(First published in Himal Mag in 2011)
Intense waves of heat by day, and the cool breeze of song by night, punctuated the Kabir yatra that took place in the very heart of India, in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, from 17–24 April 2011.
The concert finishes at 5 am on the 5th night (it is already morning) in Pachaur, and we get straight into the buses to go the next destination, Neemaj, which is purportedly 6 hours away, but with the road in shambles the distance turns out to be closer to 10 hours. Thankfully there’s a halt in between. One of the yatris, Rahul, has arranged breakfast at a Jain temple and dharamshala on the way. After a bumpy ride following yet another all-nighter, it is nice to stop to refresh. There is a rush for the toilets and a commotion at the bathrooms. People are unslept, ragged, unrelieved, tired, and ecstatic! It is impossible to explain this combination.
In spite of the impossibly bumpy road till here, and the impossibly uncomfortable bus seats, on which everyone has tried valiantly to sleep, and failed, there has been yet another session of song, and poetry, on the bus in which I find myself. And now, after the morning ablutions, there awaits us a nice hot breakfast of poha and shira, with chai. Small pleasures were never so meaningful.
We have lost all notion of comfort. We have got used to getting kicked out of random dharamshalas at 7 in the morning, after going to bed at 5, or arriving at random ones after yet another long bus ride. And then there is the heat. This is April in the centre of India. We understand, if we didn’t already do, what heat means, here. We try to catch up with sleep in the afternoons, at some other mofussil halt, but that is almost impossible to do with the heat, and the sweat, and the flies sticking tenaciously to one’s skin. And so, yet another day passes without sleep. Yet another night will pass without sleep as well, as the music begins at 9 in the evening, and goes up till 4 or 5 in the morning.
What is happening here? What did we let ourselves in for? Some of us have diarrhoea. Others have the cold or the cough. Still others have stiff shoulders and broken backs from holding cameras all night. Massages are being exchanged like nobody’s business. And everyone’s still singing and dancing away like there’s no tomorrow. Because there really isn’t. This whole endless night of music and dance still stretches out ahead of us.
The musician plays a peerless instrument
With eight sky-mouths thundering, only you are played
Only you thunder, your hand alone runs up and down
In one sound thirty-six ragas, speaking an endless Word
Light bursts in the sky-temple, at a sudden reversal
Kabir says clarity comes, when the musician lives in your heart.
Perhaps I had better begin at the beginning. Things do not improve though, at this first look. I find myself in the back of a tractor over a deeply uneven mud path, that could notionally be called a road, leading from Lunyakhedi to Maksi. There is a ‘Shobha Yatra’ going on at Maksi, as a kick-off for the overall yatra, meandering through the narrow streets in the heat of noon. Kailash Kher is there, belting away ‘Allah ke bande’ very helpfully for the adoring crowd. The tractor ride gives my back a few things to think about. We arrive and sweat away in the heat of Maksi, in a procession that hardly moves a few inches every few minutes. Some of us suck on ice golas (khus is really the best flavour) as a psychological ploy to beat the heat. Even as I’m nearly melting to death, it couldn’t be more fun!
All right, then. To rewind. This is a monster called the Malwa Kabir Yatra, an 8-day event which travelled to 6 village locations and 2 cities across 5 districts of Madhya Pradesh. It came together through a partnership between the city-based Kabir Project team from Bangalore and a young band of volunteer-supporters from the village-based Sadguru Kabir Seva Shodh Sansthan of Prahlad Singh Tipanya, the most popular Malwi folk singer of Kabir, and a recipient of the Padma Shri this year. Several other folk singers and enthusiastic patrons and organisers took on the task of organising individual concert-events and hosting the visiting urban yatris along the way. The Yatra started in Prahlad ji’s village of Lunyakhedi, three kilometres from Maksi, the smallest of small towns, and about 40 kms from Ujjain.
