Making Kabir your own

Shabnam Virmani of the Kabir Project on the strong reforming influence of the mystic poet’s couplets

Published - July 19, 2018 04:57 pm IST

 Shabnam Virmani

Shabnam Virmani

On a warm Tuesday morning, in a small, packed room, Shabnam Virmani picks up the five-string tambura which she has learnt to play herself. It is a few weeks after the commemoration of Kabir’s death anniversary in North India, especially in Maghar where he is buried. “Let go off the historical Kabir,” she urges the audience. “Let’s stop arguing about where he was born, which language he wrote in. His thoughts spread like a virus and that is the beauty of Kabir. It is not the brand Kabir that people identify with, it is the feeling about what he represents.”

Khabira Khada Hai Bazaar Mein

Liye Lukhati Haath

Jho Ghar Jalaye Apna

Chalo Hamare Saath

( In the market stands Kabir/Flaming torch in hand/ Burn down your home/ Then come and walk with me)

“Let’s all burn one thing today that we are attached to, whether a beautiful sari or even your phone,” she says to laughter. She strings the tambura teasingly, quotes another doha , and bursts into song. Shabnam is a documentary filmmaker, but she is also a powerful singer. With a voice that is seemingly carefree, but deep and impactful, she draws the audience into a trance and then stops, leaving them aching for more. There is no greater tribute to Kabir’s songs and her singing than the buzz on WhatsApp at the end of the lecture-demonstration. Clips of her song recordings are shared, and soon her full-throated singing pierces through the quiet of my home.

It is five hundred years since Kabir, the 15th century mystic poet, died and yet he continues to stay alive among Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, Brahmins and Dalits, classical and folk singers, city folk and villagers alike. It is curious that various religions fight over Kabir, for he despised organised religion. Or perhaps it is fitting, for he also hated religious exclusivity. The wish to bring down barriers is also why Kabir appeals immensely to the Dalits. Kabir was a great religious reformer, but what moves people deeply today are his songs. They are taken from “the heart of common life,” in the words of Tagore, and infused with Sufism. The beauty of the tunes is combined with the power of simple lyrics on divine love. For Kabir, God was “neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash,” but within us (“ The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself: it wanders in quest of grass ”). Kabir’s songs and poetry give hope and talk about the fundamental questions of the human condition, says Shabnam. Kabir is also appealing as he “enters dualities and collapses them.”

But it is also because of these very dualities that Kabir is a contested figure. Several hagiographies carry unverifiable narratives about his birth. While most historians agree that Kabir was born into a family of Muslim weavers, popular legend says he was born a Hindu Brahmin and brought up by a Muslim. There were disputes over the possession of his body too. The legend goes that while Hindus and Muslims argued about whether to burn him or bury him, Kabir’s shroud was lifted revealing nothing but a heap of flowers. “All we are left with today is the fragrance of Kabir,” says Shabnam.

It was to discover this fragrance, to map out the various Kabirs appropriated in myriad ways by different communities across India that Shabnam set out to ‘find’ Kabir, a task quite removed from what she was doing earlier. Shabnam began her career as a journalist at the Times of India but soon quit to make films on women, such as When Women Unite and Bol . It was when she was stung by the 2002 Gujarat riots that she set out to “make sense of the violence, to find out what pushes people to brutality in the name of Ram and Allah.” That eight-year journey across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Pakistan resulted in four acclaimed films, 10 audio CDs, and books.

The overwhelming response to the Kabir Project, she says, was quite unexpected. “People wanted all this to be shared in their areas in their own ways. After launching the Kabir Project, we also wanted to take this material back to the oral traditions in the villages where we researched and shot the films. That led to the Malwa Kabir Yatra and the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra. Now Kabir festivals are mushrooming all over the country and what is most gratifying is that we are not doing any of them. These yatras have facilitated sharing across the village tradition, but we are also seeing many urban people going to the villages,” she says. The Kabir Project’s Ajab Shahar YouTube channel was launched in 2009. Now a beautifully designed website with the same name will go live in a month to provide us with a “thaali lovingly served” of Kabir songs and “conversations around Kabir and other Bhakti, Sufi and Baul poets from India”.

Documenting and translating the oral tradition can be a tricky affair. Kabir, who was illiterate, never wrote any song or poem; travelling singers and scribes made him popular over the years. The inescapable consequence of this is that thousands of songs and poems bear his signature. How do we separate the authentic from the spurious Kabir? It’s a question that has caused much debate, but it’s a hopeless exercise to jump into, Shabnam says. Instead, she recommends that each one walk the talk, engage with Kabir, and take the license to interpret.

Would that not be appropriation, a dilution of Kabir? Yes, she says, but every community has appropriated Kabir in their own ways. He answers to all their various aspirations. I am reminded of a scene from her first film of the Kabir Project, Had Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir, in which Fariduddin Ayaz, a Karachi-based Qawwal singer, says that he is not “willing to bargain with anyone on Kabir.” You may have come from far, he tells Shabnam and Malwai folk singer Prahalad Tripanya, but “I won’t be polite and tolerate your ideas on Kabir.” Shabnam, too, appropriates Kabir in her own way — for example, by dropping lines that are offensive to women while singing. “Some of the metaphors are disrespectful. I am not making Kabir sacrosanct. He was a man of his time and I am a woman of my generation,” she explains.

For Shabnam, Kabir exists not trapped in any one philosophy, but among the many men and women whom she has met across India. She recalls some of those experiences. After a tense screening of the film in Godhra after the riots, Shabnam realised that there was uneasiness in the air. Suddenly, the audience erupted in anger, calling her anti-national and anti-Hindu. But one woman in the front looked her in the eye. “Don’t be disappointed,” she said softly. “It is difficult to sell a mirror in a city of blind people.” In Kutch, she found a village weaver who was a staunch supporter of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. He heard about Had Anhad , and decided to watch it. He went a suspicious man but returned to tell her that he found Ram in his loom that day. Shabnam has also been branded anti-Muslim . “Actually, the film is anti-conservatism,” she says.

I ask her whether Kabir the project is different from her personal quest for Kabir. Fariduddin Ayaz had told her in Karachi: “If you do this as a project, it will end. But if you make it a lifelong journey, you will find peace and satisfaction.” The project itself has become a personal journey, says Shabnam. “It has to be in order to answer those three questions that we ask ourselves: Who am I? Where have I come from? And where will I go from here?”

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