Walking with Kabir

by Shabnam Virmani

My search for Kabir started in 2002. I was living in Ahmedabad when the Godhra event happened and I witnessed the anti-Muslim pogrom which unfolded in the state of Gujarat. Immediately Kabir seemed to call out, ‘Sadho, dekho jag baurana! (Oh seekers, see the world’s gone mad!)’. I instinctively felt, yes, this man is saying what I feel.

In 2003, I set out on a series of journeys, camera in hand, venturing into diverse socio-cultural, religious and musical landscapes, meeting with people who sing, love, quote, revere and make meaning of Kabir for their lives. Six years later some of these experiences found expression in four documentary films, several music CDs and books. But while I journeyed into outer worlds, at Kabir’s constant bidding, I also journeyed within — and the story for me didn’t proceed according to script. There were surprises and transformations Kabir had in store for me.

I had set out thinking I would preach Kabir to the violent, misguided ones out there. But soon Kabir started speaking to me, in here. Soon he started showing me the fissures in my own mind, the violence (gross or subtle) and the dishonesties I am capable of when I construct and defend my ego. He showed me how I subtly ‘other’ multiple categories of people in order to consolidate my identity and how this ‘othering’ keeps me locked in dualistic ways of perceiving myself and the world — ways that are ultimately violent and divisive. I saw how this inner reality linked with my outer one, how a dishonesty and violence at the individual level unfolds into pogroms and war at the larger level, as we ‘other’ whole communities while defending our collective egos of sect or nation. This is not what I was expecting to find on these journeys — to find myself complicit in the social scenario I had set out to condemn, at least in some measure.

Buraa jo dekhan mein chalaa, buraa na milyaa koi
Jo man khojaa aapna, mujhse buraa na koi

I set out to find evil and found no evil one.
I searched my own self and found no one as evil as I

In another famous couplet, he says —

Kabira khadaa bazaar mein, liye lukaathi haath
Jo ghar baare aapna, chale hamaare saath!

Kabir stands in the market, flaming torch in hand.
Burn down your home, then come walk with me!

The metaphor of a ‘home’ unfolds in deeper and deeper ways, but one immediate reading points to the walls of identity we build to separate us from them. Kabir pushes us out of these comfort zones, our carefully constructed identities and self-images, which quite like our houses, are material, located and very fragile. They need to be constantly defended and protected from the quakes and storms of change and time. We don’t have to jettison all our frameworks or forms, but surely we should be able to step out of them from time to time and with a certain lightness, wonder and even humour, observe our own particularity within a multiplicity of others. Evidently, this is not an easy task, and it’s not surprising that Kabir claims his home is a tough one to reach.

Kabir kaa ghar shikhar pe, silhali si gail
Wahan paanv na tike papeel ka, kyun manvaa laade bail?

Kabir’s home is on a peak —
the path is slippery and treacherous.
The foot of an ant slips on it.
Oh mind, why load your bullock?

Difficult as it is, Kabir himself is the perfect icon to set us off on this path, because there is an amazing multiplicity in the living traditions of Kabir. He inhabits many cultures and opposing social paradigms, and yet refuses to be contained or defined by any one of them. On these journeys I have met upper-caste Hindus deeply offended by the assertion that Kabir speaks especially for Dalits, and Dalit activists who scorn research on Kabir by Brahmin scholars. Hindu lovers of Kabir uncomfortable with the term Sufi being linked with him, and Sufi singers who guffaw with laughter at the very thought that Kabir was not a Sufi! Atheist activists who use Kabir couplets as slogans and devout Kabir Panthis who deify him with temples and aartis. The sociology of the many Kabirs itself becomes a fabulous device that pushes us towards opening up our minds and hearts. When a devout Hindu discovers that the Kabir he loves is also called a vipassi by S.N. Goenka (founder of the widespread Buddhist meditation movement called vipassana), he may be intrigued and compelled to listen, understand and hopefully, open a window in his mind.

So, nudged by Kabir himself, each of the four documentary films journeys across a boundary of some kind, both the physical borders drawn across our geographic realities as well as those etched in the treacherous terrains of our own minds. The film Had Anhad: Journeys with Ram and Kabir probes the divides created by religion and nationalism and journeys from India to Pakistan.

Koi Sunta Hai: Journeys with Kumar and Kabir probes the boundaries we create in the realms of knowledge, art and music. The metaphor of ghar here slides into gharana, literally ‘houses’ of learning in Hindustani classical music. These gharanas often get encrusted with snobbery and exclusivity and we see in this film how the renowned singer Kumar Gandharva had the courage to ‘burn’ down his citadel of classical learning.

