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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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What makes certain songs special is the bit of nostalgia associated with them – a state of mind that is intertwined with the moment when one hears the song for the first time, a memory that is relived on every subsequent hearing. Driving to the Euphoria concert last night, amidst the downpour, lighting, thunder, and frustratingly slow moving vehicles, I was at loss to remember any such association. I was never a Euphoria fan. At least not the kind that is willing to drive a good one hour (+45 mins courtesy inclement weather) on a Saturday night to make it to the venue in Hayward, CA. But here I was, on the road with two other friends who would rather have queued outside the theater to watch the latest Harry Potter movie. We were running late by more than an hour. We didn’t really care.

The crowd in front of the stage, shouting Eu-pho-ria in unison was surprise #1. The band had far more passionate fans than I had given them credit for. Surprise #2 was to come later, when the stagefront crowd chanted, again in unison, the lyrics word for word of what was to me one of their obscure songs, and I am not referring to ‘Dhoom’ or ‘Maheri’ here. For a moment it felt like being outmoded among the outmoded. I looked around. Many of those in the balcony section seemed less inclined, sharing a certain bonhomie that comes from not knowing, or not caring or both. We were the backbenchers of this rock concert; we of the cheaper tickets.

Dhoom, the song (also the album) that made Euphoria famous was released in 1998, and Phir Dhoom in 2000. They have had other releases since, and a new album due for release in 2010, but have remained largely out of the popular radar since their first few albums. The number of popular Hindi Rock bands (used as a broad term that includes Indian and Pakistani rock bands) at the turn of the millenium could still be counted with one hand, and Euphoria was one of them. They had their own unique brand of music that was distinct from their contemporaries – Junoon (sufi rock), Strings (pop-rock), Indian Ocean (indo-rock fusion). Unlike their peers, Euphoria appear to have fizzled out in the 2000s. Given their limited repertoire, I was unsure how Euphoria intended to pull off a 3-hour concert. They had performed in Seattle earlier this month, that had Parth in attendance, so that mystery was solved.

The roster of songs performed ranged from the Goan-konkani Galyan Saakli sonyachi to U2’s ‘With or Without You’, and included snippets of songs old and new, and others freely adopted from other bands. There were instances in the performance involving old hindi numbers where the electric-guitar wielding band saw itself momentarily downgraded to the level of the local annual-function orchestra. For most part the band held together well. Their guitar solos were good; their performance of their own songs quite spectacular. Euphoria’s lead singer, Palash Sen, managed to entertain and enthrall with his sheer energy manifest as singing, jumping, shouting, wise-cracking, and other stage antics without respite for 3+ hours. The audience seemed to have a good time, some more than the rest.

More than the concert, what I thought remarkable was the effort put in by the organizers into bringing this performance into fruition. Organizing the concert and the cumbersome details of it – posters, publicity, sound, venue, artists, ticket sales – take far more time than a group of people can fit into their post-work evenings and weekends. Therefore, a much deserved hat-tip to the AID (Association for India’s Development) volunteers in the Bay Area for putting this together. It was the cause, perhaps more than the concert, that made it worth the while.

Baabul mora naihar chooto jaaye is a popular thumri that expresses the sadness of a bride leaving her father’s home. Renditions of this thumri include those by Bhimsen Joshi (a personal fav), K. L. Saigal, Girija Devi, and Jagjit Singh among others. Hidden in these lines is a lesser known story – an allegorical reference to the agony of a deposed king separated from his home, his people, and exiled in a faraway land.

बाबुल मोरा, नैहर छूटो ही जाए
चार कहार मिल, मोरी डोलिया उठायें
मोरा अपना बेगाना छूटो जाए
आँगना तो पर्बत भयो और देहरी भयी बिदेश
जे बाबुल घर आपनो , मैं चली पिया के देस

babul mora naihar chuuto hi jaaye
chaar kahaar mil, mori Doliiyaa uthaaye
more apanaa begana chhuTo hi jaaye
anganaa to parbat bhaye, dehlii bhayi bides
je baabul ghar aapano, mai chali piya ke des

that translates to

O father, I depart forcibly from my home
Four men gathered to lift my palanquin
my loved ones will become strangers
the innermost portals of my home will be unreachable
as I leave my father’s home and go to my husband’s country.

On 7th Feb, 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, poet of the above thumri was finally deposed of his title as the Nawab of Avadh by the British and sent into exile to Matiaburj, in the neighborhood of Calcutta. Wajid Ali Shah has been described, at the one extreme as a voluptuary that “lived exclusively in the society of fiddlers, eunuchs and women, and at the other extreme as an avid patron of the arts responsible for a revival of the kathak and thumri, enhancing Lucknow’s reputation as the cultural center of that age.

While it is difficult to decipher the real Wajid Ali Shah from all that has been written about him, his own words such as the thumri above offer a window into some of his thoughts. One can well imagine a king in exile, saddened by separation from his home, his people, and a past that remains a fleeting memory, and perhaps consoling himself that, like the new bride moving to her husband’s home, he will recreate aspects of his home in this place of exile.

The reference to the ‘four bearers of the palanquin’ (chaar kahaar mil, mori Doliiyaa uthaaye ) has also been interpreted as the four bearers of the coffin. The Nawab may have thought of the move to depose him as portending the end of his life , and interpreted thus, the thumri takes on a heightened sense of melancholy.