Originally written for a particular event conducted by the fabulous filmmaker, singer and researcher on Kabir – Shabnam Virmani – it later turned out to be more of a memoir. In february next year, I go to Bangalore for a week-long event where ten folk artists from India and Qawwal Farid Ayyaz from Pakistan gather to do nothing but sing Kabir. Do write back if you’d like to join me there.
What is real may be rational according to many; however, there is a lot that the human mind fiddles with and, is decidedly not real, let alone rational. Yet, nothing can be more human than the search for certain irrationality, even for our modern civilization the modernity of which thrives on nothing but rationality. Clearly, duality is one of the paradoxes of the human mind; more so because it essentially subscribes to both the ends of every duality.
Kabir holds a less preferred end of one such duality, that of Nirgun and Sagun. Exploring Nirgun tradition is like plunging into the ocean of possibilities. Sagun, much like the written word, much like the active energy, much like rationality, is essentially limited. Kabir is special for he, though tied to an identity and all the politics around, manages to transcend it and plunge into an ocean where there is no ‘real’ Kabir.
Interestingly, where there is no real Kabir, there is evidently no fake one either. It allows each one of us to be an indistinguishable part of the whole without seeking to carve out an identity for any part. Beyond the petty battles of authenticity and identity, it is a different world altogether. Neither darts can be thrown at you, nor can accolades and garlands burden you. Every effort is as deeply personal as it is spiritually liberating. There cannot be any possibility of a thriving individuality, however fierce, without its complete submission to the whole. It is as if every drop may have its own colour, yet cannot be distinguished from the colour of the whole.
When rationality fails to gratify, the irrational desire to submit emerges from behind the fortification of reason. We subscribe to the other end of the duality to expand the horizons, to operate in the realm of the boundless as against the limited; and in the process, build upon what becomes an imperishable part of you as against that what has reality for its defence. The suffocation in the finality of rationality and the supremacy of reality over human life is bound to conjure up a desire for a higher reality – an irrational reality.
When Shabnam Virmani, a brilliant filmmaker, went out in search of Kabir, I am sure she was not searching for anything real. Instead, it must have been rather like chasing a shadow. And of course, as you walk towards the light source, the shadow reduces in size and loses its meaning on the way. She walked into the light and became a source herself, for many more. Among them were a privileged few during 23-26 September, in Delhi. She walked us all into the same light, slowly yet assuringly. We were submerged in music and reflection. So engaging was the journey that it’d be futile to attempt to know whether we walked into the light or the light walked into us.
A much worthier attempt would be to see how, as Shabnam’s research proved, Kabir’s poetry had truly taken a life of its own – a dream all artists invest their lives in. Not only can people recite a Kabir like poem, they can even claim that it was by Kabir. Such is the beauty of the tradition and the scholarship his work inspires that most of what we know as Kabir’s poetry was actually never sung by him. On one side of this fact may be questions of authenticity, on the other side is the realization that each one of pieces stands for another Kabir. While a western mind often fails to come to terms with this formlessness, their discomfort is actually in line with an outsider’s effort to understand an evolved culture. It is this culture that Shabnam explored during six years of her research on Kabir. And of course, she found all kinds of responses. Predictably, each one of them had taken a dip into the ocean that Kabir’s poetry is, but of course they all carried their own vessels that determined which Kabir was theirs.
To the arrogant, Kabir was arrogant; to the casteist he was a casteist. To the Hindu a Hindu and to the Muslim a Muslim. Some thought he was a wanderer and some considered him rather homely. Some liked him as a rebel and others admired his casual yet deep thought. Some remember him only as a social reformer and others, as a spiritual guru. For some he talked of communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims whereas for others, he dismissed both. To each his own! Poetic thought, just like history, religion or politics fails to contain him, explain him, or even understand him. For me, therein lay the beauty of Kabir’s work.
To want to search for the real Kabir in his work, is a lost battle to begin with, for his work has an ability to inspire reality and even alter it. However, what must also not be forgotten is that the Kabir of our times cannot be a Kabir of yesteryears. He will have to be a reflection of our times and the ideals of our age. Never having been trapped in the finality of the written word, Kabir of any age would have to be the offspring of the intercourse between his work and the history-books of that age.
In the above context, our age’s greatest irrational crisis being that of spirituality, we engage with Kabir primarily as a spiritual guru. Yet, while we use his verses to reject institutionalised spirituality, his own spirituality has rarely been acknowledged. We often overlook the fact that by speaking against the ways of the Hindus and Muslims, he was not dismissing spirituality itself.
Another image we associate with Kabir is that of a social reformer. Though Kabir does seem perturbed about the ills of the society, there is something distinctly casual about the way he distributes the pearls of wisdom in his verses. I would go on to argue that there is a clear spirit of wandering in his collective love for the society that he addresses. He is surely not detached, instead attached to one and all. Yet, it must be noted that he neither engages with the society nor is persuasive enough – two crucial stepping stones that all reformers step on. He speaks from a distance and seems engrossed in earning his livelihood while he speaks. He sings his verses as if it wouldn’t matter if none actually heard him. Just as he wouldn’t be led by an institutional ideology or morality, he wouldn’t also lead. Albert Camus, the French Nobel Laureate, expressed a similar desire when he wrote, “Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Walk beside me and be my friend.”
Surely, none of the ‘Kabirpanthis’ let Kabir be a friend. Deifying him is not only a disservice to his legacy, but also the very spirit of ‘nirgun’. The torch of Kabir truly burns in the hearts of only those who sing him to keep him alive in the cultural memory. Kabir cannot breathe in the written tradition. He shall suffocate to death in the school syllabus textbooks, or even history-books trying to find him. He’ll choke contained within any effort trying to capture his essence and dissect it analytically. Kabir is essentially free; he is formless. We can keep him alive only through the oral tradition. He shall live in the sound energy of his verses, in Prahladji’s and Shabnam’s melodious voices, in the sounds of tambura, khartal, dholak, daphli and manjeera.
You don’t write books or essays about Kabir. You don’t write anything at all about him. That is counter-productive. You close your eyes, sing him and let yourself proceed towards the light. Could you please pass me the dholak…