Apart from the fact that he refused to be identified with any one gharana, he also had the humility and openness to walk over to the ‘other’ side, to delve into and learn from folk musicians. This kind of radical creative action is equally needed in the realm of social conflict and politics — to be able to walk over to ‘other’ sides, with the capacity to listen, absorb and through that experience transform oneself. Kumar Gandharva did that, and that is why his Kabir defies musical boundaries, is impossible to label like Kabir himself and is experienced by many listeners as so movingly authentic.

It seems to me that to grapple with the problem of divisiveness we must not only ‘tolerate’ difference, we should make friends with it. The film Chalo Hamara Des: Journeys with Kabir and Friends shows a friendship between a rural Dalit folk singer, Prahlad Tipanya and an American scholar, Linda Hess, a friendship between the Kabir of rural Malwa and the Kabir of an American scholar-translator who practices Zen Buddhism. The film subtly evokes this cross-cultural friendship, strengthened by their porous ego borders and open-mindedness. As that film traverses the physical landscapes of rural India and north America, it is really traversing hearts and minds, crossing bridges of understanding, despite difference.

Kabir haldi peeyari, chuna ujjwal bhai
Ram snehi yun mile, donon varan gavai

Kabir says, turmeric is yellow
Limestone a brilliant white
Two lovers of Ram met thus —
both shed their own colours!

So I decided to walk over to ‘other’ sides that made me uncomfortable. Coming as I did from an agnostic family background and having been inspired later by the leftist ethos of social activism in my 20s and 30s, I had a deep mistrust of religion, rituals and gurus. When I ventured into the religious contexts of Kabir, I was uncomfortable, startled and deeply disoriented to discover my response — first confusion, and then a creeping empathy.

In 2003, I spent three days in a small village called Damakheda in Chhattisgarh, amidst devout followers of the Dharamdasi Kabir Panth sect at their annual festival celebrating the chauka aarti, a ritual worship of the guru. I was able to see quite critically the divisiveness of religion, its unholy nexus with politics and commerce, the distortions and exploitation in the practice of ritual, but I was also moved to see the faith and spirit with which people gathered there. I began to recognize the power and attraction rituals can hold, as seasonal place markers of what we hold valuable, as aesthetic reminders of values we want to dedicate ourselves to, as moments of shared community with like-minded seekers.

It was this uneasy tension in myself that became the underlying quest of the film Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein: Journeys with Sacred and Secular Kabir. It probes the ironies, compulsions and contradictions that unfold in the life of Prahlad Tipanya who, while being part of the activist secular group Eklavya, also decides to join the Kabir Panth as a mahant (cleric of the sect). The film tracks the opposing pulls of the individual and the collective, the spiritual and the social, the contrasting calls of autonomy and social authority, as he tries to conscientiously translate the ideas of Kabir into his own life practice.

In discussions of this film in various places I often encounter a supercilious dismissal of the Kabir Panth amongst urban elite audiences, which I find irksome. I see how easily we become judgmental. Somehow our rituals are always more palatable than theirs. Sometimes the rituals we’ve embedded our lives in are not even visible to us as rituals, while theirs appear offensive in their ‘blindness and superstition’. Through this filmic journey I developed a more complex and empathetic understanding of ritual. I now recognize how Kabir’ss exhortation is not against scripture, ritual or the community per se. His argument is that without the life force of powerful personal experience and critical self knowledge, we can at best clutch onto scripture, ritual and community as ways to secure our insecure egos. Then all these become empty props, meaningless enactments that can strengthen social exploitation and divisiveness.

Kabir is unequivocal in emphasizing that all social, spiritual, moral action begins with the individual.

Laalan ki nahin boriyan, hansan ke nahin paat
Sinhan ke nahin lehade, aur sadhu na chale jamaat,

Rubies don’st fill sacks, swans don’st fly in flocks.
Lions don’st roam in herds, and a true seeker walks alone.

But he is equally clear that the authentic spiritual quest of an individual would simultaneously connect her to the community, not take her away from it, nor subsume her own identity in it. It would take her to a place which is best captured in a Kabirian phrase, a space where she would find herself bahuri akelaa.

