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Between 'Yes' and 'No'

In letting go of the anchors of identity -- Hindu or Muslim, feminism or patriarchy, secular or sacred, folk or classical, dalit or upper caste -- do we walk into a more fluid space, a place without walls or doors that allows for the possibility of others entering? And is it poetry and song that best carries us to such a place? Shabnam Virmani explains

Haan kahun to hai nahin, naa bhi kahyo nahin jaaye
Haan aur naa ke beech mein, mera sadguru raha samaaye

(If I say ‘Yes’ it isn’t so, yet I cannot say it’s ‘No’
True wisdom resides somewhere between that ‘Yes’ and ‘No’)

In 2002, after the Gujarat riots, I began to search for the meanings of Ram. Ram had become such a loaded, fractious entity in Indian society. I was intrigued by the fact that the saint-poet Kabir’s poetry continuously refers to Ram, yet that was not necessarily the Ram of the Ramayana or the Ram militantly mobilised by the Hindu right-wing. Who is this Ram that the nirgun poet Kabir is talking about? The journeys that I embarked on in this quest resulted in the making of four films and took me from the heart of the conflict in Ayodhya through Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and across the border to Pakistan -- where too we found both Ram and Kabir.

I want to share with you my personal sense of loss of identity in the course of these journeys. I had set out with my camera firmly on my shoulder, my identity as a feminist, filmmaker, secularist, a person who mistrusts religion and gurus, firmly in place. Somewhere along the way, I began to feel an inner meltdown, a kind of dissolution of watertight notions of ‘self’ and the ‘other’. I did not lose these identities but I felt their tight grasp on me loosen, and I began to wear them in a more relaxed way, almost like loosely fitting garments. But at the same time, it was a deeply discomfiting journey. Suddenly I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore.

I cannot say who it is I am
I am amazed, I am amazed!
I cannot call this self 'myself'

Who is in my eyes seeing?
Who is in my heart enduring?
Who is inhaling and exhaling?

Why is there life coursing below my skin?
Why are my eyes bloodshot from crying?
Why this religion, why this faith?
I am amazed, I am amazed!

O Seyyid Nizamoglu, hear this:
Everything comes from the One
Abandon yourself to this mighty beauty
I am amazed, I am amazed!

Perhaps when we move out of a passionate righteousness that comes with being firmly anchored on one side of a duality -- Hindu or Muslim, feminism or patriarchy, secular or sacred, atheist or believer, des or pardes, folk or classical, dalit or upper caste -- when we take a walk to the other side of the duality, into uncertainty, into a more fluid space, perhaps when we create for ourselves a be-dar-o-deewar-ka-ghar, a home with no walls or doors, then we open up the possibility of allowing others to enter our space. That perhaps is a clue to compassion and the possibility of peace.

But how does one live in the world with this uncertain sense of self, with an identity that is and isn’t? Let’s not romanticise or oversimplify this idea. Obviously, it is not easy to negotiate the business of living in this world of social injustice and cultural difference while hanging on to a sense of “not knowing”. I don’t have any neat answers. I only have some suggestions.

I remember the first time I went to Malwa in Madhya Pradesh to shoot with the folk singer Prahlad Tipanya. I had already cast him in my mind as my “dalit hero”. In my mind, he was to bring forth in my films the dalit pain and their identification with Kabir. But somehow, Prahladji kept disappointing me. He was not speaking the script that I wanted him to. I wasn’t getting the video bytes I needed. This was because he would never passionately foreground his identity as a dalit. Initially I thought his political conscience was not sharp enough. Then I started travelling with him, and I began to realise that what he does is a very Kabirian negotiation of his dalit identity. On the one hand, he is never far from it. In his onstage concerts he sharply and relentlessly challenges caste and other social divisions through the poetry of Kabir. And yet he never identifies himself in an upfront manner as dalit. It is this dual movement between haan and na, between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, that opens up a third space, another possibility or way of knowing and being. Kabir shows us that the truth often lies in between fixed spaces. When we settle down we are far from the truth. When we are uncomfortable we are closer to it. That’s why Kabir says: “Sooli upar ghar hamara, oth paayo vishraam jee” (“My house is on the tip of a horn. That’s where I find my ease.”)

