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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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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.

Picked up the only Wodehouse at the local library some weeks back, and have since been reliving some of the Jeeves-Wooster magic. The book is titled Very Good, Jeeves, and is, in the unlikely instance that you are unfamiliar with the series, a collection of short stories centered around the master-manservant duo of Bertie Wooster, a somewhat foppish character without a vocation thanks to an inheritance, and Jeeves, his über-smart valet often counted on to extricate his master from seemingly inextricable situations that often involve aunts and friends. A few of the other recurring characters in these stories are Wooster’s aunts – Aunt Agatha (the “nephew-crusher”), and the relatively benign Aunt Dahlia. One might say that Jeeves-Wooster are to British humor what Holmes-Watson are to detective fiction, set in and around the Edwardian era.

There are far too many passages of interest in the book to cite, and they may not stand by themselves as being funny unless one reads them in context. If your interest has been piqued, a close second to reading the book may be to watch the Jeeves and Wooster television series that is available on youtube. Go on, pip-pip.

Via the tweet of a friend , I came across this Channel 4 video on the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November last year. The video is a detailed documentary on the attacks with interviews of people caught in the line of fire or affected by it, and communication exchanges of the terrorists. It’s amazing how easily we forget and move on, and maybe that is a good thing, or may be not.

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It’s been a summer of movies. Watched the latest Harry Potter movie with a group of potterheads and muggles (defined here as someone that has not read the books or watched the movies before, in addition to lacking magical abilities). I’d classify myself someplace in between – haven’t read the books, have watched all the movies so far. At the end of the movie, the potterheads liked it, the muggles did not. My opinion of the movie is, unsurprisingly, somewhere in between. It did help me recover from the experience of watching Bruno a week earlier – a funny and brave movie, but to what purpose?

I don’t remember how I first found out about Derren Brown – the English magician and mentalist. I’ve since become an intrigued and amazed follower of videos on YouTube of his shows broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. Some of his acts are explained by him, most are left to the viewers to deconstruct.

His recent video, The System, is both interesting and intriguing, and I will not saying anything more lest I break the suspense. Here are parts 1,2,3,4,5, and 6

For those old enough to remember this series on Doordarshan, I khojed up videos of Bharat Ek Khoj on YouTube. For the uninitiated, Bharat Ek Khoj (translated “Discovery of India”) is a television series from 1988 based on Nehru’s book Discovery of India.

My memories of the series are inchoate except for the tune in its title track. Two episodes watched so far and I can say with confidence that I would not have comprehended the philosophical inquiry or appreciated the culture dose of classical music and archaeology footage back in 1988. If there was a cartoon network in 1988, the 1988-me would have most likely changed the channel. Certain things take time to appreciate, and Bharat Ek Khoj is one such.

While I was absconding from this blog:

  • I had been hooked on to Heroes – “an epic drama that chronicles the lives of ordinary people who discover they possess extraordinary abilities”, in the network’s own words. It was this very description of the show and my disinterest in superhero stuff that had kept me from watching it. However, faced with limited choices after I had exhausted the 3 seasons of The Office that Netflix had to offer, I decided to take a bite off this sci-fi apple. What followed was a video-game like addiction to the series, eager interest accumulating with each episode, only to be halted abruptly by a pop-up 2 weeks ago and only 2 episodes short of the finale, stating that I had exhausted the 17 hour monthly online viewing limit. Here on begins the real-world twist. On Jan 15 at the Macworld Expo Apple announced its latest online movie rental service, much to the drooling delight of the ever appreciative Mac fan. My cause for content, though, was different. In a preemptive competitive move, Netflix removed the cap on online viewing time. I suppose I won’t have to use my superpowers to go back in time and view the pending episodes, risking a possible disruption of the space-time continuum. 
  • I watched most of the Planet Earth series. Truly fascinating accounts of the natural world in all its pristine g(l)ory that is beyond a description in words.  Video excerpt

I had a long argument once with a friend concerning the US involvement in Iraq. The specific point of contention was the international policing done by the US, and I argued against it reasoning, among others, that such tasks are better left to the UN. My favoring of the UN was countered by the argument that the UN had been ineffective in Darfur and it was up to the more powerful nations to take on this role. I must confess, ashamedly so, that I was not well aware of the specific details of the crisis in Darfur, let alone the role of the UN (or lack of it) in that region, until watching the Frontline documentary, On Our Watch, yesterday

If the United Nations could die of shame it would have been dead years ago.      

The above line (attributed to Tom Stoppard ) cited within the first few minutes of the documentary  sums up the consequences of UN inaction in Darfur. In my opinion, this inability highlights the apathy of its constituent member states, some more than others, and consequently our own individual apathy to what happens in a part of the world that appears to be of little consequence to our own lives, economically or otherwise. 4 years and 21 UN resolutions later, lack of concrete UN action has led to 200,000+ dead, not to mention other atrocities perpetrated on the affected people. 

There was one more thing I was not aware about – The Genocide Olympics, as the 2008 Beijing Olympic games have come to be referred by activists highlighting the genocide in Darfur. This was done to  draw attention to China’s support for the Sudan government that has been held responsible for the civilian killings in Darfur. It helps to know that even where nations fail as a collective, individuals can still make a difference. 

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

Ponderful! Wikipedia link to the Pale Blue Dot.

Two other talks at TED that I felt were worth watching – Debunking third world myths and New insights on poverty and life around the world. The speaker, Hans Rosling, is a professor of global health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Using his data visualization software called Gapminder, Dr. Rosling presents statistics and insights in a manner far more interesting than I have encountered before. In these videos, he uses visual statistics to demonstrate the narrowing gap between the so called developing and industralized countries over the years, in terms of family size and per capita income among other indicators. These examples emphasize the importance of this new way of visualizing data, and the insights that one can gain from such a visualization.

Having watched the first video, I wondered if the second one could be any more interesting. You’ve got to wait until the end of the second video before you decide.