Sab thor jamaat, hamari jamaat
Sab thor par mela
Ham sab maahin, sab ham maahin
Ham hain bahuri akelaa

In all places, my community
In all places, I meet with them
I am in all, all are in me
I am alone and together

Given my mistrust of the culture of gurus in our country, I was surprised on these journeys at being given the gift of a guru. Prahladji, the charismatic village school teacher and folk singer from Malwa, Madhya Pradesh, drew me to him precisely because he didn’t set himself up as a guru. He often says that our true guru is beyond boundaries and found within ourselves, arising spontaneously in the house of our own experience. He resists and upsets the practices of hierarchy, ego-massaging and knowledge politics that mark so much of the culture around gurus. He carries his insights with a lightness and shares them with a playful ease and deeply inclusive humility that shows me that he is a true sadhak (seeker) himself. I marvelled again — this is not what I expected to find.

So my journey has been a movement from self-righteousness towards ambiguity. Not a paralyzing kind of ambiguity divested of agency, choices or action. But an ambiguity that stems from a healthy appreciation for the mystery of our existence, for the mystical and undiscovered dimensions of our inner self, our ajab shahar (wondrous city) as Kabir likes to call it. On my determined quest for clear answers, definite knowledge and a consolidated sense of self, I found myself melting, dissolving, and being put into a state of vibrant not-knowing. Kabir taught me to rest in that space.

Haan kahun to hai nahin, naa bhi kahyo nahin jaaye
Haan aur naa ke beech mein, moraa sadguru rahaa samaaye

If I say ‘yes’ it isn’t so, yet I cannot say its ‘no’
My true guru resides somewhere between that yes and no

After several years of travel filled with the greedy joy of gathering poem after poem, song after song and almost 400 hours of video footage, when the moment arrived to sit down at the editing table, crisis struck. I tried frantically to structure my unwieldy footage and experiences in order to tell a coherent tale. An initial attempt in this direction was to categorize the songs into themes — Death, Love, Spiritual Seeking, Social Critique. But curiously I found the songs themselves resisting such neat categorization. One song would start by inviting you to the city of love, and then every stanza would talk of death. Another song would describe inner body meditative experiences and then castigate pundits and mullahs for their violence and hypocrisy. That was my first tangible realization of how deeply connected and co-existent these ideas are for Kabir. How the inner body realization of our fundamental connection with the cosmos is also the realization of the worthlessness of all social divisions. How confrontation of death is a way to arrive at a different kind of love.

Not expecting to learn any tough lessons from Kabir about love, I remember my wonder on hearing this song first in Malwa and later in Rajasthan.

O mhaane abke bachaai le mori maa, jamaido aayo levaane!
Oh mother save me! Your son-in-law has come to take me away!

It starts as a typical wedding folk song, but as it progresses a curious word-play reveals the jamai (son-in-law) to be Jama or Yama, the Lord of Death. We realize that the terror a young girl experiences when her groom comes to take her away from her peehar (natal home) in this poem exactly mirrors the moment when death comes to take us away from everything familiar we have clung onto during our lives. Death evokes not only the physical death of the body, but the death of relationships, jobs, stock markets, ideologies, self-image… in other words, the endless transiencies that mark our day-to-day lives.

Kabir brings the union with the beloved (the very wedding night sometimes) together with the moment of death. This song would tug at my heart and mind at the same time. What’s happening here? We all experience death as a loss of love, the loss of something we hold valuable. But in Kabir songs, death seems to open the gates to the city of love, an arrival into rather than departure from the prem nagari. Perhaps confronting death — not only physical death but all the forms of perishability that mark our lives — perhaps that can take away the ever-present fear of loss, the clinging, the deluding ourselves that something is here to stay. Perhaps then, death becomes liberating. Then we arrive into a different kind of non-attached, free-flowing love — a love that doesn’t shackle us, rather a love that sets us free. Perhaps then we don’t fall in love, we rise in it!

I continue to dance to the tune of my worldly loves and attachments. I celebrate their arrivals and mourn their departures. In the midst of the painful throes of this ava-gaman, this coming and going, this endless spinning in cycles of meeting and parting, I seek stillness, a place of no coming or going, ‘no moon no sun, no earth no sky’… I was not expecting to find these lessons on my path as a filmmaker.

Heli, jin ghar uge na aathame
Woh hai maalik jee raa des, saathin sun
Turiyaa palaaniya, re heli
Dinadaa chaar ki raah, saathin sun
Heli, jaao utaaro un gharaan
Jaa ghar aave na jaaye

Oh friend, the home where nothing rises or sets
That’s my beloved’s country
My horse is saddled, listen friend
The journey will last four short days
Let me alight in that home
Where there’s no coming or going

Despite the resistance the poems offer to clear categorization, our society has nevertheless successfully fragmented Kabir through multiple, selective appropriations. (Perhaps this is because our appreciation of a song often ends with its first line or a powerful phrase. How many people really listen to the full song and try to make sense of it as a whole?) It’s no surprise then that in religious ashrams it is the songs in praise of the guru that tend to dominate. In urban funeral ceremonies, predictably it is his songs of death that are sung. In anti-communal rallies by social activists, you hear the songs of trenchant critique of religion and ritual. In urban classical music concerts, the Kabir of hatha yoga and meditative inner body experiences takes centre stage. It’s clear how each space excises a specific Kabir to its own end.

