Five centuries after his death, the poems of Kabir are relevant to contemporary society more than ever. The mystic poet, known as a giant of the Bhakti movement along with Tulsidas and Guru Nanak, fought class, caste and gender prejudices to bring about change in medieval India. With the country grappling with the same issues several centuries later, the Varanasi-born Kabir’s verses still pack the same fervour to force change in society.
Singers & scholars
“Kabir khara bazaar mein/Mange sabki khair/Na kahu se dosti na kahu se bair” (Kabir stands in the marketplace/Asks for everyone’s prosperity/Neither friendship nor enmity for anyone) sang Sufi singer Mooralala Marwada as a packed audience at the Shivala Ghat by the Ganges in Varanasi chanted every word back. The entertaining folk singer from Kutch, sporting a twirling moustache, was part of the country’s top musicians performing at the Mahindra Kabira Festival held in Varanasi.
In its third year, the festival put together concerts, talks and walks to remember Kabir on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death this year. Among the singers performing at the Guleria and Shivala Ghats were revered musicians Malini Awasthi and Vidya Rao, and their younger counterparts Shruthi Vishwanath and Kaushiki Chakraborty. The literature sessions held at the Kabir Math, where the poet spent a large part of his life composing verses, had Kabir scholar Purushottam Agrawal and author Devdutt Pattnaik.
“Hamare Ram Rahim Karima Kesav, Allah Ram sat soi” (Ram, Rahim, Karim and Kasav are nothing but perceptions of the same truth) sang vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty, daughter of Hindustani musicians Chandana and Ajoy Chakraborty. “We can understand the true essence of humanity through Kabir’s poetry,” said Kaushiki.
Reason & relevance
“We are passing through an era where our sentiments have grown brittle,” said Purushottam Agrawal, a former professor at JNU, Delhi. “Everyone must take interest in Kabir. His poems are a constant invitation to dialogue,” he added. “His poems are about reason,” explained the scholar, whose 2009 book on Kabir in Hindi, Akath Kahani Prem Ki: Kabir ki Kavita aur Unka Samay, is considered a major work on the poet saint.
Kabir’s views on gender justice, as well as inequality, were major talking points at the festival, which drew participants from across the world. “Kabir talked in the voice of the ordinary, lowly and women,” said Hindustani vocalist Vidya Rao, who included verses of Guru Nanak in her concert. “I interact with Kabir’s songs in my experience as a 21st-century-woman,” added Rao, referring to the poet’s songs that gave voice to women five centuries ago.
“Kabir challenged clerics, religious bigotry and intolerance,” said singer-songwriter Sonam Kalra. “Na mandir mein, na masjid me/Na Kabe Kailas mein” (Not in temples, nor in mosques/Neither in Kaba nor in Kailash) sang Kalra at the festival, resonating Kabir’s message of tolerance. “His words have much more relevance today,” she said. “A Kabir poem a day keeps radicalism away.”
Life & literature
The festival, which added the Kabir Math in Varanasi to its list of venues this year, witnessed participation of schoolchildren at the literature sessions and concerts. “Spreading Kabir’s message for a peaceful world is important today,” said Acharya Mahant Vivek Das, the head of Kabir Math. The Math, which has centres across the world, is planning to create a university for Kabir’s teachings to disseminate his works aimed at inclusivity. “We must help Dalits and workers all over the country. That is what Kabir would have wanted,” said Mahant Vivek Das.
The Kabir Math, which houses the poet’s original manuscripts, his footwear and utensils he used for cooking food, also has a memorial for his parents. Born in Lahartara, 5 km from Varanasi, he is believed to have died in 1518 in Maghar, UP. In June this year, PM Narendra Modi visited Maghar to lay the foundation stone of the Saint Kabir Academy to preserve the poet’s legacy.
Among the other musicians paying tribute to Kabir were Rajasthani folk singer Lakha Khan, Carnatic vocalist Shruthi Vishwanath, Varanasi-based musicians Pandit Rabindra Goswami and Hari Prasad Paudyal. A two-hour Kabir Walk, through the bylanes of the old city lining the Ganges, was also part of the festival organised by the Mahindra Group as part of the industrial giant’s cultural outreach programme. “From classical to folk to popular, we present a variety of genres of music celebrating the thoughts and teachings of Kabir,” said Jay Shah, vice-president of the Mahindra Group and its head of cultural outreach.
“The festival is as lucid and clear-headed as Kabir’s straight-talking and rich-in-meaning couplets and as fascinating and overwhelming as the unparalleled city of Varanasi,” said Sanjoy K Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, which produced the Kabira festival.
-Faizal Khan is a freelancer