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Songs of a shared past

By Prayas Abhinav

At a time of growing polarisations in society on the basis of language, identity and borders, filmmaker Shabnam Virmani discovered Kabir, the 15th century saint-poet who seemed to combine perfectly the spiritual and the socio-political. She spent six years making four films and several recordings on Kabir, each one trying to find the space between the dualities of Hindu-Muslim, sacred-secular, classical and traditional, and East and West

Shabnam Virmani
Shabnam Virmani has just completed four documentary films. All four films have one common thread: the search for Kabir, a 15th century poet-saint.

The Kabir quartet is part of Virmani’s Kabir Project, a six-year journey which documents and celebrates the poetry and philosophy of Kabir. The project includes the production of several audio CD recordings of folk musicians and qawwals who sing Kabir’s verses, and also books compiling his works.

Why would a contemporary filmmaker seek out a 15th century poet’s philosophy? After the Gujarat riots of 2002, Virmani experienced what she calls a “loss of meaning”. The only voice that seemed to be secularly sound and at the same time healing was that of Kabir.

Virmani’s discovery of Kabir was to some extent akin to that of the renowned Hindustani classical vocalist Kumar Gandharva. The film Koi Sunta Hai is about how Kumar Gandharva, ailing with tuberculosis, his voice silenced by the disease, spent a few years recuperating in a Madhya Pradesh town. In those painfully silent years the singer found solace and a new meaning in the songs of Kabir sung by sadhus and wandering minstrels who passed his door. The simplicity and the perennial freshness of Kabir’s words have not been forgotten. They are kept alive by the oral tradition, the forgotten faces of generations of seekers and Kabir bhaktas (devotees). Virmani’s film follows villagers, vegetable and fruit-sellers on the streets, and contemporary vocalists all over India who sing and live Kabir’s couplets.

In another film in the quartet, Had-Anhad, Virmani seeks out the guru bandhus  (those who love Kabir) across the Indian border, in Pakistan. This film is important from the point of view of intercultural dialogue. It reminds us of our shared past, and of bonds that are deeper than blood.

There is something in Kabir’s philosophy that very easily transcends religious differences. His poetry deals with ‘nirgun’ (the unmanifest aspect of reality) and ‘sagun’ (the manifest universe) with ease. Virmani’s films dance between these two, and draw us into Kabir’s fascinating world.   

Virmani herself is into Kabir like an iron bucket in a well. In this interview she discusses her journey to discover Kabir in 21st century India, and her personal transformation in the course of this journey.

What is the relevance of Kabir today? 

Kabir is relevant because he urges us to rise above identity politics. We’re seeing growing polarisations in our society on the basis of language and identity and borders. Here is a man who’s urging us to let go of the brand, the packaging, and seek an essence. Actually seeking the nirgun formless essence is not a dry, colourless relinquishing of all our identity markers, all our cultural reference points. Rather, appreciating the nirgun perhaps frees us to enjoy and celebrate the multiplicity of the saguns, manifestations of the essence that have taken shape all around us. Not just Kabir, but all the Sufi voices have similar ideas… Bulle Shah said famously: “Bulla ki jaana mein kaun?” At a time when society all around us is erupting with confident, self-righteous and acrimonious proclamations of identity, a Sufi is saying he doesn’t even know who he is! This is a profound message of ambiguity. This is a healthy kind of uncertainty. It’s a wisdom that can come only from a profound recognition of not-knowing.

I wouldn’t at all want to argue that Kabir is a unique, very special or the only voice that points us to the truth. If I did that then you could call me a Kabir fundamentalist!

How and why did you decide to embark on this project now? 

Well, the Gujarat riots of 2002 propelled me towards a deep desire for making peace. But as I went along this road, Kabir began to signal to me that my desire to make peace between two factions in the outside world -- whether two religious factions, or two nations, or two genders -- was intimately linked with my making peace with myself. A feminist slogan had said this clearly a while ago -- the personal is political. This maxim inspired me over a decade of working with women’s groups in the country. I think this slogan got shot through with a new kind of resonance when I discovered Kabir. I think he pushes you to understand the divides and borders you construct within yourself, the ego and insecurities that make all of us violent in some sense. He pushes you to see the connections between those violent impulses in our individual ego and how they multiply into the collective egos of mobs, castes, nations that become capable of unleashing horrific violence. So the problem is not just around me; in some measure it starts with me.