The Kabir films and festivals that are currently unfolding around their screenings and live music concerts are a small effort towards experiencing Kabir in an integrated way, without fragmentation. They try to bring the socio-political, material world, with its dilemmas and choices together with the spiritual world, the deep inner realms of meditative stillness and the insights of self-knowledge they hold for us. The films and the festivals do not offer us music as temporary escape into elevated spaces free of the muck of reality. They constantly weave between the sublime and the mundane, the spiritual and the political.

There was a moment during the Bangalore festival of Kabir in February-March 2009 when it felt like this truth was realized. The context was the growing jingoistic mood in our country four months after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Despite the pessimism and lack of help from many quarters, our team had secured visas for our Pakistani singer friends to join other Kabir singers from Malwa, Rajasthan, Kutch and Karnataka at this festival. I think this was achieved through our sheer will and commitment to recall the voice of Kabir as a shared cultural heritage across the nation’s borders precisely at that moment in history.

It was the last day of the festival, the final concert of qawwali by Fariduddin Ayaz from Karachi and the 1350-seat auditorium was packed to the brim. When he burst into the famous Rajasthani folk song ‘Padhaaro mhaare des (Come to my country)’, the moment crackled with a tragic beauty. ‘Let us go to that undivided land,’ he said, ‘that country beyond India and Pakistan, that undivided mind space where we all belong, where Kabir is calling us…’ Many in the audience were weeping.

In the festival the only reserved seats in the front were for the singers themselves. There was no fussing over or felicitation of VIPs or ministers. They found their own seats in the audience anonymously, with a humility and sahajta (spontaneous simplicity) that a Sufi leads you to. There was no massaging of organizational or corporate egos in speeches or banners. The spirit and heartful help of a volunteer was given as much value as a corporate house that donated a few lakhs to the event.

At these festivals, we make the many musical avatars of Kabir jostle amicably with each other. Classical music aficionados are pushed out of their comfort zone to listen to folk and qawwali. Young students wanting a taste of rocking Sufi music are hushed as they listen to Kabir as a stark classical nirgun bhajan. Other mystic poets from other linguistic and cultural universes are heard as the festival travels to different parts (Shishunaal Sharief in Karnataka, Shashidhara in Nepal, Guru Nanak in Punjab…) and as their voices merge with the voice of Kabir, more boundaries blur.*

I would like to talk about a few other things these journeys taught me, things that didn’t seem at first directly connected with Kabir. As a convent-educated, English-speaking person, I found myself connecting with my own native language universe in ways I didn’t anticipate, and certainly with a joy that I didn’t expect. I would spend hours on long-winded road journeys to remote village concerts with folk singer friends, squabbling with camaraderie over word meanings. I would find myself poring over song texts with a medieval Hindi dictionary in hand, transcribing and excavating with the excitement of an archaeologist, the meanings and nuances of the words and poems. This labour was way beyond the needs of my films and sometimes I’d be overcome with a sense of unreality. When the sounds and textures of these non-English dialects began to enter me, I realized they were filling up a void that I wasn’t even aware existed.

As I ventured into the life of Kabir in the community, I began to experience a strange tension with my technology. The presence of my camera seemed to separate me from the action and relegate me to being a passive observer. It was not long before I began to steal chances to relinquish the camera, pick up the manjiras, clap and join in the singing in a room full of sweaty bhajniks totally intoxicated on the nasha of Kabir.

Being part of the making process seemed more vital and important than consuming what is made, in my case, ‘recording’ it. It seemed imperative to be fully enveloped in the live pulsating music, to allow it to infiltrate your very pores and have the poetry literally enter your body by singing it. As one singer puts it in one of the films, ‘Ham baani ko loot liye, baani ko kha gaye! (I looted this poetry, I ate up the words!)’

