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Searching for saints in songs and pictures

columns Updated: Jan 03, 2016 00:58 IST
Ramachandra Guha
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There is a social/political Kabir, the poet as a critic of orthodoxy and priestly domination. But there is also a spiritual/mystical Kabir.(Indian art)

I have a decent head for names, dates, places, events, but can remember few snatches of poetry. Truth be told, there are only two pieces of verse that I have committed to memory. Both are very short. The first is this Kabir doha that I learnt in my junior school in Uttar Pradesh some 50 years ago:

‘Kankar pathar jodi ké masjid liyé chunayé

Ta chadi mulla bang dé, kya behara hua khudhai’

Or, in crude translation,

With stones and mud you lovingly made a mosque

But why then yell from it, do you think God is deaf?

This doha came to mind while reading Linda Hess’ magnificent new book, Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India (Permanent Black). Hess does not quote this couplet, but she quotes plenty of others, which she then translates far more sensitively than I ever could. Her book examines the rich after-lives of a man who, with the possible exception only of Tulsidas, is the most famous of all Indian poets.

Bodies of Song has two heroes. The first is Kabir, who is known only through words he may not actually have written, or written very differently. The second is Prahlad Tipaniya, the great contemporary musician who has taken Kabir’s message through the Malwa countryside, through the rest of India, and increasingly to the world. Hess lives with the singer as part of his family, and accompanies him on tour (occasionally singing along). While Kabir remains formless, we come to know Tipaniya, his modern interpreter, through his songs, his person, his clothes, his facial hair (or lack thereof), his family, his village, and his homes.

Hess started her career as a translator of Kabir’s Bijak, the standard compilation of his poetry. But in this book she strays far beyond her original domain. Bodies of Song draws on history, anthropology, literary analysis, cultural studies, and more. It contains a brilliant analysis of the various technologies through which Kabir has been conveyed down the ages; from pencil and paper on to the printed book, then cassettes, CDs, videos, and now the World Wide Web. She provides an insightful analysis of the various genres in which the songs/poems attributed to Kabir fall. There are songs about the Guru, songs about Society, songs about the Mind, songs about the Body, songs about Death, and, lest we forget, songs about Love.

There is a social/political Kabir, the poet as a critic of orthodoxy and priestly domination. (That is the Kabir of the couplet I quoted at the start.) But there is also a spiritual/mystical Kabir, the poet who asks his listeners to look inwards, to seek silence, solace, peace. It is one of the many merits of Bodies of Song that it pays equal attention to both Kabirs. Hess writes, explaining Kabir to us: ‘The fundamental reality we are looking for is within you, right in your body. You’re a fool when you exhaust yourself looking for it outside. And all those others are fools and possibly scoundrels when they tell you to look for the truth in temples and mosques, rituals and scriptures’.

If the first couplet I know comes from Kabir, the second deals with that other much-discussed social and spiritual reformer, Mohandas K Gandhi. This verse was written by Mahadev Desai, the Mahatma’s long-serving and long-suffering secretary. Imperfect in grammar but immortal in essence, it reads:

‘To live with the saints in heaven

Is a bliss and a glory

But to live with a saint on earth

Is a different story.’

I recalled Mahadev’s verse while reading — or more accurately, viewing — the other book that most impressed me in 2015. This is Kanu’s Gandhi, published by the Nazar Foundation. It features the work of a forgotten lensman, here lovingly curated and restored by two of India’s finest contemporary photographers Prashant Panjiar and Sanjeev Saith.

Kanu Gandhi was a nephew of the Mahatma and grew up in his uncle’s Ashrams. In his early twenties he developed an interest in photography. He asked Gandhi if he could take photos of everyday life in the Ashram. His uncle imposed three conditions: that he would not use a flash; that he would not ask Gandhi or those around him to ‘pose’; that he would have to fund his venture himself.

The conditions accepted, Kanu Gandhi set to work with a Rolliflex camera. In the last decade of Gandhi’s life, he carefully tracked the Mahatma’s doings. Kanu’s Gandhi provides a representative sample of his work. There are superb photos of the Sevagram Ashram, of Gandhi spinning, walking, and talking. There are excellent portraits of Gandhi’s second home, the railway train, and of the crowds that came to greet him at wayside stations.

Fortunately, Kanu’s eyes also took in individuals other than Gandhi. There are sensitive studies of Jawaharlal Nehru and CF Andrews, each taken while the subject sits in silent contemplation in a hut in Sevagram. There is a magnificent portrait of Vallabhbhai Patel, with the Sardar’s grand, senatorial, head fairly leaping out of the frame.

Perhaps the most moving photo in an altogether moving book was taken after Kasturba Gandhi’s death, in the Aga Khan Palace in February 1944. Kasturba’s body lies on the floor, surrounded by flowers. At its side sits Gandhi, wrapped in a shawl, his eyes closed, reflecting on the loss of his wife of 60 years.

Like many artistic people, Kanu Gandhi was a master of more than one art. When Kasturba was on her death-bed, she asked her nephew Kanu to sing some hymns for her. For he was also an accomplished bhajan singer. He must surely have sung some verses by the great Gujarati bhakti poet Narsinh Mehta. One would like to believe that Kanu sang, for Gandhi’s wife, some songs of Kabir too.

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