, easy way of rural India, even as the movie started, these people continued to be engrossed with themselves, occasionally turning towards the screen to see what was going on...women continued conversations on domesticity, tinkling their bangles, jingling their anklets, occasional soft laughter arising near by. The children were first curious about me and wanted to know what I was called, where my home was - all this after the movie had begun. However, slowly the audience around me settled down - orienting themselves more and more towards the screen. They fell silent, engrossed. Some women and children had left in the first half hour of the film - but most others stayed and watched. I remember thinking - how bright are the eyes of people here - how brightly shine children's eyes - maybe it was this light - of the screen reflecting in their eyes, at night.
Watching 'Koi Sunta Hai' in Bagli

At one point in the movie, a kid turned towards me and reached for my hand, saying "I know him" (i.e. Kumar Gandharv), "How?" I asked him, he smiled and replied " He is in my book" (in his 7th std., social text). He further elaborated that he knew Kumar Gandharv from the section on music which also contained Tansen (the renowned singer in Mughal emperor Akbar's court) and Lata Mangeshkar ( a very popular playback singer of Bollywood)! I laughed at the strange combination of musicians that had made it into the MP govt's curriculum texts for 12 year olds. I also remember humming or softly singing with the songs in the movie - and being asked if I liked these songs...Oh yes, very much..did they like it? , a big smile now and yes! The women never directly addressed me, but turned and partook in my conversations with the kids, smiling.
Kumar Gandharva on screen

And so we watched this movie together, in middle of Bagli's chowraha, its haat, turning towards each other, when something touched us, with a look, a smile, an acknowledgment - as one does with one's family, watching something on TV that we all like - comfortable and happy together, all listening - 'Koi Sunta Hai'.

Another Gift...

Again from Anand Balasubramanyan, we have a rare gift - he has uploaded a favorite Kabir Song, sung by Shabnam, with lyrics, for our listening and singing along pleasure!

Check it out here.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Kabir Laughs..

Kabir has recently been discovered by Urban India. For me this discovery came directly via Shabnam, her singing Kabir with an unprecedented abandon, and her deeply political and questioning movies:

1)Koi Sunta Hai (Is Anyone Listening?)
2)Kabira Khada Bazar Mein( Kabir Stands in a Market Place)
3)Chalo Hamara Desh ( Come to my Country)
4)Had Anhad (Bounded Boundless)

These movies directly brought home the power, the vast reach and the provoking, questioning of Kabir, placing him directly within our very necessary and current context of fragmenting cultures, societies - the very definition of our nationhood.

Shabnam became a solitary, but a powerful launch pad for reviving this Kabir, for catapulting him into the intellectually alive, cosmopolitan circles of urban India. And thus, Kabir resurrected amongst the urban lost, needy, and searching - like me. His became an alternative way to live - positively, amongst the myriad images of negative news that crowd our days. We could now respond - not to continual crises of everyday living, but with a deep, and laughing awareness of the insignificance and impermanence of it all - of our life. Impermanence "like a disappearing dewdrop" and similarly luminescent. Yes, I guess, that is what we all needed most - a big dose of Kabirean mirth, fits of uncontrolled laughter, to guffaw away our silly, serious ways - get tickled out of taking ourselves too seriously, grimly, ferociously and morbidly! Now a Kabir laughs continuously inside - I only have to peek to rediscover - for those moments when I forget.

Riding A Magic Bus

Text: Arati,
Photos: Hari

The Magic Bus

We rode through Malwa on a Magic Bus - levitating and flying - cutting through clear, transparent blue days - leaving a wake of arid landscapes in gritty brown and shrubs on a fast current behind us.

We rode this white and red Magic Bus, with pink, plastic sparkled seats upholstered in maroon with orange and green swirls, baby pink glitter walls, shiny bright yellow curtains...we all rode, the singers, the accompanists and audience, all crammed within, with bursting helium hearts, buoyant on songs, music, transported from one 'ajab shahar' (wondrous land) to the next.

We rode our Magic Bus through Malwa, weaving through small towns of narrow, cobbled streets, with trellised, dilapidated homes of exquisitely carved beauty, through intense samosa, kachori, jalebi smells that wafted into our stratosphere, through the 'haats' (markets) of kaleidoscopic colors into vast open spaces dotted with mud villages and thatch roofs, grazing goats and indolent cows, crossing herds of gangly camels with babies, tall , peering into our raucous bus with a mild gaze even while we all rapturously clicked away on our digital cams...

We rode this Magic Bus in a symphony of never ending songs, to the strumming of the tamburas, the percuss ions of dholaks, manjiras and kartaals...Our singers buoyed by our unquenchable passion, sang with beaming faces, hoarse voices, singing each others' musics, easily, boisterously, in same shared spaces - in a same shared, common voice - the musics of Malwa, Rajasthan, Kutch, merging into one music, one song, same song of love and loving, of searches, of riding a ride of life, poised and laughing on top.

Moora Lala and Shabnam

KaluRam, MooraLala and Anand

Shabnam in her truest form!

Manzil Kids Jamming!

Mukhtiyar Ali serenading

We rode such a Magic Bus, alighting only to sing more, love more, share more, with all those who received us, fed, sheltered and nourished our neglected physical selves, in love - all encompassing, infinitely universal, to lead us to platforms under stars, where the unending mela again resumed - singers on the stage, we - one with our singers, singing inside, till the music was no longer contained, brimmed over and spilled out, first from our drumming fingers, tapping feet, swaying heads to people moving in front of the stage, sides of stage, in dances of complete, intoxicated abandon " Sahib Ne Bhang Pilayee..."

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Parbat Jogi

Text: Arati, Photo: Hari

I first saw Parbat Jogi in a performance in Baroda - as part of the Kabir Festival happening there. He was the Dholak player accompanying Moora Lala Marwara - a folk and Bhakti-ras singer from Kutch. He stood out with his flamboyant mastery of the Dholak - his virtuosity - playful and powerful, resonant - bringing out sounds from his modest instrument that I had never heard before.

His looks matched his style on Dholak - deep red kurta, locks of hair tumbling to his shoulders, greying at edges. He stared at the audience - directly, deeply aware of those he sought to impress - effortlessly.

Parbat Jogi accompanied us on the Malwa Yatra. He had recently lost his father and had shaved his hair - only a small lock remained - his signature of belonging to his particular community. On the third day of our trip, on our way to Ujjain, we stopped at a farm where we were being hosted for dinner. I had been intending to speak to him, know him a little more. After a dusk walk with the group and a visit to the Shiva temple on the farm, I saw Parbat Jogi sitting with the other accompanists from Kutch, in a tight group. I decided that this was a good time to break ice, converse, as a fellow yatri...