Another not unrelated experience was to leave my middle class city world to enter the villages, to experience a direct contact with nature, with the tactile physical world. If we’re in a closed car the outer world whizzes by in a vague and muffled manner. But if we walk there is a sense of experiencing the land directly. We sweat in the sun, stumble on the rocks, hear the birds, taste the dust, feel the breeze. For me these experiences became inseparable from the experience of Kabir. They were not irrelevant to his poems, their life force. To walk barefoot for three days in the village of Damakheda, to eat only once a day and like it, to eat on the earthen floor, to sleep on hay, to eat food plucked straight from standing crops in the fields, to wade through rivers with camera on my shoulder, to relinquish the desire to cordon myself off from the experience of the tactile, physical world around me.

Our middle class lives deliver to us mediated experiences that come to us through books, TV, radio, music CDs and the internet — technology that can certainly deliver powerful experiences, but that can also circumscribe our lives, cut it off from immersion in a vital life force that exists in nature, in the tactile experience of sound, music and earth. We get alienated, we become watchers of spectacles, far-removed, we become phlegmatic, we don’t participate.

I realized how the meanings of the songs changed when they entered and inhabited your whole body. I realized how too much learning and scholarship can actually be an impediment to intuiting the wisdom of Kabir. Often I’d meet an ‘illiterate’ villager who seemed to silently ‘know’ so much more than the voluble pundits of Kabir lost in the maze of their own erudition.

Kabir urges us to receive this knowledge by taking the plunge, through direct immersion and participation, through a full body experience, by implicating the self with a searing honesty and making it vulnerable. What we all find easier to do however, is to cling to the safety of the coast, be observers, do a cerebral reading and, with our faculties of self-preservation in full throttle, keep ourselves once-removed, high and very dry.

Likhaa likhee ki hai nahin, dekhaa dekhee baat
Dulhaa dulhan mil gaye, to pheeki padi baraat!

You can’t read or write about it.
It must be seen and experienced.
When the bride and groom unite,
the wedding party pales.

So I was not surprised to discover recently that one of the root meanings of the term bhakti is ‘participation’. I am not surprised that it is the folk music of our villages — with its democratic and inclusive spirit — that has nourished the bhakti traditions in this country. In the best tradition of the all-night village satsangs and jagrans where this poetry flourishes, transmits and is practiced, many boundaries begin to blur — those between singer and listener, between singer and song, between self and other, between self and God.

Laali mere laal kee, jit dekhun tit laal
Laali dekhan mein gayee, mein bhee ho gayi laal.

The redness of my beloved is such —
wherever I look I see that red.
I set out in search of red,
I became red myself.

And so, people keep asking me, why did you choose Kabir? I find myself struggling to find words. Harangued by a journalist recently asking me the same question, I found myself saying, ‘I didn’t choose Kabir. Kabir chose me!’ I immediately felt a bit embarrassed but later I thought that the answer was not so off the mark after all. I say this not in the self-aggrandizing sense of being the ‘chosen one’, but in all the humility of feeling blessed, with a gift.

I remember being paralyzed by my own ego in the midst of editing the films. The burden of making ‘great’ films, of establishing myself as a ‘great’ artist through these works was crushing me. In that moment, it was the word ‘gift’ that rescued me. I began to see these not as films, but as offerings at some sort of altar of self-inquiry. I realized that the gift itself matters less than the spirit of the offering. A burden lifted.

What I realized in that moment was that in some sense, these were not my films at all. They were not something I made or earned or chose. They were experiences I received as gifts, from a space that lay beyond the claims of my small self. All I had to do now was to pass them on and gift them to others.

Meraa mujh mein kuchch naheen
Jo kuchch hai so teraa
Teraa tujh ko saunp dun
Kyaa laage hai meraa?

There is nothing in me that’s mine
All that is — is yours
I offer to you what’s already yours
What can I say is mine?

* The Kabir festival has already travelled to Mussoorie, Chennai, Auroville, Bangalore, Canada, USA, Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune, Kathmandu and Ahmedabad and is set to travel soon to Vadodara and villages of Malwa.

Author's Note - Many of the insights of this article derive from shared discussions and discoveries during six years of friendship with Linda Hess, my advisor and Kabir scholar-translator based in Stanford University. I owe a similar debt to my friend and guru Prahlad Tipanya who walked me into his world of Kabir with great generosity. Several insights accrue to my friends/advisors Purushottam Agrawal, Vidya Rao and Ashok Vajpeyi, singers Mukhtiyar Ali, Fariduddin Ayaz, Shafi Faqir, folklorist Kapil Tiwari, Prahladji’s wife Shantiji, encounters with lay persons and confabulations with friends too many to name here.

(This article was featured in the January 2010 issue of Seminar magazine)