And though I have called this yatra every bad name that I possibly could, and tried to describe its every disadvantage, this is only in the sincere effort to say how rich, how intense and how playful and joyful the experience of those eight days turned out to be, for most people involved. We swayed to music, many of us danced, we rubbed shoulders with all-nightly rural audiences, who elbowed us city-slickers out to the margins with a great sense of owning the music, and during the days when we really should have been sleeping, we sang, and danced, and swayed to music some more. Oh, and there was lots of the famous Malwi poha, and daal bati or bafla, drenched in ghee, at every other stop. If ever there was a healthy overdose of sensation, it was here, it was here.
I don’t mean to romanticise, but how does one begin to de-romanticise an essentially romantic experience? Sure, all the discomforts weren’t so well taken in their stride by everyone. Certainly, the hints of disorganisation could have turned out much more seriously, with much worse consequences, than they eventually did. But there was a certain communion created by this sense of being together, immersed in poetry and song, and that seemed to take care of things. Many identities, and the heavy sense of privileges and entitlements we are so used to carrying around with us, got left behind, and participants lent a willing shoulder to the wheel, chipping in with a lightness of touch that was salutary to behold and experience.
मैं लगा उस एक से, एक भया सब मांहीं
सब मेरा मैं सबन का, तहां दूसरा नांहीं
I connected to the One, that One permeated all
All are mine, I am everybody’s, there is no Other.
The nighly line-up included Prahlad ji himself, singing Kabir in his inimitable, emphatic style, driving home the message of the poetry. There was Kaluram Bamaniya, also from Malwa. Mooralala Marwara, from Kutch, who started each bhajan with the soulful cry of “Hey ji Ram!”. Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan, with an incredibly powerful voice and range. Mukhtiar Ali, also from Rajasthan, on the last day, mixing Sufi with Kabir. Kailash Kher, on the first night, jamming away with Prahlad ji and Kaluram ji. Hemant Chauhan from Gujarat, Shivji Suthar from Bikaner, and Bharati Bandhu from Chhatisgarh. The Makeshift Band from Delhi, giving Kabir the modern edge of guitar and rock. Latif Bolat, all the way from Turkey, singing Rumi and a poet he called the Turkish Kabir. Parvathy Baul, giving stunned audiences a taste of her unique brand of singing, playing and dancing all at once, singing Baul compositions about death and other ultimate things, like love, with gay abandon. And Shabnam Virmani, who leads the Kabir Project, filmmaker and now singer herself, reinterpreting the Malwa, Rajasthan and Kutch repertoires in her own full-throated, full-hearted style.
Each night they sang, these beautiful artists, and produced music resonating deep into the silence of the night. Some nights they sang better than others, tired as they were too, with the relentless all-night concerts and the ceaseless travelling. But really perfectionism was the last thing on anyone’s mind on this trip. When you are really tripping, who can stop to bother with notions of perfection? Reduced to the basics of living, one brings a keener appreciation to one’s blessings.
कहें कबीर हरि कैसा है?
जब जैसा है तब तैसा है
जहां जैसा है वहां वैसा है
Typically there would be a film-show first, at around 7 — one of the four documentaries made around Kabir by Shabnam Virmani. The music would begin at around 9 or 10, even as an all-night dinner was mostly kept up. At many places there would gather a small fair of chaiwalas, and poha-walas, and other sundry walas, lending a carnivalesque feel to the gathering. The artists would line up one after the other, in changing order each night. We, the yatris, and the artists who were also yatris along with us, would travel during the mornings, or the afternoons, or the evenings, in two full loads of buses, from one village to another, and twice to cities as well (Ujjain and Indore).