So, working in the world has to go with working within. In Kabir no retreat is possible into a spiritual, personal space of salvation. He stands resolutely in the marketplace, he engages with the world. But while being there, he relentlessly pushes you to delve within. It’s not either or. His inward gaze is as fierce as his outward gaze. He has a beautiful couplet which says: ‘Sumiran ki sudh yun karo, jyon gagar panihaar. Hale dole surat mein, kahein Kabir vichaar.’ So do your meditation like the woman who goes to fill water at the well, says Kabir. She walks and chats and does her village business, but her awareness is always fixed on the pot.

I think perhaps that’s why my attempt in each film has been to resolve a conflict or opposition of some kind. Each film tries to weave a narrative between two poles of a duality. Had-Anhad explores the Hindu-Muslim or the Indo-Pak divide, Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein skirts with the tension between theist and atheist, between sacred and secular appropriations of Kabir. Koi Sunta Hai weaves between urban, classical domains of knowledge and the rural, folk, oral traditions of Kabir. Chalo Hamara Des takes you between two cultures, East and West, India and America, desi and pardesi.

Kabir inhabits all these seemingly opposing worlds, in an edgy sort of way. That is the place to which he takes us -- that thin, slippery, dividing line that we draw between ‘self’ and ‘other’. I think if we receive with open hearts and minds these many Kabirs, a lot of our self-righteous worldviews tend to dissolve.

The theme of your films seems to be that there are many ways of loving Kabir, as there is no one Kabir.

I don’t think I invented that perspective. I take that from Kabir himself. I think he might have said there are many ways of loving God… I think if you listen to Kabir carefully, he’s showing you how arbitrary and frail most of our identities and ideologies are. He pushes you to question what makes you so self-righteous about your isms and your practices. In many ways, these journeys for me have been a journey from self-righteousness towards ambiguity. Not a passive, paralysing kind of ambiguity, but an empowering one infused with wonder at the nature of our human existence, how extremely perishable we are…

Can you describe a Kabir bhakt?

Perhaps one who wouldn’t hesitate to question Kabir if he met him one day.

Although Kabir talks of nirgun a lot (which might be considered a gyan marg), your films seem to lean on the devotional aspect of spirituality more. Is there a contradiction here?

Do the films lean more on the devotional aspect? That wasn’t my conscious intent, but perhaps the subconscious has a way of overriding the intellect. I don’t know. This is a difficult question to answer, and whatever responses I will attempt here don’t come from the authority of scholarship or a wide/deep understanding of Kabir traditions, but my own personal responses to the Kabir I found in Malwa, Rajasthan and Pakistan.

Rajasthani musician Mukhtiyar Ali with Shabnam Virmani

There are many starkly nirgun songs of Kabir. But there are also many love songs of Kabir. Is that a contradiction? These songs are addressed to a beloved he finds within himself, a lover he invites into his eyes. His beloved’s bed is perched on the tip of a thorn. You come to resonate with a Kabir who’s calling out for a union with an elusive part of your own self. And that’s a deeply emotional call. It’s not a dry, cerebral space. The discovery of that space of shoonya and being disconnected from it, and pining to re-connect with it as a deeply heartfelt state.

And you also find many songs of Kabir… those that stress the nirgun, those that make you penetrate and strip away all your pretensions and outward symbols and signs, towards an arrival into the living, present moment where you could perhaps experience yourself as a primordial form of energy, at once yourself and yet pulsating in a profound connectedness with all things and beings around you. But to me it feels like a journey in which both gyana and bhakti walk with you… There is an unflinching intellectual rigour he demands of you that stems from interrogating the self and its pretensions and cravings and dishonesties. But along the way, the signs and markers and sagun forms, including language itself, start dropping away, and what you begin to feel is an experience of connectedness, you could call it love, born of a simplicity that eludes the intellectual mind. So to me, Kabir does not let you rest. He makes you walk constantly between two poles of form and formlessness, heart and mind, emotion and intellect, sublime and mundane, the spiritual and the socio-political. It seems to me the problems arise when one stops walking, stops making that journey between these dualities and settles for one side of the truth.

