Kabir Calling: Towards an Undivided Des

Shabnam Virmani, the driving force behind the Kabir Project, tells us what it means to keep the Sufi poet’s spirit alive in the contemporary public discourse in India.

LILA: Thank you very much Shabnam, for talking to us about your deep and insightful association with Sant Kabir’s ideology and the Bhakti movement. Even before the Kabir Project was anywhere in the making, your article, ‘Roop Kanwar’s Sati’ ignited a movement which led to the banning of the practice of Sati in India. You have focused extensively on gender issues and women empowerment through print, documentary films and radio. And then you decided to leave your established career path in journalism to listen to your inner calling to explore the mystic or Sufi path as a singer and documentary-filmmaker. What inspired you to finally explore Sant Kabir from a modern Indian perspective which will not bear the mark of Kabir’s popular traditional identity?

Shabnam sings at Kondotti Sufi Festival

Shabnam Virmani: I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say that I sought Kabir from a ‘modern’ perspective, while avoiding the Kabir found in ‘popular traditional’ contexts. I have sought to explore precisely those popular traditional contexts, to understand how the vernacular and folk oral tradition in this country loves, reveres and makes meanings of Kabir and keeps his spirit alive in contemporary discourse. Yes, there has been a culling, an interpretation, a curation and a translation of the Kabir I found, for myself and those who experience the work of the Kabir Project.

I think my main inspiration was to understand how Kabir’s philosophy can be understood in our times, which are seeing a shocking rise in religious divisiveness and identity politics. But also, to bring that vision forth from the bedrock of Kabir’s spirituality, his understanding of the body, of impermanence, his poetics, etc.

I was also excited to share my delight in the linguistic and musical forms in which I encountered Kabir in the course of my travels, in different parts of central and western India and also Pakistan. All this delicious diversity of languages and dialects and instruments and songs and genres. . . I think the urban Indian is very poorly educated in the diverse riches of artistic and performative practices of our land, and there was a desire to share that too through our work.

LILA: Would you like to share any experience from your 18-year-long journey through the subcontinent which is essentially identical with the fundamentals of Kabir’s thoughts, as he had lived them—something which negates the concept of “border” and brings everyone on both sides together?

SV: Yes, I would like to share a moment from the very first Kabir Festival we organised in Bangalore in February 2009. Despite a very jingoistic and xenophobic mood in the country post the terror attacks of Mumbai in November 2008, we had managed to get visas for Fariduddin Ayaz and his group of qawwals from Pakistan to be part of the festival. About 15 singers from folk, classical, and Sufi traditions from India and Pakistan had gathered to share their understanding and renditions of Kabir.

It was the last day of the festival and Farid Ayaz Sahab had shared with us the fact that his family was originally from Delhi, who had migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. He laughed as he told us that in Karachi, they were called ‘Dilli-waale’ and in Delhi now they were called ‘Karachi-waale’.

When he burst into the famous Rajasthani folk song – Padhaaro Mhaare Des (Come to My Country), inviting us to that ‘undivided’ des that Kabir speaks of, there were many people who wept in the audience.

I wonder looking at the bigotry all around us today, how we can lose our humanity to such an appalling degree, how we can plumb such abysmal levels of demonising Muslims in our society. How little we are aware of the insecurity in our own selves that makes us do this. How little we have learnt the very first lesson Kabir will demand from us – a self-interrogation – Bura jo dekhan main gaya, bura na milya koi. Jo tan khoja aapna, mujhse bura na koi. (I searched the world for evil, I found no evil one. When I turned the gaze within, I found no one as evil as I.)

This capacity to look unblinkingly at the reality of our selves – our dishonesties, our insecurities, our falsehoods – resonates in a phrase from a Shah Latif poem – I Saw Myself, which also happens to be the title of our recent book on this 18th century Sindhi Sufi poet published by Penguin. Many people living in the Sindh region of Pakistan have reached out to us after this book got published. One person from Karachi even cocked a snook at the sealed Indo-Pak border by managing to send us a gift via friends in Dubai – a heavy priceless calligraphed book of Shah Latif’s entire verse collection called Ganj-e-Latif. It is deeply moving to see that the human impulse that creates borders is equally at all times countered by the human impulse to breach them.

So, what I’m saying is that there are twin energy poles in human consciousness, one of fear and one of love. And we have to ask ourselves at all moments from which pole we are responding to life. Only then may we earn the right to say, ‘I love Sufi music!’ or ‘I love Kabir!’, otherwise it’s just plain humbug to say so.

Srishti students join Shabnam Virmani on stage in the Gujarat Kabir Yatra, September 2019

LILA: How would you define the context and necessity of the Guru in today’s society? Is it possible to dedicate oneself as a mureed while remaining a part of the collective duties and boundaries?

SV: Kabir insists that we search and find our ‘satguru’. Yes, we can translate ‘sat-guru’ as ‘true guru’, but I think it is perhaps more compelling to read this as ‘truth as guru’. I remember Gandhiji is supposed to have said once that though he always believed the maxim God Is Truth, at a certain moment in life he realised that it was truer to say Truth is God. This is a very subtle, but profound shift. The former foregrounds a belief in God, the latter shift the pursuit to Truth itself.

Kabir too will say, Jo haazir hai, vo huzoor hai. That which is present, is God. Or Kahein Kabir Hari kaisa hai, jab jaisa hai tab vaisa hai. Kabir asks who is Hari? Hari is whatever is manifest in the here and in the now. All these things are pointing us to the Truth in the manifest reality before us, no matter which situation or moment we are in. The guru can be found here.

Photo Courtesy: Shabnam Virmani

Kabir also says, Yeh sab guru hain had ke, behad ke guru naahin. Behad aape upaje, anubhav ke ghar maahin. (Most guru stay within/create boundaries. None of them points to the boundless. The boundless arises spontaneously, in the house of your own experience.) So, we must nurture that capacity in ourselves to pursue the guru within, to see the truth, see ourselves clearly, and keep rubbing the mirror clean.

Shabnam Virmani with her students in Gujarat Kabir Yatra 2019

LILA: You have rejected Kabir’s lines which were unacceptable to you as a woman. Indian women still suffer gravely because of the social and economic discrepancies even in the field of education. How should the women of the subcontinent – part of both the privileged and deprived classes of the society communicate with Kabir, to search and fulfil their aspirations and advance in making the society a better place to live?

SV: Yes, Kabir’s misogyny and blinkered male gaze is quite troubling when he conceptualises ‘Maaya’ (delusory, fickle, constantly shifting reality) as a temptress, as a undependable seductress. Or his frequent use of the image of ‘Sati’ as the epitome of a truth-seeker. But unless I am tolerant of failings in my heroes, my gurus. . . how would I develop compassion for myself and others? If I were to put my inspirations on a pedestal, so very far removed from me, I doubt I’d learn anything from them.

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