(I wrote this piece in 2009)
I am in all/ All is in me
Beyond me, no other
Across three worlds, I spread
Coming and going, the game I play.
A hundred forms, my disguise
I am beyond form or trace.
I myself, known as Kabir
I alone show myself...
Who was Kabir? Like scholars and priests, even seekers on the street have pet theories about the illiterate 15th century mystic poet. No one knows for sure where he was born or who his family were. Certain folk insist he was born to a Brahmin woman, but brought up by a family of Muslim weavers in Varanasi. Others say he was born in a blaze of light in the Lehertara lake. Yet others say he was found floating on a lotus leaf. His name is one of the 99 names of Allah.
Much more came to light when filmmaker Shabnam Virmani ventured into the Kabir Project as an artist-in-residence at Bangalore’s Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in 2003. Her explorations since — shared through four documentary films, two folk music videos and 10 music CDs accompanied by books of translated poetry — took the city by storm recently during ‘Koi Sunta Hai’, a multi-location festival of films, live music and a Kabir seminar.
At the film screenings, questions thronged the air. Why does Kabir still sound contemporary? What makes him stand out beyond hazy lessons in textbooks? Is his concept of a nirgun or formless/ faceless divinity relevant to our times? How does one separate the legend from the man?
One of Shabnam’s films — Had Anhad (Bounded Boundless) — tied for first place at the One Billion Eyes documentary film festival 2008 in Chennai. Through discourse and debate, through song and seeking, the quest for Kabir’s Ram (or was it Rahim?) unfolds.
Some moments from the festival will remain imprinted on the mind’s eye forever. Like the charismatic Mukhtiyar live at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) open-air amphitheatre — full-throated, weaving folk magic for three hours, as the riveted audience clapped and swayed in time. Or the black-and-white cinematic frames of Koi Sunta Hai, which interweaves the story of how Kumar Gandharva lost his incredible voice when young, then found himself through Kabir bridging the urban and the rural, the folk and the classical.
In her cinematic search for Kabir’s des or home, Shabnam befriended many, including Tipaniya and Linda, united by their love for the universal poet despite their cultural geographies. Oddly enough, it was in Malwa that Shabnam ran into Linda, a professor of religious studies at Stanford, while her trajectory coincided with that of Tipaniya in the heart of North America!
She found Tipaniya’s take on Kabir’s poetry inspiring: “What’s this nirgun divinity Kabir urges us to connect with? It’s the breath. It can only be experienced or felt. It cannot be seen, it’s formless. And yet, its formlessness has no existence without the form that encases it, the body.”
Another revelation on the road took Shabnam by surprise. She says, “I came from a family background which had a healthy disregard for religion and ritual, a deeply rationalist worldview. I was quite suspicious of ‘gurus’, but in Prahladji I found one, possibly because he doesn’t see himself as one. The impact of his persona, his singing and his exposition of Kabir has been the single-most transforming experience for me personally.”
That deep bond envelops the films with songs that drive the narrative, an idea Shabnam had long toyed with as a filmmaker and amateur singer. It is electrifying, even deeply moving, to watch footage of Lunyakhedi-based Tipaniya’s nightlong satsangs in tube-lit shamianas across Malwa.
Shabnam recalls, “Prahladji, whose singing inspires me deeply, taught me how to play his tanpura. He kept throwing me in at the deep end by calling me onto his stages to sing, generally without forewarning, always to audiences of 5,000 listeners! During those moments, I literally put away my camera and picked up the tanpura.”
Mukhtiyar Ali sings at the Sophia Bhabha auditorium in Mumbai
In Bangalore, the ‘Koi Sunta Hai’ festival became a rich ground for cross-fertilisation between singers, whether bhakti or Sufi in origin, whether sacred or secular. As Mukhtiyar listened to Shafi Faqir’s Sufi folksongs from Sindh, as thumri exponent Vidya Rao kept taal to Mahesha Ram’s Meghwal folksongs from Rajasthan, as Karachi-based Fariduddin Ayaz rendered qawwali in the style of the 700-year-old ‘Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana’ while nirgun bhajan singer Vijay Sardeshmukh applauded, the world came full circle. To Kabir, and the way he saw us all as one.
Shabnam observes, “The festival felt like a conference of singers. Sometimes we felt as if they were primarily singing for each other, and we were just the onlookers.” An offshoot? Tipaniya invited Mukhtiyar Ali to sing at the Kabir Festival at Lunyakhedi in February, and the Malwa audiences were as entranced as their Bangalore counterparts.
How does Shabnam view this project, funded by the Ford Foundation? “I came to Kabir as a social poet, attracted by his blunt, in-your-face rhetoric about the folly and violence of the human condition. I wasn’t expecting him to become a personal friend and interrogator on these journeys, one who began to show me the folly and violence concealed in me.”
Reaching out beyond each individual, Kabir claims his own world space today. For Tipaniya and his musicians are currently touring the US and Canada, accompanied by Shabnam, organised by Linda. His myriad retellings of the story of mankind prove irresistible and potent as he couches our universe thus:
I dwell in the city of love, / I became well in contentment, / My mind has taken to living free…
(The Hindu Business Line 2009)
Shabnam Virmani's TED talk on the Kabir Project in 2010