Documentary filmmaker Shabnam Virmani's four-film discovery of Kabir and his relevance today
For many of us in Kerala who thought Kabir was equivalent to ‘dohas' (couplets) to be deciphered to pass the CBSE board examinations, Shabnam Virmani's films on the mystic poet saint come as a revelation. Journalist-turned documentary filmmaker Shabnam went on a six-year expedition to discover the essence of Kabir and what he means to Indians today. It resulted in four films (Had-Anhad, Koi Sunta Hai, Kabira Khada Bazaar Me in and Chalo Hamara Des) that explore the relevance of the 15th century sufi poet.
It was a voyage of discovery for the award-winning filmmaker who in the course of her research on Kabir, found that Kamaliya, her hometown in Gujarat was named after Kabir's daughter.
Prior to her Kabir yatra, Shabnam had acquired renown for her milestone story on Roop Kanwar, a young widow who was burnt on her husband's funeral pyre, which led to the ban on Sati to be reinforced. She followed it up with films on various women issues and movements in India. One of her films (When Women Unite, which was on a grassroots women's struggle against liquor), was made in association with C-DIT.
On the eve of her trip to Kerala, where her films will be screened in connection with the third International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, Shabnam talks in an e-mail interview about her films on Kabir and why and how she went back and forth in time to weave a rich and riveting tapestry about the poet saint…
I was living in Ahmedabad when the Godhra incident happened, which led to the riots in Gujarat in 2002. I was seeking a way of understanding what makes human beings capable of so much violence and hatred. Kabir's poetry began to show me the working of our mind, how we all pin our identities on the construction of insecure egos, which we then begin to defend through dishonesty and violence, subtle or gross, interpersonal or inter-community or inter-nation.
Relevance of Kabir today
Kabir, and indeed all Sufi poets, show us the true nature of ourselves, far beyond the reach of narrow identity markers. They are taking us to a place where a profound compassion becomes possible…. If we do find a kernel of this spiritual understanding, it's so heavily overlaid with religious orthodoxy and some kind of sectarian, divisive impulse. So Kabir is relevant because he urges us to rise above identity politics. We're seeing growing polarisations in society on the basis of language and identity and borders. Here is a man who's urging us to let go of the brand, the packaging and seek an essence.
You organised ‘Koi Sunta Hai,' an event on Kabir in Bangalore, which included your films, and concerts on the music of Kabir. What is special about his music?
Kabir composed orally and was probably illiterate. Today thousands of poems circulate in his name, and these poems circulate as songs. A small number of people read Kabir in books. Most people hear him sung in musical form; they listen to him. After all, let us not forget Kabir's famous exhortation at the end of his poems, Kahat Kabir, suno bhai sadho… (‘Says Kabir, listen o seekers!').
So Kabir has traversed not just diverse folk musical idioms in scores of villages across central, western and north India, but has also inspired followers to sing him in classical and semi-classical music forms such as dhrupad, khayal, thumri, shabads and quawwali.
Music, I believe, is the best way to engage with the spirit of Kabir.
You have consistently covered the journey of women in rural India and their problems and struggles for dignity and space. When and how did Kabir happen.
Well, the Gujarat riots of 2002 propelled me towards a deep desire for making peace. But as I went along this road, Kabir began to signal to me that my desire for making peace between two factions in the outside world – whether two religious factions, or two nations or two genders – was intimately linked with my making peace with myself.
A feminist slogan had said this clearly a while ago – The personal is political. This maxim inspired me over a decade of working with women's groups in the country. I think this slogan got shot through with a new kind of resonance when I discovered Kabir. I think he pushes you to understand the divides and borders you construct within your self, the ego and insecurities that make all of us violent in some sense. He pushes you to see the connections between those violent impulses in your individual ego and how they multiply into collective egos of mobs, castes and nations that become capable of unleashing horrific violence. So the problem is not just around me, in some measure it starts with me.
So working in the world, has to go with working within. In Kabir no retreat is possible into a spiritual, personal space of salvation. He stands resolutely in the marketplace, he engages with the world.
I think perhaps that's why my attempt in each film has been to resolve a conflict or opposition of some kind.
The next phase…
In the next phase of the project, work has begun towards constructing a multi-media web-space to browse the music, poetry and ideas of Kabir. This web-space will be co-created with the involvement of folk singers, along with innovative social experiments to vitalise the Kabir oral traditions at the village level. Exploratory workshops and school-based interactions have begun to explore ways in which the power of Kabir's poetry can be brought alive in education.
Will ‘Koi Sunta Hai' be heard in Kerala?
Sure, it needs someone from Kerala to take the initiative, and we shall be happy to come with the films and singers for an in depth festival!
The Kabir series
Each film tries to weave a narrative between two poles of a duality. Had-Anhad explores the Hindu-Muslim or the Indo-Pak divide, Kabira Khada Bazar Mein skirts with the tension between theist and atheist, between sacred and secular appropriations of Kabir. Koi Sunta Hai weaves between urban, classical domains of knowledge and rural, folk, oral traditions of Kabir. Chalo Hamara Des takes you between two cultures, East and West, India and America, desi and pardesi.