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The Kabir Project is, among others, a series of 4 documentary films by Shabnam Virmani in quest of Kabir, the 15th century mystic and poet whose lifetime is shrouded in mystery, but whose dohas (couplets) survive in different forms and places, from the folk singers in Madhya Pradesh to the qawwals in Pakistan, transcending caste, religion, and borders. Each of the films can be watched independently, and bear titles from dohas of Kabir.

In Had Anhad, we meet Prahlad Tipaniya, the ‘rural rockstar’ as Virmani calls him, a popular folk singer from Malwa in Madhya Pradesh who, like other artistes covered in the film, not only sings these dohas but also demonstrates a deep understanding of the couplets. From there, the film travels to Pugal in Rajasthan to the house of Mukhtiyar Ali where we hear a different rendition of Kabir. We are then taken across the border to Pakistan where we meet Farid Ayaz and hear his wonderful rendition of Kabir’s doha Bhala hua, a part of which is reproduced below:

bhala hua mori gagri phooti, mein paniya bharan se chooti re
bhala hua mori maala tooti, mein raam bhajan se chooti re.

(trans.)
Glad that my (earthen) pot broke, I am now relieved of the task of filling water.
Glad that my prayer beads snapped, I am now relieved of the task of praying.

Through these seemingly playful verses, Kabir calls for giving up blind practice and seeking a deeper understanding of one’s self, or the God within. In another couplet, he observes:

chalti chaaki dekh kar, so diya kabira roye
do paatan ke beech mein, saabath bacha na koi

(trans.)
seeing a millstone, Kabir laments,
between the two grinding stones, nothing remains intact

Life wears one out. Nothing can be expected to remain the same. To this, someone (presumably his son, Kamaal) responds:

chaki chaki sab kahe aur keeli kahe na koi
jo keeli ke paas me, baal na baaka hoye

(trans.)
all speak of the grinding stones, no one speaks of the center (the eye of a millstone where the grains are dropped for grinding)
one that stays close to the eye remains untouched

Staying close to one’s core – beliefs/values/personal faith – is the way out. Kabir’s dohas convey a message that resembles Sufi and Buddhist thought – one of searching within, of breaking away from ritual, idol worship, and religious institutions and norms and instead following a personal and direct approach to divinity. Consider, for example the poetry of Bulleh Shah, a Sufi poet in the 17th century rendered wonderfully by Abida Parveen.

je rab milda nahateya dhoteya
te rab milda dadua machiya nu
je rab milda jungle phireya
te rab milda gayian vachiyan nu
ve miyan bulleya rab unhanu milda
athe diliyan sachiyan achiyan nu

(trans)
if God were to be found by bathing and washing
then he would have been found by frogs and fishes
if God were to be found by wandering in forests
then he would have been found by cows and beasts
O Bulleh Shah, God is to be found by those
whose hearts are true and sincere

Consider now the following passage from the Dhammapada

They make holy wherever they dwell, in village or forest, on land or at sea. With their senses at peace, and minds full of joy, they make the forest holy

Here was an effort at the democratization of divinity from the confines of temples, the purvey of priests or the dogma of caste, religion and ritual; an effort at change reinvented with every passing age by free and discerning minds. And what better medium to pass this message other than through music that is easily accessible to one and all, passed down from one generation to another, moving across boundaries, and morphing into the local dialect.

The part titled Koi Sunta Hain (someone hears us) in this 4-part series features Kumar Gandharva, renowned Hindustani classical singer responsible for introducing Kabir to the Hindustani classical stage. Kumar Gandharva is known to have discovered Kabir while recovering from tuberculosis after being told by his doctors at 23 after a stellar rise to fame, that he may never be able to sing again. In addition to Kumar Gandharva’s beautiful renditions of Kabir, we hear from his student, Madhup Mudgal, a sublimely sung Murshid nainon beech nabi hain (the master resides between the eyes).

In one of his performances, Farid Ayaz suggests that one should not view Kabir as a person but as a perspective. The 4 films can be thought of as a perspective of profound depth and a journey through space and time. The films can be viewed here.

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