The Kabir Kala Manch that performed in the city recently as part of Poetry with Prakriti moved the audience with their verses that reflected our life and times

When a man is dead, he does not talk, he does not think. But if he does not talk when alive, he is a dead man.

There are no words for everything but for the Kabir Kala Manch, everything is about words and how they resonate within us. With drums, tambourines and a harmonium accompanying melodiously in the background, the performers, some wearing ghungroos around their ankles, pitch themselves into the performance with gusto. Three words to attribute to this fascinating troupe from Pune would be — courage, conviction and endurance. Underlining all of these qualities is intensity. In the aftermath of the Gujarat riots Kabir Kala Manch formed in 2002; kala means art and manch is the stage. They found a way, an old prescription, for the poor and oppressed to fight injustices, in mystic poet Kabir’s earthy vernacular verses.

The Manch recently performed for Poetry with Prakriti in the city at the invitation of Prakriti Foundation and hosted by Spaces. In the backdrop, a placard read, “People’s art for people’s struggle.” Simantini Dhuru, from Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, introduced the performers, noting they are students and workers earning meagre incomes from everyday jobs. “These are people for whom poetry is their life. They reach across cross sections.” Dhengle, stalwart poet, announced, “Ellarukum Vannakum! We have not come to teach anything but we have come to learn something. All of us are activists somewhere.” With that they broke into a pounding rhythm ending every now and then with a yodelling. In some way, these simply dressed individuals in kurta-pyjama, of spare build, got their message across to even those in the audience who did not follow Marathi or Hindi. “When there is so much of everything then why is daily bread unaffordable?” — “Roti mahingi kyu rahe paye?”

About farmers-suicides in Maharashtra they sang, “We cannot rely on clouds for rain” and “Why should we sell our fields to feed our children?” Leaders function by “remote control” — had the audience roaring with laughter. “Temples above, temples below, Madura, Kasi — but no one sees the children dying,” sang a performer holding his purple scarf in the shape of a child.

That struggle is our very purpose is known, but what kind? Astrology, the future of where we are going, families that aspire to send a child abroad, election campaigns — all are subjects for their inventive and robust lyrics. At the end when they sang , “Ek mutthi bandhe re bandho” — keep a fist closed tight, I am reminded of the song from the film Boot Polish, ‘Nanhe munhe bachche teri mutthi mein kya hai?’ (Little children, what is in your fist?) The children answer, ‘Taqdeer humhari’. (Our destiny). The closed fist is unity and destiny — all in our hands. Deepak credits his team at conclusion: Ramdas Unhale — a carpenter, their jyordar shahira poetess with a resounding voice — a sprightly young woman Rupali Jadav, the small-made boy in a faded blue shirt was Dada Waghmare Tiger Killer and their Lead Panther Laxman Kalleda.

The show was over but the air was still reverberating from the strength of the performance. Students Aparna Gopalan and Megha Rao had come to get more of the experience already having heard them at Madras Christian College. “There are other street theatre performers but these people are unique for they tell stories with feeling, not just tales that come down over time but truths of their own experiences.”

The Kabir Kala Manch stirred all and struck a forever-chord, even as Dhengle said, “We do not always sing in tune and sometimes I know we are off key, but do forgive those lapses.”