With an eclectic mix of spirituality, highbrow culture and grungy grassroots, the Kabir Festival offers the feel of a community-driven event.
For six centuries Kabir has been interpreted by saints, scholars, musicians and countless followers who love the folk wisdom that can accommodate the highest abstractions and mysteries of human existence. As director of the wide-ranging Kabir Project, Shabnam Virmani travelled with folk musicians singing Kabir and has been part of four documentary films as well as the Kabir Festivals taking place in different parts of India and abroad.
The Kabir Festival in Mumbai, now in its third year, has been a marvel of cultural programming devised by the Kabir Community of the city, a group of about 500 individuals who meet for musical study tours and informal baithaks through the year. In a city whose cultural diversity is often hit hard by its proximity to Bollywood and the glamour industry, the Kabir Festival offers the alternative feel of a community-driven festival. In Virmani’s words, it offers its audience an eclectic mix of “spirituality, highbrow culture, grungy grassroots...” Musicians and filmmakers present concerts and films at a range of venues that acknowledge different kinds of neighbourhoods and audiences.
The Bangalore Kabir Festival of 2009, a multi-location festival, provided the basic template. By covering the highbrow and the social elite who visit only the finest auditoriums as well as the slums of the city, the 10-day festival had something for everyone and also made it a point to include Urdu-speaking communities among other groups in its map. The idea caught on in similar city-based festivals. Virmani welcomes critiques from different groups like activists who feel it is not emphasising social politics or by others who say it is not sufficiently aesthetic. “To me, these criticisms are a sign of the spreading of an idea”, she says.
This year the five-day festival in Mumbai will present workshops and other interactions that allow for a more intimate meeting with the musicians. The festival starts off with a learning workshop with Mukhtiyar Ali from the semi-nomadic Mirasi community of the Thar desert that has kept the oral tradition of Sufiana Qalam alive. Ali also sings the poetry of Kabir, Mira and other Sufi poets like Bulleh Shah.
The same evening Parvathy Baul, a singer, painter and storyteller from West Bengal who left institutional training to self-train in the Baul order, will perform with Carnatic musicians Bindumalini and Vedanth Bharadwaj at the Ramakrishna Mission in Khar.
The next day the festival shifts to Sophia College with a show of The Unknown Bard , a film on Lalon Fakir, directed by Tanvir Mokammel, followed by a live performance by Lakshman Das Baul before returning to Dadar. Here, at the Veer Savarkar Auditorium in Shivaji Park, artistes Mooralala Marwada (a folk singer from Kutch in Gujarat) and Muktiyar Ali will perform. Another regular at the festival is Prahlad Tipaniya who combines singing and explanation of Kabir in the Malwi folk style of Madhya Pradesh.
The Kabir Festival travels to venues like Shishuvan School, Matunga; Comet Media Foundation in Fort, Urdu Markaz in Mandvi, Sangeet Mahabharati at Juhu, Gyandevi amphitheatre in Borivili and the Gateway of India.
“I am very happy to watch from the sides and marvel at how things have spun off and become self-sustaining in their own way with the Mumbai festival. Had it been centrally controlled and replicated, it would not have been so vibrant,” says Virmani who credits the Kabir community of Mumbai and its team for the interest it has generated in an atypical festival in a city like Mumbai.
Musicians and filmmakers present their concerts and films at a range of venues that acknowledge different kinds of neighbourhoods and audiences.