I approached the group, hesitating a bit, and addressed him, if I could talk to him...He demurred wondering that he had either anything of information or interest to share..then he turned to his friends and started confiding something in Kutchi to which they all started started grinning wildly. Knowing the discussion to be centred humorously around me I immediately broke into Gujarati smiling as I confided that I was very conversant in Gujarati and therefore was probably able to understand most of what they exchanged in was amazing what followed - they immediately laughed, now speaking in Gujarati that they did not realise that I was a Gujarati, to please join them and full of questions about me, my background etc. I had broken ice...just with a common language - breaking all social, cultural, geographic differences between us.

What followed was a very honest, open and a intimate conversation with Jogi about his life, background, and the story of his musical journey. His is a story of following his inner calling despite the very harsh realities of his life. He recalled how he would venture out with goats, sheep and his dholak, and get so involved in his 'play' that the herd would disperse into neighboring properties and he would get beaten up for letting them stray. He spoke of having to make ends meet as a laborer carrying sacks of grain on his back - and yet his head filled to the rhythms of his dholak, the beats and the variants, beating inside, speaking aloud these 'Bols' to me. He remembers how at the end of a hard day of labor, when others were ready to go home and collapse, he would be bursting with a desperate need to return to his music, and would annoy his mother by reaching straight for his Dholak, or one of the many other instruments he played. Unlike most other folk musicians he was an accomplished Shehnai and Surando player - and according to him, one of the only two Surando artists in Kutch. He related an interesting folk tale of a King who was asked for his head as a reward by a Surando player and willing did it - such was the great influence of Surando's music. This story had great influence on him. Parbat Jogi had never previously seen a Surando but crafted one for himself based on a description by his father, and then learnt to play it well enough to be invited to play it on the All India Radio.

Our conversation followed easily and long - long after the others had left us, long after most had finished dinner. It followed mutual sharing and singing of favorite ragas, discussions on the values of swara (notes), and taal (rhythm)...I still remember him saying "When the swara and breath become One, in an ultimate union, taal finds no place", and " If swara is breath, then taal is the heartbeat" - we then agreed that Shabd (word) was the intellect, the awareness - the wordless-word!

Parbat Jogi was/is a discovery in my life. I remain riddled with many more questions since I met him - what is the origin this unbearable passion? nothing nurtures it and yet it grows...are these in-born tendencies? or needs born from his bleak background? or just an inner genius, illuminated?

Over the next many days, Parbat Jogi sang and played with us with a joyous abandon - and it was our privilege to have been there as witnesses, as playmates!

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Women of Malwa

Text: Arati, Photos: Hari


The women sat there, colorful figures on blue tarps, faces lit, smiling, clapping, and singing along - these women - in many hundreds, knew all the songs - and they sang along - completely at ease, to accompany the artists on stage!


Two figures danced in repetitive half-turns, clock-wise, anticlockwise, hands in graceful movements, feet moving in perfect rhythms, faces half-covered in 'ghoonghat' - in a style that we came to recognise across Malwa, a bouncing in half-steps.

Singers (on Bus):

It was in pauses between songs and jamming sessions, that these songs would appear..flutey, nasal, high pitched, choral melodies bouncing within our bus, evoking infinite spaces, the hills recalled perfectly by sounds - tilted spaces in perfect balance between the rising and the falling - poised between earth and skies.

Shy, but unselfconscious, they sang as women have culturally sung, at all events, ceremonies, festivals and gatherings all over India - and they sang all this during our journey.

Impressions of Malwa-Scapes

Dusty horizons - sundust piled in heaps and bales in harvested fields, against a giant, pale, wheat sun.

Dark trees in Ikebana arise from pale flat lands.

Fields of ripening grain - tender stalks, a dark boy runs and dives in - shoulder deep.

Coffee dark soil, light straw, clumps of mango trees in frothy green blossoms.

Palash flames torch the land in deepest orange.

Searing heat rising from a black ribbon road in wet ripples.

Stars swathed nights - spent under-cover, hiding from mosquitoes.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Kabir Calling..

Text: Arati, Photos: Hari
We were all there, obeying inner urges, conscious or unconscious, as partners in a yatra - the Kabir Yatra through Malwa. We were an accidental set- formed as divergent streams feeding into a pool - from vastly diverse economic, educational, cultural, class, caste, religious, and even national backgrounds that had traversed vastly different personal histories to coincide in Malwa for this journey together - a journey of nine days, but experiencing a lifetime. What was this common inner call, the common gravity that pulled us enough to leave, for dusty wanderings through Malwa?

I sit wondering about this, as I now stare at the dense-green outside my campus window...and again and again the answer is affirmatively Kabir, and only Kabir. The power of Kabir's words had made us into adventurers, explorers, seekers, kaffirs, and fakirs.

And even while the call of Kabir was strong but still incomprehensible to many of us, there were several amongst us, most often people from Malwa, who had inherited and grown up with Kabir. They recognised the great force in Kabir's words, for social, political transformation, and for a personal, very direct way out the shackles of their own boundedness - both internal and external. These were musicians of Kabir tradition, educators, social workers that used the voice of Kabir to affirm individual positions towards a secular, equitable world, with equal rights, opportunities for all. This was an intensely political, essential Kabir singing directly to our times, and our needs, just like he did six hundred years ago!

Narayanji, a teacher and educator with Eklavya's outreach program was with us for large part of the Yatra. He spoke persistently on how Kabir was the one who could bring about "samanata", equal-ness within society - an equalness of our shared humanity, irrespective of gender, class, caste divisions. Narayanji, in his self effacing way, takes a most vocal, progressive stance on this Kabir - that erases differences, crumbles walls. And this Kabir - this respected Sant poet's voice rings with the necessary authority to drown the repressive force of traditional divisions - especially of caste and religion.
Narayanji dancing on stage!

I remember a conversation that I had once had with a teacher from Eklavya program, in a 'Learning with Kabir' workshop...he had said that his direct act of revolt was when he sat with students for lunch - wondering if he would be served with the rest, by the rest, because of his caste - and he was! His action also led to all children coming to eat, together, as part of the government's midday meal program - an event that had no previous precedence in this school.

This is the power of Kabir - directing concrete action by imbibing words, singing songs. It is a calling that is recognised here, in Malwa, in a variety of forms, from the needy-for-a-God, Kabir Panthis, to local bards, musicians and mandalis, teachers, village elders, and the singing women of rural, central India that know Kabir songs appropriate for all occasions - birth, death, marriage, association, friendships, cooking, lovers, and journeys like ours.

Shared Spaces in Roopakheda

I sat on a large stage with another hundred, perilously aloft on rickety, narrow trunks and wooden planks - white cloth-ed stage, floodlit, sharing this space with white robed Kabir Panthis, their enthroned Mahant, and a large queue of felicitations for the local lords, singers, artists, and international visitors. I shared the stage also with the members of right wing political party, the BJP, who were part of the local hosting committee. It would previously have been unthinkable that I might be on any common platform with a party, that has as part of its central agenda - a systematic, persistent, corrosive policy to undermine the fabric of secular India; a hindutva based propaganda of religion based, divisive, hate politics.

