Archive for March, 2011


Royalty, written out

   Posted by: aman    in Other

Blue Blood, I liked this collection on how Indian royalty has changed over time. Read here.

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Kabir: learning to close my eyes

   Posted by: aman    in Other

Publishing Note: Around four years back I started on a journey, with able guides and pointers. This piece was written for a Kabir project blog in 2011. I can’t find the blog now so posting it here from the piece I sent via email to the admin of the blog.

Learning to close my eyes

My journey towards understanding the fires that had until then driven me into clinical depression started when Nilanjana sent me two music files by a singer named Prahlad Tipanya who sings Kabir.

It was the summer of 2007. My mother lay dying in a small town called Mandi Dabhwali in the Malwa region of southern Punjab. Prahladji is also from a region called Malwa but his Malwa is in Madhya Pradesh. His language was alien to our ears and my laptop computer had no external speakers. Still, from time to time, mother asked me to play the songs to her. In spite of the two Malwas, in spite our different languages, in spite of the two thousand kilometres that separated us, his message of submission and humility permeated into our ears.

While cancer spread in my mother’s body a fire raged in our Malwa. Mandi Dabhwali was at the centre of a violent battle between the Sikhs and the head of a sect called Sachha Sauda. The Sikhs were angry because the head of the sect, Gurmit Ram Rahim, had appropriated icons from Sikhism and had attracted a certain caste of Sikhs to his fold. The reasons for the fight are complex but the gist is that Sikhism, which was conceived as casteless by Kabir and contemporaries Guru Nanak and other Sikh Gurus, had actually discriminated against its own lower castes who had in turn sought salvation in other sects which were more inviting. As a result the Gurdwaras were missing out on donations.

My mother’s death was simpler. She was a life-long Schizophrenic, who had developed severe cardio-myopathy, and was now in breast cancer Stage IV. The secondary’s spread to the rest of her body.

Mother died. Punjab burnt as vote bank politics and monetary gains stroked the fires.

I came back to Bangalore and Nilanjana told me she goes singing Kabir with someone called Shabnam Virmani who, every morning, opens her home to anyone interested in singing or listening. In February 2008, Nilanjana told me Shabnam is singing at the annual cultural festival on the outskirts of Bangalore – Fireflies. I went to listen. For years I had been listening to a Kabir cassette by Madhup Mudgal but again the language was slightly alien to me. A friend’s mother had told me there was someone called Kumar Gandharv who used to sing brilliantly. I had never heard him.

At Fireflies I could understand Kabir. Shabnam’s translations in a mix of simple English and Hindi and her singing made the songs so easy to comprehend. After the concert I told her that couplets from Kabir open my first book of fiction and thanked her for giving me an opportunity to listen to Kabir live. She looked at me kindly and asked indulgently: ‘Have you never heard him live before?’ I said no but in that question of hers I knew that I had failed to access the 500-year old poet who I had only encountered in school text books, on thin shabby pages. He had survived the oral and written traditions and has existed alive and available to us. Now the question was what route should I take to access him?

I heard Shabnam thrice before her festival in Bangalore in 2009. But it is at that festival when she sang Munn mast huaa re phir kyaa bole … that I closed my eyes. Now I tend to close my eyes every time I listen to music. It does hamper my work or even life at home. But it happens and I lose myself. Then I saw the documentaries Shabnam had made through her Kabir Project and picked up Kumar Gandharv’s Avdhoot. Since then, in the last two years, every morning I have listened to any one of the Kabir singers collected in Shabnam’s Project or to Kumar Gandharv and I just recently discovered MS Subbalaxmi. I do not have any knowledge of the terms of music. It helps me that Shabnam claims even she had never sang before she got onto the Kabir Project. I, in fact, know nothing about what has invaded me so beautifully for the last two years that now I have found newer loves – classical music.

Yet, through all the music and the films I learnt something that comes up fairly early in Had-Unhad when Prahladji asks a young man who hates idolatry and leans towards the formless to explain if his own body is not a form and towards the end of Koi Sunta Hai when singer Dhulichand, a rustic villager, flips his hand and says that what we are all looking for, the ‘word’ that denotes it, can only be found if one turns one’s focus to the inside rather than looking for it outside.

This was my conflict. Until then I had looked at events and phenomena through the labels I had learnt. When they clashed with each other I felt the fires burning me. I learnt that not knowing that these are mere labels makes the fires blaze and knowing that these are ‘mere’ labels gives you a sense of being able to harness the fires, channelise the self. In my case, finish my second book, which again opens with a couplet by Kabir.

My journey led me to Kumarji’s home in Dewas in 2010. I had learnt of the Kabir Mahaotsav in Lunyakhedi, Prahladji’s village near Ujjain. Nilanjana had once said that thousands gather for the festival. I wanted to be there and I had wanted to see Ujjain. I was experiencing the ease of the state without external labels (Nirgun) but I was still interested in Matsyandar Nath and the Mahakaal temple (Sagun). The temptation to see Kumarji’s home where he had lain for many years, stricken by Tuberculosis, and listened to beggars sing Kabir and wanting to see the Sheel Nath Dhooni where Kumarji had seen written on a mirror Ud jayega hans akela… pulled me to the festival.

The festival was a miracle of sorts. Lunyakedi did not have metalled roads yet people from nearby villages and far off cities had gathered and with them had gathered the modern power paraphernalia: IAS and IPS officers, and politicians and Kabir Panthis. This was realpolitik. Through all this, cutting through symbolism and iconography, one singer after another touched our hearts. This was Sat Sang, the concept that is a recurrent motif in all of Kabir’s and Shabnam’s work, as Shafi Mohammad Faqir, from (now) Pakistan says: mil baithna, saat suron ka sangam.

After the night long singing I went to Kumarji’s house and was admitted to the room where he lay ill and where he regained his voice and sang so wondrously. Coming out of the room I spotted a tobacco box and asked how it had reached the pious room.

Kumarji’s grandson replied: ‘Kumarji kept chewing until the end.’ This was how the great singer who dealt with TB kept feeding himself the poison that caused the mighty illness. He was once a patient and then a healthy body, he found and sang the essences of life, but perhaps the poison became the reins that harnessed his creativity by pushing him to live on the edge.

Kumarji once said: ‘jo sunta hoon, wo gaata hoon.’ He did it by seeing what each state was and then by going beyond them.

That evening, behind a tent, in the light of one yellow bulb at Lunyakhedi, I told Shabnam, ‘Seven times I have heard you sing a song about a forest on fire in which a bird keeps going back to sprinkle water on a burning tree that has earlier housed her. Each time I listen to it, it reconfigures my associations. The characters in the song: the tree, the bird, the fire, the lake take on ever shifting personas in my personal life. Sometimes I feel I am the bird, sometimes I am the tree, at other times I am the fire and I look for the lake.’

If I am rooted in the tree I find myself burning and if I fly like the bird I feel self-righteous. Both of them are ego states. Beyond the forest and the lake lies the experience of the story. That experience is beyond words. It can be found, as the singer-villager said, when you turn the knowledge of the story inwards. I now recognise that my own experience is ever changing, ever informing. This knowledge liberates me from the explicit need to label it. What right do I have on an emotion I feel in a moment which the next moment will alter? My journey with Kabir has been one of recognising the value of the markers of my identity, questioning them, and then stripping down these markers and finding myself shorn of them. I try to walk this path with my mind aware and my eyes closed, in faith.

Amandeep Sandhu has no permanent address. These days he is a neighbour of Amir Khusro in New Delhi where he feeds birds on his terrace. He is the author of Sepia Leaves (Rupa, 2008) and a to-be-published novel Roll of Honour.

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