You have dealt with the issues of caste with respect to the Kabir singers in a subtle/non-sensationalising manner.

I could add to that and say that I think the gender question too comes in subtle but positively affirming ways in the films. Possibly because I think the identity of woman or dalit too beyond a point shouldn’t be hardened or consolidated in our consciousness to such an extent that we don’t or can’t step out of it. To do that I feel would be untrue to Kabir… and in a sense, to myself and my own evolution at this moment in time, as a person who has worked for two decades now, with video and radio, with women’s groups and human rights groups in the country.

Something in the films seems to have evolved as you made them. Can you elaborate on the process of learning new things whilst filming?

These journeys with Kabir have spanned six years. Though there were rough phases -- one could call them the ‘research’, ‘shoot’ and ‘edit’ phases -- in truth these three overlapped. I was editing while continuing to shoot new footage. My own discoveries, insights and awareness about this poetry and its meanings and implications continue to this day, and so I see new meanings in my own footage on a day-to-day basis! Which is why my energy and enthusiasm for the ‘subject’ never flagged, despite my impatience with the production process of the films.

Most of us do not understand the words in these bhajans: this vocabulary itself is dying out in modern India. Is Kabir only a rural phenomenon because of this? 

Not at all. Kabir thrives in the hearts and minds of thousands of urban Indians. I don’t think English has taken over the souls of urban India at all. I think there is a smaller category of people like you and me who have been convent-educated and brought up in homes where English perhaps overrode our mothertongues (Hindi and Punjabi in my case).

Personally speaking, I found myself discovering a latent non-English language universe inside myself which I didn’t know existed. I started out quite similarly finding the languages/dialects in which I was encountering Kabir (Hindi, Malwi, Marwari, Urdu) to be alien and difficult to grasp. And then slowly I began to get under the skin of the words and the ras of the language began to seep into me. That’s when I began to groove, to ramo, to experience the joy in the play of words in this poetry. So my allegiance is to both language worlds. I see my work (by which I mean not only the films but also the CDs and books of poetry in translation) reaching out to urban Indians such as yourself.  Hopefully this work will give you a contemporary and more accessible interpretation of the difficult-Hindi-Kabir. But equally I hope this work will relate with those more connected with their language roots, people who vibe to Kabir in small town and village India.

At the end of the film Chalo Hamara Des we see the filmmaker holding a tanpura and singing away. Was this a metamorphosis, and how did it happen? How did the tanpura replace the camera?

That happened when I began to ramo in Kabir. What I was describing earlier. A feeling comes when the poetry kind of enters your body and you no longer want to ‘document’ it and ‘capture’ it with good light and sound; you just want to groove to it. In my case, I began to sing. Of course I also grooved to the poetry as a filmmaker, through the delight of capturing it in a frame and cutting it into a narrative… But singing is a more immediate, less cumbersome and accessible way to groove to it!

I was also powerfully attracted to the democratic, inclusive and enabling power of the ‘folk’ aesthetic. It draws you in, because we’re not maestros with a lifetime of training, we’re ordinary folk. While I don’t want to discount at all the immense finesse and skill that goes into singing good folk music, I’m saying it’s more accessible. Raw energy, honesty, tunefulness and an earthy joy in the poetry and song are major ingredients in the magic of folk, and these qualifications are within reach for a lot of us.

Also I should say three people have played deeply empowering roles in my ability to let go of my inhibitions and sing. Prahlad Tipaniya, who gave me his tambura, taught me how to play it, whose singing itself inspires me deeply, who kept throwing me into the deep end by calling me onto the stage to sing, generally with no forewarning, and always to audiences of 5,000 listeners! Those were literally moments when I put away my camera and picked up the tambura. Tara Kini, my friend and colleague who travelled and researched with me with a passionate intensity in the early years. Tara is a fine classical singer herself, but she is also a teacher and educator in the best sense of the word, one who enables others, awakening their latent capacity to sing. The third is a very old influence, my dear pal Dipta Bhog who has absolutely no formal training in music, but sings with a joy for singing, simply. We’ve sung a lot together as friends, and now also sing together on stage occasionally.

The conversations in the film are very intimate, and natural. They seem to be born of long associations. How did you manage to make your subjects so free of camera consciousness?

