Finding Kabir in Banaras

Shriya Mohan | Updated on November 30, 2019 Published on November 28, 2019

Soaring mood: The gates are always open in Kabir’s house of love   -  BHARAT S TIWARI

A music festival unlocks a quest for the mystic poet in the alleys of the sacred city

Time moves like the row boats gliding along the Ganga. The tambura strums to the gentle rhythm of the river.

Shabnam Virmani is held captive by an audience that just won’t let her go at the fourth edition of the Mahindra Kabira Festival, a gala that celebrates the philosophy, poetry and music of the 15th-century mystic Kabir Das. “One more!” they shout and the singer obliges yet again, singing on a stage perched on Varanasi’s Guleria Ghat.

Virmani’s manjira (hand cymbal) taps with gusto as her voice soars like that of a wandering minstrel. “Come to Kabir’s house of love, where the gates are always open,” she sings.

The singer and documentary film-maker is most known for her Kabir Project, in which she traces his influence across several geographies, including the ghats of what was called Banaras.

“While Banaras has certainly changed since Kabir’s time, what hasn’t is the bigotry, which makes Kabir remarkably relevant today,” Virmani tells BLinkafter her session, titled ‘Love in times of hate’.

Even 600 years ago, she points out, the city was riddled with warring organised religions, which Kabir had been a fearless critic of. “All of Kabir’s poetry urges us to not get attached to an external form, whether that’s a temple or mosque, or clinging to the identity of a community or clan. Kabir asks us to connect with ourselves and others at a deeper level, outside of these trappings,” Virmani says.

The festival, organised by the Mahindra Group and the entertainment company Teamwork Arts, is held every November, bringing the best of Kabir through music, theatre, walks and literature sessions. This year, the three-day festival opened on November 22.

Captivating sight: Shabham Virmani and Swagath Sivakumar bring out the moods of Kabir from his soulful compositions to gangster bhajans. BHARAT S TIWARI   -  bharat s tiwari


Musicians such as flautist Ajay Prasanna, sitarist Rakesh Mishra, violinist Sarada Prasan Das, Kutch folk singer Mooralala Marwada, vocalist Om Prakash Nayak, and Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café were among the performers, bringing out different moods of Kabir — from the playful to the soulful. And there was also what Virmani calls “Gangster Bhajan” — in which Kabir asks people to not mess with him.

Not far from the Guleria Ghat are steep stairs that go up to the Alamgir Mosque, which in the 15th century had been a Krishna temple that Aurangzeb is said to have razed a century later. Kabir was 21 when he went to the temple in search of its priest, Guru Ramananda. But when Kabir asked him for diksha or initiation, Ramananda refused, saying he wouldn’t take a meat-eater as a disciple. A heartbroken but resolute Kabir spent the night sleeping on the stairs outside the temple.

The next morning, before sunrise, when Ramananda was on his way to the Ganga for a bath, he stepped on Kabir by mistake. “Who is it? Is that Kabir? Ram! Ram,” Ramananda exclaimed.

“For Kabir, that was all the initiation he needed,” says local tour guide Devesh Kumar Agarwal, as he takes a batch of festival-goers on a curated heritage walk down from the mosque through the bylanes of Varanasi.

But Kabir’s Ram was different. It wasn’t Dasharat’s son, Ayodhya’s Ram or the god to whom temples were built. Kabir’s Ram stretched in all directions and all beings.

In every swan, Ram resides

There is no abode without Ram

Everywhere in the universe lives the light

Remember Ram, there is no other

Kabir’s poetry could well have incited passions today. “He would have had 10,000 defamation cases slapped on him today,” says independent music curator Sadhna Rao, who gave a lecture on Kabir’s verses.

A long walk from Alamgir Mosque takes you to the Kabir Math, near the Kabir Chaura or crossroads, which has some of the poet’s supposed belongings — such as his charkha (spinning wheel) and wooden sandals. It also houses the graves of Kabir’s foster parents, Neeru and Neema, the weaver couple who raised him.

Kabir’s own relationship with the city was tenuous. After upsetting religious heads, he was banished from Varanasi at a ripe old age. Almost mocking the holiness of the city, Kabir decided to go to Maghar, known to be an ill-famed neighbouring city, 180km away, to give up his body. A death in Maghar was meant to be a ticket to hell. But Kabir loved dispelling myths, explains the Math’s caretaker. Mysteriously, when Kabir died in Maghar, his body was never found.

There are many versions of Kabir’s life events. His work has largely been passed down orally through the years. Does he run the risk of ever becoming a myth?

“It’s a misplaced project to search for an authentic Kabir, given that the oldest record of Kabir is in the Guru Grant Sahib, which was compiled 80 years after Kabir passed away, a long time for a baani (verse) to be flowing in the oral traditions. But thanks to our robust oral traditions, we need to celebrate the fact that Kabir is claimed, owned and possessed with such diversity, in which you can find your own Kabir,” Virmani says.

Arunima Sinha is a 14-year-old student who delivers a moving performance with her team on one of the festival evenings. Is it just a song she has learnt, or can she relate to Kabir’s teachings?

Kabir is like family, she replies. “My favourite is Bada hua toh kya hua jaise ped khajur, where Kabir says what’s the point of being a grown-up if you’re like the tall date tree, whose fruits are too high and which offers no shade to travellers. As I grow older, I need to make myself useful to others,” she says.

And that, perhaps, is finding Kabir.

(The writer was in Varanasi at the invitation of the Mahindra Kabira Festival 2019)

Published on November 28, 2019
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