Meera Srinivasan joins the Kabir Yatra in Madhya Pradesh, and marvels at the passion of the man behind the movement.
By the fifth day of the recently held “Malwa Kabir Yatra”, it is hard to say Prahlad Singh Tipanya, the man at the helm, has hardly slept. Attired in a pinkish kurta, he walks swiftly, forever welcoming groups of people trooping in. “Have you met him?”, “You know her, right?” — he asks, before every round of introduction.
It is, in fact, the last day of the Kabir festival that had artistes from different traditions performing across different venues in the Malwa region, Madhya Pradesh, and in addition to an eclectic cocktail of song and dance, an unmistakable sense of community prevails. Ask anyone, and they say: “It is all for Prahladji.”
Prahlad Tipanya is one of the most-respected folk artistes representing the Malwa tradition, who has been spreading awareness of Kabir — the 15 century mystic poet — rather systematically. But his USP does not stop there.
Whether it is in Luniya Khedi, the Madhya Pradesh village he hails from, or Ambodia village — both, over an hour’s drive from Ujjain — the adoration people have for him is hard to miss. The previous morning, we were inching ahead in the procession towards Luniya Khedi, loud speakers nonchalantly blaring Kabir’s words. We get used to the sight of people walking up to Prahlad Tipanya, garlanding him, getting his blessings, and then taking photographs with him. For the goodwill and popularity he enjoys, he could be easily mistaken for a successful local politician.
Tipanya, who will soon turn 60, is a science teacher in the local government school. Intrigued by the sound of the Tanpura when he was about 24, he began learning music, largely on his own. “It was very catchy and I wanted to be able to sing with it. When I was trying to learn, I happened to learn a Kabir song.” From being incidental to his initial music lessons, Kabir gradually became his passion. His full-time obsession.
“I don’t see it from a religious point of view. Kabir’s basic message is equality. By situating that in religion, we alienate some groups. But see it in a socio-cultural light, it will make sense to everyone,” he explains clearly and very slowly, as if he were explaining a scientific concept to a student in middle school.
To him, equality is a matter of logic. Born in a Dalit household in Luniya Khedi, if there was anything that Tipanya encountered in abundance, it was inequality. His rational mind saw how problematic practices such as restricted temple entry or the two-tumbler system are.
“To me, inequality does not make practical sense. We need an equal society to exist peacefully.” And Kabir, to him, becomes a vehicle for social change, for the underlying message in the poet’s work is equality.
“Just look at the experience of this festival — we have all kinds of people here, listening to music. Some of them relate to Kabir’s words, and others don’t even understand. But music can serve as that binding force. Kabir can.”
Tipanya has been organising the Kabir Mahotsav in the region for 17 years, and the yatra itself, for four years. His passion finds expression in The Kabir Project — a larger movement to raise awareness of the saint-poet’s works. Spearheaded by film-maker Shabnam Virmani, it brings together artistes from different genres to the same platform, where they engage with the lyrics, music and share their interpretations of Kabir. And now, it looks like one happy family that gets high on both, Rama and Allah.
By the time we wrap up the interview, it is well past midnight, and the stage is all Tipanya’s. Those sitting in the open-air space are tucked in woollen blankets. He performs with his five-member team with rare energy.
“Zara halke gadi hako mere ram gadi wala...” he begins with the song that drew him to Kabir, and the audience sways.
With eyes closed, he sings with minimal facial gestures. The throw and conviction in his voice pierce through the silence of the night. His music is intercepted by frequent commentary, instantly prompting his percussionist to lower the volume. As the tempo picks up, you see members of the audience get up and dance spontaneously — men, women and children.
WHAT THEY SAY
Stunning the audience with intense music and ecstatic swirls on stage, renowned artiste Parvathy Baul, a Bengali musician based in Thiruvananthapuram, finds Luniya Khedi addictive. “I am here for Prahladji. I see some parallels between Kabir and the Baul tradition I represent. A five-day festival can be tedious for both, the artiste as well as the audience, but there is something about a Kabir yatra that makes us pull it off each time.”
Hemant Chauhan, from Rajkot, was running high temperature during his performance. “Somehow, I couldn’t cancel this trip. I had to be here,” said the artiste, specialising in bhajans and folk traditions of Gujarat.
When Mooralala Marwada, folk musician from Kutch, sings “Vari jaun re...” it is hard not to dance. “All of us have a great time here. It is just amazing,” he says, closing his eyes and smiling widely. “The languages we sing in, or the styles we present may be very different. But with Kabir, the lyrics are profound and yet so accessible. That is what really draws everyone to him.”
Vedanth Bharadwaj, Chennai-based musician, and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy, Bangalore-based vocalist, have been collaborating and performing Kabir’s works together. The duo’s music brings an interesting contemporary element to the festival. “Just look at the unbelievable variety of music here, and the participation. There is so much to listen to and to learn,” says Vedanth.
For Bindhu, it is like staying with a loving family, and getting pampered all the time. “Prahladji treats us like his own children. And at performances, when thousands of people sit all night to listen together, the atmosphere is something else,” feels Bindhu.