Friday, September 11, 2009

Kahat Kabir

Kabir Festival 2

Just a brief overview of what the festival offered. It was an effort to broadcast the work of the Kabir Project - a project that involved "series of journeys in quest of this 15th century mystic poet in our contemporary worlds." The output, if you want it in concrete terms, consists of 4 documentary films, 2 folk music videos and 10 music CDs accompanied by books of the poetry in translation. The person who has propelled this effort is filmmaker Shabnam Virmani and all of this was the result of an Artist-in-Residence program at the Sristhi School of Art, Design and Technology.

The films have taken some four years to make: they involved extensive and intensive travel and although they have been constructed into four stand-alone themes, there is substantial overlap (at least, of personalities) and the tetralogy is best, in my opinion, seen and taken together.

The first of these was Chalo Hamara Des that starts by introducing to us Prahlad Singh Tipanya, a folk singer of Malwa, whose way of life is coloured by Kabir. With Prahladji in tow, Virmani travels to Stanford to meet Linda Hess, a scholar of comparative literature who has translated Kabir and now is working on the oral traditions that thrive in various parts of the subcontinent. Early in the film, Hess talks of the peak of Shoonya that Kabir refers to, the peak that is the destination of anyone on the spiritual path. And earnest though these seekers are, and sound though their theory is of what they must do, it is the practice of it that was fascinating to me. Through the films they expand into something larger, and fall back again into their selves, trapped by habit, structure and personality.

The next film Had-Anhad is the most toasted of the four. It starts in Ayodhya, with a few chest thumping Hindu reactions on the Babri Masjid issue. Then the film seeks Ram - Kabir's Ram, the Sagun Ram, the Nirgun Ram and it seeks Kabir or rather the various Kabirs that appear scattered here and there. It follows the trail to Rajasthan to interact with Mirasi sufi singer Mukhtiyar Ali to see what he makes of it and then over the border to Karachi to meet with Farid Ayaz whose family has been singing qawwalis for 700 years - a man so intensely possessive of his Kabir he tells his contingent of guests very frankly that he is not about to tolerate their dissenting views.

Kabira khada bazaar mein - which some might perceive as the weakest in the chain - is still interesting for its examination of how Kabir has been appropriated by various sections of society. Some are interested only in his incendiary stances, some use him for his dalit status, some take Kabir to represent an alternative religion that goes against the very essence of what the saint might have himself said or meant.
However, the truly ticklish point of the film comes when it traces the actions of Prahlad Tipanya. A man whose singing has earned him a considerable following, a man who has all through believed in the essence of Kabir and tried to emulate it to a subtle pitch, does the unthinkable: he joins the Kabir Panthi Sect as a mahant. His work now involves ritual, wearing a hierophant-ish hat and he must perform (and exhort others to perform) the chauka aarti. Tipanya is criticised in the film by his own assistants, his family, his friends (Hess and Virmani included) and his contemporaries. He protests albeit softly that he wants to change the system from within. It is a weak argument. What is clear though is he feels he must; however obscure his motivations, it is obvious he thinks his path goes through the establishment, not around it.

The fourth film Koi Sunta Hai moves to fresh arenas: classical music. It explores the influence of Kabir on Pt Kumar Gandharva and in turn, classical singing, as well as of course, what this did to elevate Kabir's own status from being considered the literature of beggars and mendicants to more refined circles.

The films are avowedly a personal search as far as Shabnam Virmani is concerned. She wields the camera herself, we see her occasionally caught in mirrors or shadows but she pervades the films far more than through appearances alone. She is addressed by name by her interviewees, that they are in fact in a dialogue is never in doubt. It must be her manner, her skill as a questioner that she manages to evoke such spontaneous responses, such charming reactions.

Music occupies a large chunk of the footage and it is quite central to the project. It enhanced the experience of the festival so much that the personalities whose lives that were being minutely examined in the films were also present. When they sang of course, we knew them intimately.

The festival was expensive too: entry was free but there was music on offer and after each screening or concert I went back, quite sure I needed to have that CD as well. So ended that a bit poorer and a bit richer.


Space Bar said...

:-) nice! we're still hoping the whole festival will come here some time.

and yikes re tipaniya joining the panthis! i've seen the first two, and am rather surprised by this (new) development!

Sheetal said...

@Space Bar: I felt a bit bad for Tipanya - he simply couldn't explain it to all the important people in his life but so compelled to join the sect. Which incidentally seems filled with a vast crowd of people unfamiliar with the very existence of such a thing as irony.