Actually, much as it might surprise you, Prahlad Tipaniya, Linda Hess, Farid Ayaz, Kaluram Bamanya, Mukhtiyar Ali -- these are all people who were spontaneous in front of the camera from the word go. I might speculate here and say that if you’re truly infused with the spirit of Kabir you become fearless, or at the very least honest about your fears. Pretensions and superfluity seem to disappear of their own accord.

Popular folk singer Prahlad Tipaniya

Also, I’m not a very ‘formal’ kind of filmmaker. I make the camera a part of the space, rather than organising the space around my camera and its needs. I don’t signal starts and ends to interviews. I shoot seamlessly (and with the ethics of when to shoot and when not to). I also don’t restrain my own participation in the action. I engage, talk and respond much as a friend might in that space if the camera were off. All this perhaps set the tone from the start for a kind of sahaj-ta, a spontaneity and simplicity to the act of filmmaking. Initially, I was nervous about my decision to not take a trained and accomplished cameraperson along, but eventually I feel my instinct to do my own camera work led to this kind of intimacy in the frame which I would not trade for any other value-addition a professional cameraman may have brought to the table.

But what did distinctly grow in the course of my shooting, and over the years, is the friendship and intimacy with my subjects.

The characters in the films seem to have a real presence which tends to be very multi-dimensional and layered.

Actually, I’m not interested in ‘arrived souls’. Because, in a sense, we tend to put them on a pedestal and remove them from our own lives and behaviour. It’s so much more inspiring, I feel, to meet frail, ordinary human beings, struggling with some sincerity and honesty with the pitfalls of being human and trying to walk the talk of Kabir in their own lives. I feel I can connect to that, draw on it, and relate it to my own life choices and practices. Meeting with a saint might actually be quite boring!

There is a rich diversity of visual styles that you employ in the different films. Any comments on that?

Well, I think the styles grew out of the contexts and available resources with some serendipity. For instance, the challenge of a non-presence led to the visual style of the film on Kumar Gandharva. With no access to the man himself, and with so little access to archival material related to his life, the visual style of Koi Sunta Hai drew inspiration from the grainy black spaces in the photographs of Kumar Gandharva. Delving into the black, negative space rather than the foregrounded white picture seemed sort of nirgun-esqe. Had-Anhad is a visually more consciously constructed film, with all the graphic animation sequences, etc… I could talk more about this if I had the time to reflect more deeply, but suffice it to say I did want the four films to look and feel different from each other. And yet, connected together too. I wanted the films to reflect the diversity of Kabirs we were encountering… they are indeed very different worlds.

Your favourite Kabir bhajans are?

Really, there are too, too many to list just a few. In fact, the pool of Kabir poetics is so vast, as there are thousands of dohas/couplets too, apart from the songs, that almost for every moment or situation in my life now, a song or a few lines spring up in response. They offer me a way of looking at the problem or situation, a way to understanding it, or moving ahead, or a way of expressing the state I’m in.

Is there a site that translates Kabir bhajans? If you are making one, what is the address?

At the moment www.kabirproject.org is under construction as a space where you will find information about the project and all the films, books and CDs produced by us; also a way to order them online. It will grow soon into an archive which will list songs with translations, with audio and video clips relating to the ideas, imagery and issues clustering around that poem.

In your films you mention things like piracy in a light-hearted way. Is there something like the post-modern “free content” movement in the Kabir tradition?

The oral tradition is very much like the present understanding of open source. I’ve seen artists with varied responses. Prahladji is very relaxed about it. Restricting the sharing of the music which has come from a shared folk culture seems ironic. The Kabir tradition really doesn’t have a fixed source. There is a lot of re-mixing and interpretation.

Is one of the things your films are saying that singing is enough? That singing is meditation?

Satsang has always been seen as meditation, as a kind of communion. A time for reflection and being in touch with yourself.

Future plans with Kabir?

A lot of creative outreach… through festivals, workshops… in college campuses and other spaces in society. Because there are so many entry points to Kabir and almost everybody can have an interest in Kabir… through philosophy, spirituality, secularism and the communal question, peace and conflict resolution, folklore, poetry, art…

(Prayas Abhinav is an artist and poet. He is presently the Open Space Fellow in Bangalore)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009