I sat on the stage thinking all this, unstable person on an unstable stage, pondering politics, analysing, critiquing, even while wondering, "will this stage hold so many", and posing the same question internally, " will this stage (me)hold so many?" Yet, I watched me sitting there, with a clear heart, goofy smile, in sync. with my enemy - all also sporting clear, open, goofy smiles. I was resisting the 'othering' of all my familiar enemies, and surprisingly - it was easy! All I was doing, was not labelling, judging, walling myself into my own notions, my own boundaries. It was the mood of the moment that made this easy...

Is this common platform, with those I oppose, the answer? Not in strife and conflict, but in sharing and oneness of a common joy, a recognition and space for a common shared Kabir - within us all? A shared recognition of the voice seeking inside - a lover " prem ka pyala hai bharpoor - ghatk, ghatak, ghatak..." resounding all around in the voice of Hemant Chauhan, engulfing us all, exactly the same. Maybe this is less difficult than I imagined, to expand this recognition, to cover all humanity?

And so, this day, all these people with tilaks and saffron, were my friends, and soul mates - on this platform, I embraced them with a smile, in choreographed swaying of my head with theirs, clapping hands to their chorus.. A crowd of twenty thousand sit spellbound, silent, receptive, permeated - stretching as far as the eye could see - as lights faded into distant darkness of the night.

Now Shivji's Tandav - fast, fleeting, heady, rose petal showers fragrance the air, overwhelming us on the bright stage - we are stuck here, on this stage, same way as those moths beat around the shells of light bulbs - yearning towards an inner lover in a drunken trance - to the tandava nritya of Shiva, wild, destructive, powerful...drums going wild, the stage shaking in resonance, worlds coming crashing down, carefully constructed inner palaces, selves, egos, Kabir in tandava inside, the Kabir panthis in skirts, top knots and white turbans, breaking out of their inner grimaces - for once smiling also, accepting and participating - drunk on this song!


I have now returned - grounded, and resumed old fights, battles - political, righteous - yet there is a distinction. I have less hurt, hate, animosity for people-on-the-other-side. My war is now no longer against people, only wrong policies, wrong actions wrong politics ...I now occasionally hope that their battle is also drawn along the same lines.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Road Map Around Malwa

Just fooling around to give you all a feeling of the spaces we journeyed through!

View Malwa Yatra in a larger map

Purshottam Agarwal

There is a single person that stands out from my memories of Luniyakheda - Purshottam Agarwal. I did not include him in my previous post, since he belongs to a completely different cadre from the bhakts, gayaks,and rasiks that had gathered there for the Yatra. He is, foremost, a thinker, and brutal commentator of the world as he sees it. Several other words come to mind when I think of Purshottam Agarwal's words - mercilessly independent, razor-sharp honesty, genius for the concise, precise clarity, fiercely critical of social ills and society, including himself, despairing, hopeless, and yet resisting a cynical submission of the faithless; supremely confident in himself, but with grace to sometimes listen to others, unnecessarily - his mind probably poses questions and answers them - faster and more easily than others.

And this man spoke to us on the first day..

He began with a demurring that it was his karma to give bhashans/lectures because of his teaching background. He had decided to join us in Luniyakhedi, as a rasik, in anticipation of quiet, of silence, to participate in a satsang - to listen, like the rest of us, to Kabir songs! Yet, he had been roped into talking to us - which he then went on to do - cuttingly effective, non-ignorable.

He started conversationally with an observation that people get too angry these days - bringing in the incidences of road-rage and associated killings on streets of Delhi. We have become a society where we even practice "tolerance with so much intolerance". He espoused that we learn to "live with differences", with a respecting of the otherness, whether these be due to religion, culture, or anything else. He urged us to focus on ourselves, allow an openness where we did not immediately compartmentalize people, experiences, based on pre-existing notions...

And thus he went on, sitting in a slump, his hand thrown every now and then in a gesture of pointlessness - of why was he there, why he was talking to us, what was really the point..yet, continuing, laying himself - head and heart, open and visible to all of us - all layers peeled - touching me, deeply.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Malwa Yatra - Luniyakhedi

The Malwa Yatra - a journey, a pilgrimage, was to take place through the heart of Malwa, central India, and heartland of Kabir traditions. Kabir had become a living, thriving and integral part of lives and cultures that inhabited this space, moving and evolving with ease, from generation to generation, permeating the local speech, coloring the local songs. The journey was to begin from Luniyakhedi - from the home of Prahaladji Tippaniya, a leading folk singer of Malwa, Madhya Pradesh, and the soul of this Yatra.

It was after many hesitations, pauses, reflections that I had decided to join this journey. Its significance I recognised from afar, the vast geographical and cultural distance of my location in cosmopolitan Bangalore. It was precisely this inner recognition that fed my hesitation, a reluctance to enter waters too deep, when even the streams of Kabir songs that reached across into my polished urban world seemed too swift, powerful enough to carry me away on their surges. At some level, I just gave in. I gave in to an attraction, a desire to plunge, throwing caution to winds - I took a chance by going to Malwa.

It was befitting that I should first view the Kabir Smarak from a distance - bumping along with Shabnam - Ajay Tipaniya speeding his dusty Scorpio along the ups and downs of this mud road leading to Luniyakhedi. Dry, dark cracked lotus ponds rode along our side - the same one that I knew in lush, blooming abundance, from 'Chalo Hamara Desh'. In the distance the Kabir Smarak - an immediate jolt of recognition, an arrival to spaces where a conversation seen on screen with Prahaladji, long back, had sparked a recognition of shared intuited truths, deep within. I saw the Smarak across dark fallow fields, harvested and awaiting - as my life had also awaited, long and fallow and ready for the instance when Kabir would ride into my life, on waves of songs - heady, earthy, soil fragrant fields - these fields of Malwa.

Shabnam and I got off to be immediately surrounded by friends, family members of the Tipaniya household - her friends - and I was automatically engulfed in the same warmth of kinship - returned with ease, grasped hands, close hugs - no distance, no preludes, a diving straight into a belonging..I knew many of these people closely on the screen, and they therefore seemed to know me too.

A large area in front of the Smarak was covered with a pandal, thick sheets spread on the ground, some mattresses spread, stacks of chairs skirting the border - two stages in the front. One was for the white robed God men who had started trickling in - the Kabir Panthis who were to preside over, sermonize and bless the beginnings of this Yatra. The other stage was for the artists, singers of Kabir Bhajans - from Malwa region, and also invited for the Yatra from Kutch, Gujarat, Rajasthan... this is what we were all here for. To hear the songs of this region at their origin, and see the confluence of separate folk streams intermingling within this vibrant, cultural space, creating whirling eddies.

The first evening was supposed to be a smaller, private function, and still had an audience of over 500!The music began with regional participants and also Shabnam, Prahladji...wings began to unfurl, the body stretch and lengthen in anticipation of soaring flights ahead..the heady combination of full voices, resonant dholaks, kartaals, manjeeras - the musical voyage had begun.