I had a similar experience with Prahladji’s wife, Shantiji. When I viewed her through a staunchly feminist lens, I didn’t like what I saw. The rural patriarchal culture delimits her spaces and experiences; it doesn’t encourage her to sing or sit in dhyaan. Her role is to be supportive of her man’s spiritual quest. When we believe passionately in one identity we tend to slip into dishonesties because we want to see things in a particular way. We need to see oppression in certain places, we become incapable of seeing anything else, of appreciating truths that lie in between. I guess I came to appreciate both her pain and his truth, and his pain and her truth. I was able to see her struggles and yet appreciate her sense of dignity, location and equanimity, and the long journey she has traversed within the four walls of her home to arrive at it.

For me, and I think for many people, this dissolution of the hard-edged unilateral sense of self and identity has been intimately linked with the experience of the mystic poem as song. I don’t think this meltdown was caused by the working of the intellect. This is more linked with a reception of something through the full ‘body’, which as we know is the central vehicle of the song. This is when knowledge becomes an experience, rather than an argument.

I am intrigued by this capacity of poem as song to alter our sense of self. The capacity of mystic music to carry us to a place where our identity stands in question. This destabilisation of the inner Self can be particularly destabilising for outer structures of religion, society, nationalism, and gender which tend to be pinned on precisely such fixed and definite notions of identity. It is not surprising then that the mystic song becomes deeply threatening to orthodox structures of religion, because it holds the capacity to carry its listener to a place of loss of that religious identity itself! Rumi says…

Listen to presences inside poems,
Let them take you where they will.

So it’s not enough that we have this legacy of great mystic poetry. I believe it is the practise of this poetry in society that far outstrips the importance of the poem itself. The poem is best and most potently lived through song. When a poem is sung, it’s almost like the truth that lay sleeping in it wakes up. It starts speaking to the world, it becomes manifest, and the energy of that truth gets radiated into the universe.

All cultures have had (and perhaps in some places are in danger of losing) traditions of just such a ritual enactment and embodiment of these poems. The all-night village gathering, the satsang, is in its best sense, a non-gated open space where people of different faiths gather to ritually engage with their non-selves… their true selves! I believe this regular reminder to ourselves to gently disengage from our received or adopted identities, to stand outside of them, to even laugh at the self-conscious pomposity with which we carry them around with us at all moments, is a deeply healthy practice.

These rituals work towards a containment of the violence, the divisiveness, the folly that we as human beings are capable of, as we go about the complex and difficult business of living together with difference. If it weren’t for such ritual spaces, I believe the world would be erupting in even more fearful pogroms and violence than we see today.

Aag lagi aakash mein
Jal jal pade angaar
Aise sant na hote jagat mein
To jal marta sansaar

(The sky erupted into flames
It was raining embers
If it weren’t for saints, poets, mystics
This world would be scorched)

It is my conviction that those who truly imbibe this spirit of mysticism as enacted in the open spaces of the village satsang tend to stay away from corrosive social mobilisations based on the politics of hate. Secular activists may dismiss the culture of bhajans and kirtans, seeing them as a retreat from the space of political action, as a space of cowardly inaction. I might argue that often such inaction may be the most potently charged form of action.

These satsangs are robust and thriving in many parts of India and Pakistan. But they are under threat in many places. In Pakistan, Sufi shrines are under attack and under siege by Islamic fundamentalists. So even though assertions of pluralism abound in our traditions, they need to be safeguarded, diversified and reinvented.

As cultural practitioners we try to promote cultural diversity as part of peace-building. We create these moments of community, in open and non-gated spaces, in the hope that such moments of collectivity will engender multiple individual journeys. For, let us not forget that as Kabir and so many other mystics remind us -- while we may journey with some others who may show us the way and fall in step for a while, ultimately we walk alone.

Laalan ki nahin boriyan
Hansan ke nahin paat
Singhan ke nahin lehde
Sadhu na chale jamaat

(Rubies aren’t found in sacks
Swans don’t fly in flocks
Lions don’t roam in herds
A true seeker walks alone)

(Shabnam Virmani is a documentary filmmaker and Director of the Kabir Project. She has made a quartet of films exploring the legacy of the saint-poet Kabir across the subcontinent. This article is based on her talk for CCDS-Open Space’s ‘Keeping the Peace’ lecture series)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011