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”.