Shabnam Virmani, creator of the Kabir Project, speaks about a voice we must all connect with.

In 2003, Shabnam Virmani, a documentary filmmaker and an artist-in-residence at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology (Bangalore), embarked on a project, the protagonist of which is Kabir, the 15th century poet and mystic. The purpose of the project was to chronicle and capture the “spiritual and socio-political resonances of Kabir’s poetry through songs, images and conversation.”

Today, the Kabir Project is a fascinating archive of four films, ten audio CDs of songs, six books of poetry, and the Kabir Festival, that has, since its birth in 2009, travelled the corners of India. More importantly, the project is responsible for the creation of a “Kabir culture,” and for sensitising urban India to it. Virmani acknowledges that the project has been “outward and intensely inward at the same time.” Excerpts from an interview.

What is your fascination with Kabir?

My fascination is not just with Kabir, but with his distinct ‘voice’, which feels like that of our collective sub-conscious. This voice doesn’t insist on difference and division; it invites inclusion. It’s an important voice for us to connect with from time to time, personally and as a society.  

What triggered the project?

I guess my trigger was the post-Godhra riots in the year 2002, when I lived in Ahmedabad. Godhra and its aftermath endorsed a dangerous and almost desperate arrogance and pride in one’s religion; it endorsed violence rather than self-reflection.

Where did the project draw its inspiration from?

Our work is inspired by the body of poetic texts that flow in contemporary oral traditions in the names of various historical poets. I used to meet many ‘Kabir seekers’ and singers in my research travels, and sometimes they would declare, “Arre bhai, Kabir to ham bhi hain!” (I too am Kabir!), and initially I would find that a rather strange and peculiar assertion. But soon, I realised that people relate to Kabir not so much as a historical figure, but as a thought stream or a philosophy that you can participate in and make your own.

What effect has the project had on you?

It has evoked a sense of wonder at the nature of a ‘poem’ itself, or the nature of a ‘song’. It fascinates me to recognise poems as acts of survival, and almost as important to the life breath of humanity. What is a song, or the poem it carries to you, doing? What doors does it open within and across communities? More importantly, what windows does it open within your own self?

As a filmmaker, do you think the success of the project is largely because of the treatment of its films?

As a documentary filmmaker I worked with women’s groups and human rights groups for many years before I came to this work. In that phase, I was always making films for others, with self-conscious social agendas. It was in the Kabir films that at some point I totally let go of that vexing question of who my audience is, and how I want to ‘change’ them. I realised something about communication that I didn’t understand earlier. That if you have a very powerful and honest personal experience, it becomes ‘universal’.

What was the impact of the project on non-urban India?

The project has always had a decidedly dual focus — urban and rural — and I think the response from both have been equally heart-warming. In 2008, I spent a good four months creating superb Hindi-dubbed versions of all the four Kabir films, and these are spreading as rapidly as the ones in English. Currently we are constructing a vast bi-lingual web-world called Ajab Shahar.

How has the Kabir Festival grown?

We organised the Bangalore Festival of Kabir in 2009 to launch the films and invited about a dozen singers of Kabir from India and Paksitan to perform in a series of events across the city for a week. Subsequently, the Kabir films started travelling to different places on their own journeys. The festival has already travelled to Kathmandu, parts of the USA, Auroville, Chennai, Mussoorie, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Indore, Bikaner, Jodhpur, and villages of Rajasthan and Malwa.