The concert finishes at 5 am on the fifth night (it is already morning) in Pachaur, and we get straight into the buses to go to the next destination, Neemaj, purportedly a six-hour drive away. But with the road in shambles, it takes closer to 10 hours. Thankfully there is 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 clean up and refresh oneself. There is a rush for the toilets and commotion in front of the bathrooms. People are sleep-deprived, ragged, tired and ecstatic – it is impossible to explain
In spite of the impossibly bumpy road here and the intensely uncomfortable bus seats, on which we have all valiantly tried to sleep, and failed, there has been yet another session of song and poetry on the bus. And now, after the morning ablutions, there awaits 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 gotten used to getting kicked out of random dharamshalas at seven in the morning, after going to bed at 5 am, or arriving at other dharamshalas after yet another long bus ride. And then there is the heat. This is April in the centre of India. Here we understand, if we didn’t know already, what heat means. 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 nine in the evening, and continues till four or five in the morning.
What is happening here? What did we let ourselves in for? Some of us have diarrhoea. Others have colds or the cough. Still others have stiff shoulders and broken backs from holding cameras all night. Massages are being traded. And everybody is 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.
All right, let’s rewind. This is a monster called the Malwa Kabir Yatra, an eight-day event that travelled to six village venues and two cities in six districts of Madhya Pradesh. It is the result of a partnership between the city-based Kabir Project team from Bangalore and the village-based Sadguru Kabir Seva Shodh Sansthan of Prahlad Singh Tipanya, the most popular Malwi folksinger of Kabir’s songs and a recipient of the Padma Shri national award this year. Apart from chief organiser Ajay Tipanya, who is Prahladji’s son, several other enthusiastic patrons and volunteer-supporters took on the task of organising individual concert events and hosting the visiting urban yatris along the way. The yatra started in Prahladji’s village of Lunyakhedi, three kilometres from Maksi, the smallest of small towns, and about 40 km
And though I have called this yatra every bad name 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. We swayed to music, many of us danced; we rubbed shoulders with all-night rural audiences, who elbowed us city-slickers out to the margins with a great sense of owning the music. 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 wish to romanticise, but how does one begin to de-romanticise an essentially romantic experience? Sure, the discomforts weren’t taken in their stride by all. Certainly, the hints of disorganisation could have taken a more serious turn, 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 privilege and entitlement we are so used to carrying around with us, got left behind, and participants put a willing shoulder to the wheel, chipping in with a lightness of touch that was salutary to behold and experience.
I connected to the One, that One permeated all
All are mine, I am everybody’s, there is no Other.
The nightly line-up included Prahladji himself, singing Kabir in his inimitable, emphatic style, driving home the message of the poetry. There was Kaluram Bamaniya, also from Malwa; and Mooralala Marwara, from Kutch, who started each bhajan with the soulful cry of ‘Hey ji Ram!’ The list went on: Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan, with an incredibly powerful voice and wide range. On the last day, Mukhtiar Ali, also from Rajasthan, mixing Sufi with Kabir. Kailash Kher, on the first night, jamming away with Prahladji and Kaluramji. Hemant Chauhan from Gujarat, Shivji Suthar from Bikaner, and Bharati Bandhu from Chhattisgarh. 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, and sometimes worse, tired as they were, with the relentless all-night concerts and the ceaseless travelling. But when you are really tripping, who can stop to bother with notions of perfection? Reduced to the basics of living, there is a keener appreciation of one’s blessings.
Kabir wonders, what is Hari really like?
At each moment, He is like what He is like.
At each place, He is like what He is like.
The days were simple, reduced to essential acts due to the heat and the intense schedule. Fulfilment just to have an opportunity to take a shower, a cup of chai a joy. The day would be noted by the simple markers of breakfast, lunch and dinner, at a different place and a different time almost every time. In between, there would be frequent singing and dancing. Any other moment would be spent trying to catch some precious rest, if one could find a mattress somewhere. And then, of course, there was the travelling itself – the yatra – the act of getting from one place to another, in buses that became like homes, like wombs, holding us and our conversations and all our music (which continued even while on the road), with such graciousness and generosity. The yatra bus took us down a road that led us to a pitch of intensity that 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 Prahladji 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 vest and sunglasses, with his big, swirling moustache as addendum, lustily leading an impromptu garbha at another of one of our many stops, after yet another sleepless night and 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 all happen. It all came together in a heady rush of song that was never finished, an echo that has yet to meet 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.
About the author: Vipul Rikhi writes poetry, drama and fiction, and is currently a fellow for literature at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart.
This piece was published in Himal Southasian magazine (June 2011 edition) under the Tapestry section. Tapestry, offers stories that arise in the course of the ongoing work being done by Himal’s two sister organisations, Film Southasia (FSA) and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research.