I was surprised and touched that ALL were invited with such insistent request to please participate in the evening dinner...the only attached request was that we wash our own plates! The family had cooked for 500! Later, Prahaladji told Priti, my sister, that all excess grain from the fields, after setting aside for the family needs, was kept for these song gatherings. 'Bhajan' with 'Bhojan' as Shabnam likes to say - nourishing souls and keeping the stomach well fed. What was this Kabirean space that I had stumbled into??

The formal beginning happened on the morning of March 7 with a Shobha Yatra around Maksi - tinsel chariot, blarring music, garlanded Godmen omnipresent in stern looks, white robes, sandalwood smeared forheads..the Mahant of the Kabir Panthis had crowned himself in a gold tinseled hat and sat aloof on his high throne, staring straight ahead. Crowds with mustachioed men of sun baked skin, earrings, brilliant turbans, women with half hidden faces, sarees of myriad brilliant hues and sparkles, bejewelled hands, feet, gold at neck, ears, glittery noserings..I was mesmerised, speechless, only reacting by the constantly clicking away with my camera.

Moora Lala, from Kutch, whom I had heard in Gujarat, arrived with his brilliant accompanist Parbat Jogi! Also the legendary Hemant Chauhan of Gujarat and his troupe. Excitement mounted through a day of watching the crowds pour in, families with old people, children, walking miles, clad suitably for the great event. Men rode in on motorcycles, large turbans and all. Children scampered, laughed, screamed, right in front of the stage, even as sermons on Kabir continued by the panthis. I watched bemused at this mela.

Sky turned gold, red, and auspicious - large domed skies on fire. Stars slowly studded the growing inky darkness. The crowd was already 3000 strong! We started with Shabnam's movie "Chalo Hamara Desh" - engaging the crowd completely - after all large sections of this film were shot right here, in Luniyakhedi, and its cast were sitting, engrossed, a part of this audience. I sat staring at them more, finally grasping how openly confrontational, political and deeply honest this film was - all with an ease of shared conversations over making rotis. I realised, with forceful impact, the deeply embedded caste divisions and associated humiliations from the expressive faces that sat in shock as they watched themselves breaking taboos on the screen - speaking of personal caste based experiences. I now understood why this film had to be seen here - respoken, reheard, by the huge two-dimensional images flitting on the screen and booming in their own voices.

The music started after and continued till the morning. Moora Lala once again beaming his brilliant crooked smile - in pauses, Jogi taking off - flamboyant on his Dholak; Hemant Chauhan rocked with his Tandava song, Shabnam sang 'to the Universe' as only she knows how, and Prahaladji - everyone's all time favorite sang with that questioning, catch-in-his voice...

I sat non-resisting, saying grace that I was alive for this moment.

Photos of these to days in Luniyakhedi are found here.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Malwa Yatra March 6-14, 2010

The Yatra is over. Even as some of us grope with the act of alighting, landing, reconnecting with the selves that we left behind, we already have vivid, witty words - a reminder of those days that we lived and what we became during the Yatra from Anand Balasubramanyan here. With his post we begin our sharing with you all, our Satsangis.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

A Day with Kabir

The day started unusually for me - with zero expectations. Shabnam and I were on our way to 'Shibumi' - a non-formal school conducted in a house on the outskirts of Bangalore city. About 35 children,and 7-8 dedicated teachers - who were themselves exploring boundaries of learning with stories, arts, songs, and lots of play. I looked forward to this day - a day of singing and sharing Kabir, with a vertical age group from 6 to 60, as playmates.

The singing began in a long open room - well lit, with walls of books, drawings, odds and ends. The little ones sat closest to us, clustered around - wide, bright eyes, open mouths, a wonder in their looks as they watched Shabnam sing with her head thrown back, eyes closed, a smile - expressing a little of the world she inhabited inside. The older, taller ones sat systematically further - yet all eyes were in focus, all bodies still. I watched this audience, that we were priviledged to have, in perfect oneness with Shabnam, her Kabir songs.

From the little ones, we got most attention with songs containing imageries of the external world - ants with anklets, roaming huge elephants, proud kings. They got restless with inner probings and were comfortable enough to lie down, or walk away -peek from the windows when curious. There was an ease, a 'sahajata' in this behaviour, that only children growing up in such open systems are able to retain and express.

The older ones were 'stayed' with us longer, with a deeper involvement with a questioning Kabir, shy, but responding to questions, in conversation, in Satsang.
This whole audience absolutely lit up when it was time to sing ' Mat Kar Maya Ko Ahamkar...' - it was a song they had learnt with Nilanjana over many prior sessions - and now they sang it with energy, gusto, huge smiles - all sang! The morning session ended with a 'song learning' - we chose 'Bhav Nagari', a personal favorite amongst many many favored.

After a brief break with Khaman Dhokla and watermelon (yummy) - we regathered with the older children from middle to high school for an interaction session. They had recently seen ' Had Anhad' and this served as a point of deparature for exploring boundaries, from the Indo-Pak border featured in Shabnam's documentary to social, relegious, caste and innumerable other borders that we build around ourselves to safeguard ourselves, our ego, the very notion of the individual 'me'. Were these really children talking? When do we stop being such children? When each question, exploring - is just that - a question attempted with sincerity to want to know - figure out. I can imagine the same session being responded to very differently, defensively, in a world of 'identity-fied' adults.

Our last session culminated with a story and song - the brave parrot song ' He Mari Heli re - Kin sa karan main prem?'Hugely popular with young and old alike - this is a song about the courage and compassion of a little parrot that would not abandon its tree during a forest fire. The children then broke into several groups to pictorially represent this story in four segments to produce canvas scrolls, while one group decided to do a theatrical interpretation of the story's essence. After excited deliberations within groups, the children worked in quiet while some of us gathered in a corner to sing songs of Kabir.

The art works that emerged from this quiet time touched us - as only clear honest expressions can. We will soon be able to share them with you all in this space. This day had become a gift for me - to open, unfold and savor - moment by moment - ligering, unwilling to depart.

Learning from Prahladji

Kabir Revisited

by Vishakha Chanchani

I say revisited, because Kabir’s baani resurfaces in new ways, back into our lives.

It could be because of our own dilemmas, the mess individually and collectively we keep falling into, difficulties of relationships, image and identity traps, wanting more… these knots, centuries old, still ask to be undone. The discovery or rediscovery of Kabir is also recognition that it’s time to make a move! Old words in new worlds, really, not so new, and the words not so old.

Kabir revisited also because the Kabir that exists in school texts needs to come alive and find new spaces.

Spirituality defies definition. Can it ever become a subject? Ideally, (!), it has to permeate all that we do, that we engage in. Children, especially very young children have a capacity to see things directly, to ask questions with innate intelligence. How do we, design material that does not undermine these qualities? Children eternally grow up with many people telling them what to do or not to do, and when people are not direct agents for making rules, the environment around them through advertisements, gadgets, toys, structures, or fashion, old acquired habits, life styles, might dictate what traps to fall into.