The days were very simple, reduced to essential acts due to the heat and the intensity of the scheduling. A fulfilment just to get to shower during the day, or a cup of chai at the exact moment of stupor. The day would be marked by the simple events of breakfast, lunch and dinner, at a different place and a different time, almost each time. In between there would be relentless singing and dancing, as the yatris would insatiably demand more of the artists, whom they had to themselves during the day, and the artists would generously give of themselves even more than they were doing already. Any other moment would be spent trying to catch some precious rest, if one could find a free mattress somewhere, or in despite of rest, spent in conversation with an eclectic of people gathered fof the trip. And then, of course, there was the travelling — the yatra — the act of getting from one place to another, in buses that seemed to become like homes, like wombs, holding us and our little conversations and all our music and jamming and singing, which didn’t stop even while on the road, with such graciousness and generosity. This bus that we were on — the yatra bus — took us down a road that led to a real pitch of intensity, which was perhaps as much about the inner journey and search as about the outer one. Singing became about listening; music became about being in the moment.
The guru, the wise one, listens:
in the sky a voice, subtle, so subtle.
It is afternoon. Somewhere between two stops, catching our breaths, just having had lunch and a little rest at a dharamshala, we are having an informal session with Parvathy Baul in one of the big rooms available to us. She is speaking about her life-journey: how she became a Baul, and how she found her guru, who taught her, after initially refusing to accept her, up to 40 songs a day!
‘Ask me anything,’ she says, to a small audience hanging on to her every word; ‘only, let it be about the guru-shishya paramapara, which is very close to my heart.’
The very first question betrays our reams of carried urban anxiety.
‘How can one trust the guru? How can one know that one is not making a mistake? How does one give oneself up like that?’
Parvathy’s response cuts right to the heart of the matter. It is not about trust in the guru, but trust in oneself, she says. This doubt is a reflection of oneself. Can one trust oneself to learn? Even from a guru who is still human, still with his or her foibles? Can we be relaxed about time? Not so tense about having to make perfect decisions? Trust oneself to make mistakes, which is still learning? In a bold gesture, she even wonders: can one be bigger than even the guru? (When I translate this, she promptly adds that one can never be bigger than the guru.) … This, right here, in the authenticity of the exchange, is one of the high points of the yatra.
Another afternoon informal session sees Latif Bolat interacting with the yatris. He presents his music, makes us sing along in the refrain, and has us read out translations of the poetry he is singing (Rumi and Younus Emre, the ‘Turkish Kabir’). Prahlad ji insists on Hindi translations as well (we are, after all, in Malwa), and soon there is a three-way exchange of poetry and views. Why did so much Sufi and Bhakti poetry originate all around the same time? Latif’s answer is that if it hadn’t, a new religion might well have been born. Times of great stress see the arising of the one or the other. Poetry, politics, language, music and afternoon heat all blend into one seamless wave of sharing and exchange.
I notice a marked difference between urban and rural audiences. In Indore, the programme venue is a big university auditorium, and people begin to stream out by 10, citing the lateness of the hour. In the village concerts, this was the time the crowd would just be beginning to thicken. It is remarkable how the village audiences own their singers and the songs. They know the words and the nuances (Kabir’s no-nonsense poetry is even more significant in such a caste-conscious milieu). They have none of the city-bred responses of applause or vocal responses in recognition of the poems; just a relaxed ease of reception, occasionally punctuated by the eruption into graceful and joyous dancing. They are not afraid to lie down and snore even while their favourite son performs. They smoke and chat and have cups of tea, even as whole nights are spent away from home. They can cajole the singer, when they want, to perform one more, and yet one more song. It is instructive to watch Prahlad ji with his audience in this regard. How he not only sings for them, but also jokes with them and talks to them. On many nights, we are one with this throng, even as we remain indelibly separate from it.
One of my most abiding memories of the yatra is that of Mooralala, in an unforgettable combination of baniyan and sunglasses, with his big, swirling moustache as addendum, lustily leading an impromptu garbha, at yet another of one of our many stops, after yet another sleepless night and yet another bumpy bus ride. Where did we get the energy from, to do all this, in such heat, despite such physical exigencies? Surely the poetry, the music, the electric audiences and the delightfully eclectic company, made it happen. It all came together in a heady rush of song that was never finished, an echo that has still not had its end.
A night full of talking that hurts,
my worst held-back secrets. Everything
has to do with loving and not loving.
This night will pass.
Then we have work to do.