Sunday, January 25, 2015

Kabir


Earlier this month I attended the Kabir Festival in Mumbai. It has been going on for five years, Sachi has been involved as an organizer for some time. I have been recently been accelerating into planet Kabir. The seeds were planted many years ago when Prahaladji and Shabnam visited the Bay Area and they performed at Berkeley. Later the Sarvodaya Stanford group hosted Shabnamji and screened one of her films. At that time I was still distant from Kabir and what his poetry was all about.

More recently I got the Kabir Saamigri made by Reenaben and started appreciating the wisdom of the dohas. Then in Pune Sheetal told me about how Kabir became a voice during the Bhav Yatra and played and translated a few songs. She told me about Vipul who accompanied her on the Yatra, and just a couple weeks later I heard him and Shabnam perform a satsang in Ahmedabad that Nimo invited me to. I started listening to Vipul's music as well as more bhajans from the Samigri.

By the time I attended the festival this month my heart was open and excited for Kabir. The event has a great back-story. It started five years ago by the community of Kabir artists around India, anchored by the Kabir Project. It is this amazing loose network of singers, poets, performers and researchers, young and old, mainstream and traditional, all connected by the power of and love for Kabir. The festival grew in popularity and attracted patrons from around the world. A couple years ago it even had large corporate sponsors that wanted to take it to the next level. However the Kabir community decided that it wasn't in the spirit of Kabir to go commercial, so it went back to a grassroots, decentralized model. This year, it was completely put together by non-profits and individual volunteers.

The event was setup like the Kabir Olympics. For four days, performances were organized across Bombay in different venues. Mostly parks, public stages, and open amphitheaters. Different artists performed at various venues. Often performances happened simultaneously, so an incredible energy developed back-channel online as folks traded clips and quotes on What's App from the different performances.

On Thursday night Sachi took me and Aunty to the event in Jogeshwari. The first performance was by Ankit Chadha, who is a Kabir storyteller. With no props, Ankit just gets on stage and tells wisdom stories of and by Kabir. He is a pure performer, able to completely captivate the audience through his animated style. I didn't understand 75% of what he was saying, but I was just mesmerized by his presence and polished quality of his performance. I appreciated the high level of his art, even if I didn't understand it. One line I loved, which for me captures Kabir in a nutshell, was "Kabir sirf ek shaayar nahi, Kabir ek aashiq hai" ("Kabir isn't just a poet, he is a lover"). My favorite moment of the festival was during his performance. The event was in a working-class Hindu-Muslim mixed community. The show was on a stage that was literally on a busy roadside. It was a narrow lane lined with eclectic shops and food stalls and tons of traffic: cars, animals, people on bikes. It was a totally messy chaotic space, and carved out of nowhere rises this modern majestic stage. To the immediate left of the stage is a mosque; to the right is the beginning of the Hindu community. So we were literally right on the loud bustling border. Now imagine a completely packed crowd in front of this stage, on the side of this road, seated and behind them standing, hundreds of people huddled into a human amphitheater. And all are just transfixed on this storyteller in all-white Muslim garb kneeling simply and weaving tales with his bright hand gestures and booming projecting voice. In the middle of one of his stories the amzaan (Muslim prayer) starts from a nearby mosque. Ankit hears the chanting and just stops his story. He just sits, for nearly eight minutes, in silence, as the prayer completes. Meanwhile the entire crowd is pin drop silent, being held by Ankit's wide shining eyes. He's just up there rocking gently, calmly, waiting for the prayer to complete. No one says a word for the entire period, all you can hear is the honking traffic. Once the prayer ends someone from the crowd shouts to him, "You were talking about the two matkaas", reminding him where he left off the story. And off he goes, completely seamlessly. There are performers, and then there are artists. It takes an artist  with deep integrity to hold a crowd like that.

The next performance was by Neeraj Arya, who I later learned was one of Ravi's kids. I had no idea what I was about to hear, so when I started to listen to his "Kabir Rock", I was blown away. A guitar, mandolin, violin, and percussion. A braided skinny brown Raegae-looking dude, again with an incredible ability to captivate an audience based almost purely on eye contact and stage presence. At the beginning of their set there was some technical troubles with the sound, Neeraj puts his guitar down mid-song, walks into the crowd, listens with stillness for a few beats, and then goes over to the sound engineer and has him tune levels. All with poise, confidence, and calmness. The audience didn't flinch.



What I love about Kabir is that his message and poetry is highly relevant even hundreds of years later, so that young rock musicians can add their flavor to it and re-interpret it freshly. And so flexible, that someone like Prahaladji and someone like Neeraj can be part of the same community of musicians and respect each other's art. The next day I spent a couple hours watching Neeraj and Kabir Cafe videos on youtube, settling on my favorite song (above). I also learned about Neeraj's humble journey, sleeping on the streets during the first Kabir fest because he couldn't afford a place to stay, now featured on Dewarists and MTV. I'm the kind of music fan that needs to feel connected to the musician's journey to really get into the music; now that I'm a fan of Neeraj I can't wait to enjoy his music next time I catch him perform.

The next night we went to the Brahmakumari park performance. Yash and I got stuck in heavy traffic and caught the end of Prahaladji's performance, which was fine since I had seen him before. It was just enough stage-setting for the next performers, who gave probably the most moving live music performance of my life. This was Vedanth and Bhindu, two classically trained singers who collaborate on Kabir music. Together with a third singer Shruthi, they did an hour set that moved me to tears. Their voices were just too much for me, it was pure joy to hear their voices harmonize and soar. Hearing their music really opened up my heart, I was emotionally overwhelmed. After the performance I told Bhindu how I had no words, only tears. She seemed to understand and was appreciative. The next day I purchased their album, hoping that the songs they performed that night were in it (one of them was, though nothing like the live performance). I'm a bit hesitant to listen, their voices are so soulful and although I don't understand a damn word, the music seems to carry a power that I fear over-exposure to.

In any case, I am thankful for Kabir and look forward to attending the entire festival next year. Such a unique collection of such high-quality high-integrity performers making soul-touching music.

Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.


- E.Y. Harburg -

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