So when Kabir makes an entry into schools, he is probably going to ask all kinds of funny questions which will not fit in with the systems we have set up.

What trouble will be afoot?

This voice, this figure, or presence is going to ask you who you are, where are you coming from, where are you going. He will bring in the uncomfortable theme of death, ephemeral ness. He will question ‘religion’, God, your inheritance… scoff at the puffed up scholar. He will also point out that you are a cosmos within a cosmos, he will sing about the sea, or the sky or garden inside you. Hint at eternal mystery. The unknown.

Kabir will bring in and question history, look at the nature of nature. He will ask you to look at landscapes of the city, soil and body, to look within. Kabir will weave and sing, talk about pots and potters, about form and emptiness. ‘Be still’, ‘go slow,’ he will say, or ‘do it now’! Kabir will even confuse.

In a world of where promoting one self, being ‘someone’ is becoming the done, accepted, norm, a voice will say, ‘suno bhai, who are you, how big, how ‘established’ can you get? What is being secure? How much is under our control’?

And then he will always talk about friendship, love, about being aware.

It will not be easy to do a question and answer chapter on Kabir in the current set up, and to ‘measure’ how he has been absorbed by the school child. Introducing Kabir is also a way of seeing, listening, being. And through explorations of his verse, comes the need for music, an exploration of ‘sound’, the richness of language, which has its own dynamic culture, an appreciation of poetry or the spirit of oral traditions.

Being part of a group/space like this will perhaps be the most challenging area. What is the dynamics of the group to be like, I tentatively ask, are these questions relevant to us? How do we connect, where does Kabir make a ‘formal’ entry? Shabnam has opened up Kabir to us, in ways we cannot fathom how we might have absorbed.

Personally, I realize I am treading into this land with all my vulnerabilities, pattern making abilities, my insecurities and my inability to define now, where I am, and where I’m going. As Paresh Raval says in the film ‘Radio’ - Bahut confusion hai!’

The connecting links for me that seem tangible are also ~the need to make books, connect to children, more people. To draw and illustrate Kabir’s verse, an excuse to experience his words through other media for myself. And as someone who has always felt intensely about exploring education, I still ask what it means to be in a school for life, in all its shades, in its fullness, not as separate disparate subjects or ‘curriculum’.

While we work out the nitty-gritty of the Kabir in schools…or khel khel mein Kabir - I cannot help but think that in the true sense, ‘Kabir’ is not really the subject, not as a person, his insights are important. He should never become the ‘focus’, someone to exclusively glorify.

Reflections on "Kabir in Education"

By Jyoti Sahi

What aspects of the Kabir tradition are we especially concerned to introduce to young people? What is it that the Kabir songs invite us to reflect on which is important to education as a whole ?

First of all I like the idea that Kabir is not a special sort of person, but every person is in a way a special sort of Kabir. Kabir is in everybody, and we are all called in some way to participate as far as we can in the Kabir tradition.

So what is this tradition ? Kabir, you have also suggested in the dialogues that are part of the films that you made, was a human being, and his message was a contribution to a very Indian form of humanism. He speaks to the human in all of us.

The idea that God is present in the heart of every person, is an intuition that we find in many of the Bhakti poets. Perhaps to limit the relevance of Kabir just to those songs which have been ascribed to the person ‘Kabir’, may be too narrow.

What is important, I feel, is that the mystical, or spiritual world is made accessible to young people. This spiritual dimension is present in everyone, young or old, and I think that young people are as sensitive to the spiritual in life, as anyone. That I feel is why this tradition is so important. It crosses all boundaries, and brings people of different Faiths together.

Song in relation to work. I know that a person like Gandhi was very drawn to the poems that are ascribed to Kabir. He also in his ‘basic school’ concept, insisted that education is not only concerned with ideas, but also with what some call the ‘wisdom of the hands’ and the heart. The poems of Kabir do come out of the wholeness of Kabir’s life as a man who was not just an intellectual, but also represented workers, craftspeople.

The image of weaving is found in many of Kabir’s poems. Also he uses the image of cloth, and the dying of cloth in different colours—one could even say that for him fabric is a metaphor for Creation, and our participation in creation. This is very important in many stories belonging to what I would call the Primal cultures of India—Adivasi as well as Dalit. The Bengali artist Meera Mukherjee has written a book about stories related to the Divine as a craftsperson—could be a metal worker, potter, or carpenter. This gives a new dignity to people who are workers, karmacharis. Somebody has remarked that those who work with the most elemental, and in a way most essential jobs, are often seen as the lowest in the social order. To be a clay worker is to be an outcaste. I was hearing recently of a radical statement in one of the Shaiva Siddhanta writers, that “untouchability” is related to the sense of touch. But what about taste, sight, hearing ? These are also basic senses with which we encounter the world in which we live. Why is the skin so polluting—and not the nose, the ear, the eye etc ? Why reject the Chamars ?

I have a book written by an anthropologist, whom I personally knew, called Stephen Fuchs. The book is called “The Children of Hari”, and is about the religious practices and beliefs of the Balahis of central India, who are a weaving caste, who also believe that Kabir was from their community. One aspect of their belief system is the cult of Kati-mata, the goddess of cotton.

One of the cultural heroes of this Balahi caste is Ganga, another is Sanga. Both were weavers.

(Ganga) sat down at his weaving loom and wove a cloth five hath (cubits) long. In the cloth he wove the Maharaja’s portrait, his kingdom, place, court, garden, his horses, camels and elephants. When he had finished his wonderful cloth he went to the Maharaja whose name was Vasya, and offered him the cloth as a present. The Maharaja was overjoyed and exclaimed: ‘Wonderful! Whatever you want for this beautiful cloth, I shall give you!’ Ganga replied: ‘Promise me that!’ The Maharaja gave his solemn promise that he would fiulfil any wish of the weaver. Whereupon Ganga said: ‘Maharaja, open your jail and set all Balahis free....’ The Children of Hari pp 237

Anyway, stories like this somehow help me to understand the symbolism behind weaving a cloth, which is also related to the whole world in which the Balahis live—palaces, gardens, etc. The beauty of the cloth woven so fine, so fine, is liberating. It sets people free.

There are other myths and rituals of these Weaver clans, such as the preparation of diyas using flower and water, and a wick made of cotton, which remind me of the Arathi pictures that you made in one of your films. I think that these folk beliefs and symbols somehow underlie the poetry of Kabir, who identified very much with the ordinary life of people who work and offer worship with their hands.

It seems to me that one of the values which we find in the poetic images of these songs of Kabir is the way the poet uses the elemental; fire, water, earth, air. The songs are themselves woven out of an elemental world, which we experience through our senses.

