It seems there are many Kabirs out there. It’s a bit baffling, given that not much is known about the life of the late-15th, early-16th-century mystic immortalised through his songs. His birth, parentage, upbringing and faith have for long been matters of fierce debate among academicians. Of a more recent vintage is his appropriation by diverse sets of people.
The poet who defied categorisation is today a rallying point among jhola-swinging anti-communalists, guru-seeking devotees, head-shaking classical concert-goers, and even a sect that calls itself the Kabir Panth.
In his songs, Kabir refuses to draw a line between ‘Bismil’ and ‘Bishambhar’. He rubbishes man-made divides, draws the divine closer to the devotee, and instructs on meditative methods. As such, many of his ideas recur among sects as far-flung as the Nathpanthis, Ramanandis, Sahajiyas, Bauls, Sufis, Sikhs and the Nirguns.
“That’s the beauty of Kabir,” says Shabnam Virmani, who has been leading the Kabir Project at Bangalore’s Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology for seven years. She is aware of the distortions that occur when various groups “own and inhabit” the works, as well as “the beauty of an oral tradition” that blends across divides.
Drawn by the music and the multiplicity, Virmani has gathered some 400 hours of footage in the subcontinent and beyond over the years. The wealth of material has, till now, spawned four film DVDs and 10 music CDs. More are on the way, the first of them ‘Kabir in Kutch’, a film Virmani promises to put out by early next year.
The products aren’t easily available (see buying guide at end). But from what’s been published, the music lover’s best bet is the three-CD collection, Ghat Ghat Kabir (In Every Body Kabir), a selection of 20 songs. It comes with a beautiful, calligraphy-lined 100-page book that introduces the artists and gives out the lyrics in Hindi and English.
The tunes are an unself-conscious mix of the folksy and the classical. Mukhtiyar Ali from Rajasthan’s Mirasi community opens on the folk side with with a sweet rendition of ‘Aj to hajaari hanso’. On the same melodic side is Prahlad Tipaniya, who has been appointed a mahant for the Kabir Panth. He sings a measured tambura-and-dholak-laced ‘Ab tharo kain patiyaro’, which invokes Kabir’s oft-used imagery of the swan as a signifier of some of the higher attainments of meditation.
Even more haunting at times is the delicate vibrato of Jaisalmer-based Mahesha Ram on ‘Baahar kyun bhatke’ and ‘Heli, kin sang karan sneh’. His voice complements Bhaga Khan’s like two feathers wafting separately and landing miraculously at the same time.
Crossing over from the classical side is Shubha Mudgal. Her ‘Is ghat antar’ moves on a tempo that’s slower than what she’d recorded for the Sahmat concerts in the early 1990s. Her accompanist Sudhir Nayak’s sliding harmonium lights up ‘Hamare Ram Rahim’.
Sindh-based Manganiar Shafi Mohammad Faqir folds out ‘Saacha saheb ek tu’ classically. And Karachi-based qawwal Fariduddin Ayaz’s brings in more Hindustani tune-play in ‘Maula maula lakh pukare’. The Gundecha brothers plumb the gravitas of dhrupad in ‘Jheeni jheeni beeni chadariya’, a song on the basic mechanics of meditation. Vidya Rao turns around the mood again in ‘Koi prem ke penge jhula de’.
The only voice missing is of the one who brought Kabir into the classical oeuvre — Kumar Gandharva, another iconoclast to whom Virmani has dedicated one of her films, Koi Sunta Hai.
That’s a small quibble compared to the difficulty of trying to delineate a man who defied outlines. Sample his words from ‘Hum sab manhi’: “I am in all, all is in me/ Beyond me, no other... A hundred forms my disguise/ I am beyond form or trace. I myself, known as Kabir/ I alone show myself.”
How can we fathom him, let alone represent his universe of ideas in three CDs?
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