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.