I have been thinking about various symbols which Kabir uses, like that of the bird which flies from one place to another, and is “beyond boundaries”. Even in the story of the brave parrot, the tree which is rooted in the land, suggests that the bird which has wings should fly away, and save itself from the fire. But the bird chooses to stay, out of friendship or love for the tree. There are other symbols available like that of the swan, which is familiar both with the air, and also the water. The swan also goes beyond the boundaries of any one country—it is the migrant soul.

This universality of the spirit of Kabir is very appealing. “Come to my country”—but a country which is beyond the boundaries which we associate with nationality, or particular identity whether religious or political. That is also an important value that I feel the Kabir tradition has to give to young people of today. Perhaps it particularly speaks to a globalized world, but a world which has lost its heart to consumerism.

Yes, I can also see there is a playfulness in the way that Kabir uses images in his words. The upside-down language is not just “funny” –it is also disturbing. Part of what our Karachi wallah called “symbol quake”. I am not quite sure that children necessarily like “funny” upside down language. My experience with children has been to realize that like adults, they do not necessarily enjoy a topsy-turvy world. They also want stability. The upside down language of Kabir is part of his iconoclasm, his need to upset what is considered the respectable norm of religious and social convention.

I liked the idea which was brought out during the festival of Kabir in Bangalore, that ‘Kabir interrogates the world’ in which we live. He asks often very disturbing questions. Jane was pointing out, that these questions would also be disturbing to teachers. Many teachers like to give answers, they do not really like to be asked questions which do not have neat answers. The figure of the Guru in Kabir’s thought is almost a counter-cultural figure. Somewhere Kabir says that the ‘Guru is the root of wisdom’. Who is the Guru? he is constantly asking.

I think that what I am nervous of when we talk about Kabir and education is a domestication of Kabir into the National Curriculum of the government classroom. This is what often happens to prophetic figures like Kabir; they are somehow accommodated within the mainstream agenda of the dominant group, and their critique of society is somehow watered down and made innocuous.

I do not know if these comments are at all relevant to your project of Kabir in Education. All I can do, I am afraid, is to question this effort to make the Kabir tradition part of an educational system . Certainly the government school system seems very inhospitable ground, and the teachers who you will find there, may be the most resistant to what I would think is the most valuable aspect of the Kabir tradition.

Jyoti Sahi,
Art Ashram
Silvepura P.O.
Bangalore North 560090
Karnataka, INDIA
Tel: 91-080-28466274

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Baroda Festival - A Personal Impression

by Arati Chokshi

I have just returned from Kabir Festival in has been two days and the blood is still singing in my ears - a potent, joyous singing of abandon, singing of live-streams, surging rivers and breaking oceans - breaking and reforming in me - instantaneously eternal.

Baroda festival drew me for all that was on the offer - Shabnam's movies of her journeys into the transformative world of Kabir, music by an amazing array of artists including Madhup Mudgal in classical strain, Prahlad Tippanya, Moora Lala Marwara and Mukhtiyar Ali in their very diversely flavoured folk singing of Malwa, Kutch and Rajasthan.

The Festival also drew me for the very special Kabirean imagery that had haunted me since the Learning with Kabir Workshop in Bangalore, last month - the art work of Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh! I was drawn to the still and melancholy face, the colors dominated by prussian blues, and the images embedded inside - fleeing deer, fort, paper boat...maybe this is what drew me the most - to confront the real-images - just to stand and stare!

To say that the Festival surpassed all expectations would be to reduce it to lifeless ordinariness of precise prose.

We rode on journeys with Shabnam, once more; were stunned with the razor edge scholarships on Personal and Political Kabir by Purshottam Agarwal and rode with the poetics of Kabir by Ashok Vajpayee. I stood and stared at the images I had come so far to see - till satiated. However, beyond all of this , was the music - the earthy, connecting, relating music of Malwa with a sense of questioning, exploring, enquiring by Prahladji; the resounding, resonating music from Kutch that reached heavenwards, in wavery, clear, ringing voice of Moora Lala, and finally the finale with Mukhtiyar Ali - strong, sweet, and undeniable - the Sufianna refrains, lilting Rajasthani melodies. He sang of love, loss, searches in the bleaklands, joys of surrender, drawing us towards the unreachable and the unknown - with blasphemously Kabirean dohas on leaving aside the Ram-chant and letting the Ram chant us, while we sleep!

Back at home, I now sit and take stock, reflect, and assess this slippery Kabirean slide that I now ride - in free fall, in exhilarating, accelerating abandon, consciously out of control, propelled into the unknown - the dangerous free-ride with Kabir - a Kabir craze, singing Kabir, walking Kabir, sitting and sleeping with Kabir melodies, swarming inside, spinning the sun and moon in their crazy dances, swirling the starry heavens to disco lights.

This world that I inhabit is at odds with my regular, ordinary and mundane life - the anchor that holds me firmly grounded even as I soar, inside. I will myself to give up this world inside - the Kabir that I am into, or have let into me - but cannot. I realise that the world that has opened for me is an addiction, intoxicating, boundless, limitless, the discovery of the watchful me, rapturously watching the enraptured me...

Had Anhad event in Stanford

by Linda Hess

I attended a Stanford screening of Had-Anhad beautifully organized by Somik and Neil and their friends from Sarvodaya-Stanford and several other organizations. It looked to me like there were about 100 people. They had small and large group discussions and a great dinner offered for free. They've put together responses, reflections and some video on their blog.

Excerpts from : Breakfast at the Victory - Mysticism of Ordinary Experience

by Prof James Carse

contributed by Ajay Narendra

"All experience, to borrow an expression of the mystics, is
bounded by the boundless. Every step on our journey adds to
what we know but it also reveals there is no end to knowing.
This book is an invitation to see how extraordinary the ordinary
is when we rediscover it by way of the mystical."

..." Marginalizing the ego, abandoning it to the circumference,
is a way of entering the soul. In fact, it might be more accurate
to say that marginalizing the ego is precisely the
work of the soul. This is the work the mystics call “naughting”
the ego. It was not the infinite spaces that terrified Pascal; it
was the spacelessness of the self within. There is good reason
for his terror: Pascal was a person in whom the soul was awake
and the ego desperate to grab any line that would save it from
being swallowed by the boundless."

...and here comes the bombshell >>>( from the same book)

"Something else: because our struggle in life is inherently a
struggle against samsara, and because for that brief time we
did not resist the passing away, we existed in that state which
Islamic mystics know as fana al-fana, the passing away of the
passing away. Some mystics call it ecstasy. Buddhists describe
it with the starkest possible declaration: Nirvana is samsara.
Nirvana, the highest goal of the spiritual life, is identical with
the impermanence of everyday life. “That which is the limit
of nirvana is also the limit of samsara; there is not the slightest
difference between the two.” (Nagarjuna)
If we are looking for the mystical, we need go no further
than the Victory, no further than the most ordinary of our ordinary

and Khalil Gibran said it all in just one sentence : "“Yes, there is Nirvana; it is in leading your sheep to a green pasture, and in putting your child to sleep, and in writing the last line of your poem”.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Liz Gilbert & Kabir

- by Linda Hess

Because of recommendations from you Shabnam, and another friend (who actually got me the book), I'm 2/3 of the way through "Eat Pray Love." On pp 198-202, chapters 67 & 68, she tells about her "transcendent" experience. At the central point of the description of the indescribable, she finds it helpful to use the word "void" 7 times in 4 lines, followed by a quote from Kabir (drop in ocean, ocean in drop). Then she produces her own simple prose version of what could be quite a few Kabir bhajans.

