(This piece was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)
The Kabir Festival has been an annual affair in Mumbai since the last decade. While the primary inspiration of the festival is mystic poetry, it is a confluence of music, storytelling, film and dance all geared towards healing the fissures in our society by drawing on the wisdom that flows through the syncretic heritage of India. With an itinerary of thoughtfully curated events that were free and open to all, it was held from January 17–26 in parks, schools, offices, auditoriums, promenades and community centres spread out across the city.
The festival’s name doffs a hat to Kabir, a 15th-century weaver-poet known for calling out religious extremism and urging human beings to find the divine within themselves and each other. Alongside, it also showcased other poets from the Bhakti, Sufi, Baul, Warkari and Vachana traditions. There was a generous dialogue between the folk and classical, the revolutionary and the devotional. This initiative was spearheaded by Sahej Foundation, a not for profit trust, and supported by the energy of dedicated volunteers rather than an impersonal event management company.
The itinerary opened at a bookstore called Kitab Khana with a talk by singer-filmmaker Shabnam Virmani, an artist-in-residence at the Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore. “Where are you coming from? Who are you? Where are you going? These are the three fundamental questions that Sufis ask,” she said, prefacing a two-hour journey through the landscapes of her childhood, adolescence and various stages of adulthood that brought her face to face with the power of poetry in the oral traditions of Madhya Pradesh, Kutch, Sindh and Rajasthan.
Virmani is the founder of the Kabir Project, which has contributed significantly to advancing interfaith understanding in India through documentary films, books, performances, various pedagogical efforts — and most recently — a web archive. Her work encouraged people in Mumbai to start the Kabir Festival by featuring singers who appear in her four documentary films — Had-Anhad, Koi Sunta Hai, Chalo Hamara Des, Kabir Khada Bazaar Mein. Two of these were screened at this year’s festival, followed by an interaction with Virmani at Sophia Polytechnic and Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Those who have enquired seriously into the oral traditions involving Kabir — and other mystic poets whose verses are sung in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh — speak of being struck by “shabd ki chot”. This metaphorical expression describes an inner awakening that is felt through the raw power of song, which deals a blow to inflated egos caught up in attachments, hatred and self-destructive behaviours. Folk singer Prahlad Tipaniya, who was the principal informant for Virmani’s research, and later became her music guru, speaks movingly of this experience in her films. He led music workshops at Comet Media Foundation and at St. Andrew’s Centre for Philosophy and Performing Arts for festival goers seeking an immersion.
“When I sink into music, closing my eyes, I leave the flat, bright realm of clear-cut categories and logical consistency, which has a kind of aggression to it (the aggression of argument, being right, winning the point). I am in a sea of rising and falling images, and a voice pulls me like a current, its quality vibrating in my vital organs. I relax; the mind is not in control,” writes American scholar Linda Hess in her book Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India (2015). She has been a long-time fellow traveller with Tipaniya as well as Virmani, conducting ethnographic research and translating assiduously on frequent trips to India. She also features in the film Chalo Hamara Des.
In its 10th edition, the festival expanded its repertoire of poetic voices. Dastango Himanshu Bajpai, singer-composer Vedanth Bharadwaj and tabla player Shruteendra Katagade collaborated on a performance around the life and work of Vaishnava saint-poet Tulsidas from the 16th century. He is best known for the epic poem Ramcharitmanas composed in Awadhi. Bajpai pointed out that Tulsidas’s Ram is quite unlike the aggressive image of the deity that is now used for political propaganda. He is all about love, not toxic masculinity.
The poems of Lal Ded, a Kashmiri poet from the 14th century, were sung by Radhika Sood Nayak. Claimed by Hindus as Lalleshwari, and Muslims as Lalla Arifa, her poetry symbolizes a quest for freedom that lies beyond the monopoly of a particular religion. It is a testament to her deep knowledge, her spiritual discipline, and her determination to transform her consciousness. Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy sang verses by Bonthaadevi, Amuge Raayamma and Hadapada Lingamma, who belonged to the Vachana movement in 11th and 12th-century Karnataka. They spoke against patriarchal domination of women as well as caste discrimination.
The poems of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai — a sufi who lived in Sindh between the 17th and 18th centuries — were woven into song garlands by Sumar Jat, Bhachaya Jat, Sharief Jat and Jiyant Jat, apart from Mooralala Moorwada and his troupe from Kutch. During this event at Sangit Mahabharati, Virmani spun an engaging narrative to place the poems in the context of Bhitai’s life and the folktales he transformed into spiritual allegories. Parvathy Baul, Lakshman Das Baul, Shruthi Vishwanath, Devnarayan Sarolia, Rutuja Lad, Vasu Dixit and many other singers performed at the Kabir Festival — all affirming that India’s plural fabric is worth fighting for, but a simultaneous battle needs to be waged within.