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.