"The place in which I was standing can't be described like an earthly location. It was neither dark nor light, neither big nor small. Nor was it a place, nor was I technically standing there, nor was I exactly 'I' anymore. I still had my thoughts, but they were so modest, quiet and observatory. Not only did I feel unhesitating compassion and unity with everything and everybody, it was vaguely and amusingly strange for me to wonder how anybody could ever feel anything but that. I also felt mildly charmed by all my old ideas about who I am and what I'm like. I'm a woman, I come from America, I'm talkative, I'm a writer--all this felt so cute and obsolete. Imagine cramming yourself into such a puny box of identity when you could experience your infinitude instead. I wondered, 'Why have I been chasing happiness my whole life when bliss was right here all the time?"

Then she has a sudden urgent thought, "I want to hold on to this experience forever," and she starts to lose it fast, crashing down through layers into the old normal places, "my limited comic-strip world." (I remember comparing sabda 55 of the bijak to a comic strip.)

But she's never exactly the same as before and she finds a new understanding and patience with her old self.

The funniest line that made me laugh out loud was p 202, when she's describing how she is now, normally. "The sentences still form in my mind and thoughts still do their little show-off dance, but I know my thought patterns so well now that they don't bother me anymore. My thoughts have become like old neighbors, kind of bothersome but ultimately rather endearing--Mr. and Mrs. Yakkity-Yak and their three dumb children Blah, Blah and Blah."

The reason I could laugh out loud so easily was because I'd just gone to the sunday morning Gentle Yoga class at the Y, which stretches more than my muscles. Or maybe the brain is a just muscle that could use some good Gentle Yoga classes.

that's the news for today.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Walking with Kabir by Shabnam Virmani

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 a 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?

Difficult as it is, Kabir himself is the perfect icon to set us off on this path, because there is an amazing multiplicity in the living traditions of Kabir. He inhabits many cultures and opposing social paradigms, and yet refuses to be contained or defined by any one of them. On these journeys I have met upper-caste Hindus deeply offended by the assertion that Kabir speaks especially for Dalits, and Dalit activists who scorn research on Kabir by Brahmin scholars. Hindu lovers of Kabir uncomfortable with the term Sufi being linked with him, and Sufi singers who guffaw with laughter at the very thought that Kabir was not a Sufi! Atheist activists who use Kabir couplets as slogans and devout Kabir Panthis who deify him with temples and aartis. The sociology of the many Kabirs itself becomes a fabulous device that pushes us towards opening up our minds and hearts. When a devout Hindu discovers that the Kabir he loves is also called a vipassi by S.N. Goenka (founder of the widespread Buddhist meditation movement called vipassana), he may be intrigued and compelled to listen, understand and hopefully, open a window in his mind.

So, nudged by Kabir himself, each of the four documentary films journeys across 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: Journeys with Ram and Kabir probes the divides created by religion and nationalism and journeys from India to Pakistan.

Koi Sunta Hai: 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.

Apart from the fact that he refused to be identified with any one gharana, he also had the humility and openness to walk over to the ‘other’ side, to delve into and learn from folk musicians. This kind of radical creative action is equally needed in the realm of social conflict and politics – to be able to walk over to ‘other’ sides, with the capacity to listen, absorb and through that experience transform oneself. Kumar Gandharva did that, and that is why his Kabir defies musical boundaries, is impossible to label like Kabir himself and is experienced by many listeners as so movingly authentic.

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: 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 open-mindedness. 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.

In 2003, I spent three days in a small village called Damakheda in Chhattisgarh, amidst devout followers of the Dharamdasi Kabir Panth sect at their annual festival celebrating the chauka aarti, a ritual worship of the guru. I was able to see quite critically the divisiveness of religion, its unholy nexus with politics and commerce, the distortions and exploitation in the practice of ritual, but I was also moved to see the faith and spirit with which people gathered there. I began to recognize the power and attraction rituals can hold, as seasonal place markers of what we hold valuable, as aesthetic reminders of values we want to dedicate ourselves to, as moments of shared community with like-minded seekers.

It was this uneasy tension in myself that became the underlying quest of the film Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein: 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.

In discussions of this film in various places I often encounter a supercilious dismissal of the Kabir Panth amongst urban elite audiences, which I find irksome. I see how easily we become judgmental. Somehow our rituals are always more palatable than theirs. Sometimes the rituals we’ve embedded our lives in are not even visible to us as rituals, while theirs appear offensive in their ‘blindness and superstition’. Through this filmic journey I developed a more complex and empathetic understanding of ritual. I now recognize how Kabir’s exhortation is not against scripture, ritual or the community per se. His argument is that without the life force of powerful personal experience and critical self knowledge, we can at best clutch onto scripture, ritual and community as ways to secure our insecure egos. Then all these become empty props, meaningless enactments that can strengthen social exploitation and divisiveness.

Kabir is unequivocal in emphasizing that all social, spiritual, moral action begins with the individual.

Laalan ki nahin boriyan, hansan ke nahin paat

Sinhan ke nahin lehade, aur sadhu na chale jamaat

Rubies don’t fill sacks, swans don’t fly in flocks.

Lions don’t roam in herds, and a true seeker walks alone.

But he is equally clear that the authentic spiritual quest of an individual would simultaneously connect her to the community, not take her away from it, nor subsume her own identity in it. It would take her to a place which is best captured in a Kabirian phrase, a space where she would find herself bahuri akelaa.

Sab thor jamaat, hamari jamaat

Sab thor par mela

Ham sab maahin, sab ham maahin

Ham hain bahuri akelaa

In all places, my community

In all places, I meet with them

I am in all, all are in me

I am alone and together

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 a 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.

So my journey has been a movement from self-righteousness towards ambiguity. Not a paralyzing kind of ambiguity divested of agency, choices or action. But an ambiguity that stems from a healthy appreciation for the mystery of our existence, for the mystical and undiscovered dimensions of our inner self, our ajab shahar (wondrous city) as Kabir likes to call it. On my determined quest for clear answers, definite knowledge and a consolidated sense of self, I found myself melting, dissolving, and being put into a state of vibrant not-knowing. Kabir taught me to rest in that space.

