Rocking to Kabir

Published January 13, 2014

The massive turnout of young people at Mumbai’s Kabir festival is a sure sign that the battle for inclusion has been joined.

My weekend was spent celebrating Kabir, the patron saint of inclusion in South Asia, whose influence recognises no national borders and transcends religious and caste identities.

For many Indians, Kabir is someone you had to mug up in your Hindi school class to make it to the next grade.

But, for the young people I saw rocking to Kabir’s kalaams at the Carter Road amphitheatre in Bandra on a chilly (by Mumbai standards) Saturday evening that, really, was a partial truth.

Because not only were they interested in listening to Kabir’s many songs and sayings, they want to involve themselves in his persona and teachings.

Kabir has always existed in India, but people like Shabnam Virmani and Prahlad Singh Tipaniya have not only understood Kabir, but taken his message beyond the mehfils and satsangs (congregations) of rural India into urban spaces.

Virmani who led the Kabir project and Tipaniya, Kabir bhakt and singer from the Malwa region of central India, have made Kabir accessible to a wide body of Indians.

Both Tipaniya and Virmani live and breathe the Kabir tradition and their music has an easy influence on listeners.

The Kabir Festival in Mumbai, now in its fourth year, is inspired by the Kabir project, which has also featured the leading Pakistani qawwals, Fariduddin Ayaz and Abu Mohmmed in their CD and book Pakistan Mein Kabir.

But listening to young artistes like Neeraj Arya and his band, Bindhumalini, Vedanth and Ankit Chadha, it’s clear that Kabir – his music and message – has many new and young converts.

Watching scores of youngsters dancing and singing with Neeraj Arya’s Flameshot Fakirs, the Tipaniya Boys or the inimitable Mooralala Marwada at Carter Road, it became clear that Kabir has entered the young urban mind and body.

This is a sign that the idea of inclusive India is alive and kicking. With new and free methods of taking all this to the people, there is hope the Kabir project can become a larger movement that influences tolerant and inclusive thinking.

At a time when India grapples with the riots of Muzaffarnagar or the rise of hard-line communal forces, the re-interest in Kabir is a sign that inclusive values still have both validity and popular appeal.

This is a movement untouched by official Indian secularism, which has been the target of the Hindutva hordes, who believe that India should be ruled simply for the majority Hindus.

Such a majoritarian view is of course hotly contested in the political realm, but is also challenged by the new forces that sing and celebrate Kabir. An inclusiveness-from-below is intrinsic to this larger Kabir project.

To my mind, Kabir’s many messages are not restricted to India or South Asia. His is a rather universal message that can apply to any society or people.

Whether it was Rama Vaidyanathan’s captivating Bharat Natyam dance or Parvathy Baul’s solo act at the Ramakrishna Mission on Friday evening or Ankit Chadha and Bindhumalini at the Kitab Khana bookshop on Sunday, the ever-enlarging dimensions of this project were clear.

The workshop with Prahlad Singh Tipaniya at Meher House in Fort on Saturday morning was an opportunity to listen to the man talk and reflect on Kabir, studded with interventions from the audience.

The theme was rather clear – the search for meaning in life – whether one can be part of the rat race and still find that meaning. Not only did he sing, but Tipaniya explained to a discerning audience the many nuances of Kabir’s enigmatic verses.

I can’t think of a better way of spending the weekend.


More on this:

Watch Prahlad Singh Tipanya sing Kabir, hosted by the University of Texas Austin's Hindi Urdu Flagship in 2009.

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