Haan kahun to hai nahin, naa bhi kahyo nahin jaaye

Haan aur naa ke beech mein, moraa sadguru rahaa samaaye

If I say ‘yes’ it isn’t so, yet I cannot say its ‘no’

My true guru resides somewhere between that yes and no

After several years of travel filled with the greedy joy of gathering poem after poem, song after song and almost 400 hours of video footage, when the moment arrived to sit down at the editing table, crisis struck. I tried frantically to structure my unwieldy footage and experiences in order to tell a coherent tale. An initial attempt in this direction was to categorize the songs into themes – Death, Love, Spiritual Seeking, Social Critique. But curiously I found the songs themselves resisting such neat categorization. One song would start by inviting you to the city of love, and then every stanza would talk of death. Another song would describe inner body meditative experiences and then castigate pundits and mullahs for their violence and hypocrisy. That was my first tangible realization of how deeply connected and co-existent these ideas are for Kabir. How the inner body realization of our fundamental connection with the cosmos is also the realization of the worthlessness of all social divisions. How confrontation of death is a way to arrive at a different kind of love.

Not expecting to learn any tough lessons from Kabir about love, I remember my wonder on hearing this song first in Malwa and later in Rajasthan.

O mhaane abke bachaai le mori maa, jamaido aayo levaane!

Oh mother save me! Your son-in-law has come to take me away!

It starts as a typical wedding folk song, but as it progresses a curious word-play reveals the jamai (son-in-law) to be Jama or Yama, the Lord of Death. We realize that the terror a young girl experiences when her groom comes to take her away from her peehar (natal home) in this poem exactly mirrors the moment when death comes to take us away from everything familiar we have clung onto during our lives. Death evokes not only the physical death of the body, but the death of relationships, jobs, stock markets, ideologies, self-image… in other words, the endless transiencies that mark our day-to-day lives.

Kabir brings the union with the beloved (the very wedding night sometimes) together with the moment of death. This song would tug at my heart and mind at the same time. What’s happening here? We all experience death as a loss of love, the loss of something we hold valuable. But in Kabir songs, death seems to open the gates to the city of love, an arrival into rather than departure from the prem nagari. Perhaps confronting death – not only physical death but all the forms of perishability that mark our lives – perhaps that can take away the ever-present fear of loss, the clinging, the deluding ourselves that something is here to stay. Perhaps then, death becomes liberating. Then we arrive into a different kind of non-attached, free-flowing love – a love that doesn’t shackle us, rather a love that sets us free. Perhaps then we don’t fall in love, we rise in it!

I continue to dance to the tune of my worldly loves and attachments. I celebrate their arrivals and mourn their departures. In the midst of the painful throes of this ava-gaman, this coming and going, this endless spinning in cycles of meeting and parting, I seek stillness, a place of no coming or going, ‘no moon no sun, no earth no sky’... I was not expecting to find these lessons on my path as a filmmaker.

Heli, jin ghar uge na aathame

Woh hai maalik jee raa des, saathin sun

Turiyaa palaaniya, re heli

Dinadaa chaar ki raah, saathin sun

Heli, jaao utaaro un gharaan

Jaa ghar aave na jaaye

Oh friend, the home where nothing rises or sets

That’s my beloved’s country

My horse is saddled, listen friend

The journey will last four short days

Let me alight in that home

Where there’s no coming or going

Despite the resistance the poems offer to clear categorization, our society has nevertheless successfully fragmented Kabir through multiple, selective appropriations. (Perhaps this is because our appreciation of a song often ends with its first line or a powerful phrase. How many people really listen to the full song and try to make sense of it as a whole?) It’s no surprise then that in religious ashrams it is the songs in praise of the guru that tend to dominate. In urban funeral ceremonies, predictably it is his songs of death that are sung. In anti-communal rallies by social activists, you hear the songs of trenchant critique of religion and ritual. In urban classical music concerts, the Kabir of hatha yoga and meditative inner body experiences takes centre stage. It’s clear how each space excises a specific Kabir to its own end.

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.

In the festival the only reserved seats in the front were for the singers themselves. There was no fussing over or felicitation of VIPs or ministers. They found their own seats in the audience anonymously, with a humility and sahajta (spontaneous simplicity) that a Sufi leads you to. There was no massaging of organizational or corporate egos in speeches or banners. The spirit and heartful help of a volunteer was given as much value as a corporate house that donated a few lakhs to the event.

At these festivals, we make the many musical avatars of Kabir jostle amicably with each other. Classical music aficionados are pushed out of their comfort zone to listen to folk and qawwali. Young students wanting a taste of rocking Sufi music are hushed as they listen to Kabir as a stark classical nirgun bhajan. Other mystic poets from other linguistic and cultural universes are heard as the festival travels to different parts (Shishunaal Sharief in Karnataka, Shashidhara in Nepal, Guru Nanak in Punjab…) and as their voices merge with the voice of Kabir, more boundaries blur.[1]

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, clap and join in the singing in a room full of sweaty bhajniks 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 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.

And so, people keep asking me, why did you choose Kabir? I find myself struggling to find words. Harangued by a journalist recently asking me the same question, I found myself saying, ‘I didn’t choose Kabir. Kabir chose me!’ I immediately felt a bit embarrassed but later I thought that the answer was not so off the mark after all. I say this not in the self-aggrandizing sense of being the ‘chosen one’, but in all the humility of feeling blessed, with a gift.

I remember being paralyzed by my own ego in the midst of editing the films. The burden of making ‘great’ films, of establishing myself as a ‘great’ artist through these works was crushing me. In that moment, it was the word ‘gift’ that rescued me. I began to see these not as films, but as offerings at some sort of altar of self-inquiry. I realized that the gift itself matters less than the spirit of the offering. A burden lifted.

What I realized in that moment was that in some sense, these were not my films at all. They were not something I made or earned or chose. They were experiences I received as gifts, from a space that lay beyond the claims of my small self. All I had to do now was to pass them on and gift them to others.

Meraa mujh mein kuchch naheen

Jo kuchch hai so teraa

Teraa tujh ko saunp dun

Kyaa laage hai meraa?

There is nothing in me that’s mine

All that is – is yours

I offer to you what’s already yours

What can I say is mine?

* The author 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 (

Many of the insights of this article derive from shared discussions and discoveries during six years of friendship with Linda Hess, my advisor and Kabir scholar-translator based in Stanford University. I owe a similar debt to my friend and guru Prahlad Tipanya who walked me into his world of Kabir with great generosity. Several insights accrue to my friends/advisors Purushottam Agrawal, Vidya Rao and Ashok Vajpeyi, singers Mukhtiyar Ali, Fariduddin Ayaz, Shafi Faqir, folklorist Kapil Tiwari, Prahladji’s wife Shantiji, encounters with lay persons and confabulations with friends too many to name here.


[1] The Kabir festival has already travelled to Mussoorie, Chennai, Auroville, Bangalore, Canada, USA, Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune, Kathmandu and Ahmedabad and is set to travel soon to Vadodara and villages of Malwa.