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The Kabir legacy

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

Shabnam Virmani juxtaposes opposites, in their many approaches to Kabir and the search for a universal voice.

I turned to Kabir because he is almost a cliche of communal harmony. - Shabnam Virmani

Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

THOUGHT PROVOKING: Shabnam Virmani (right) with researcher Linda Hess.

“O servant , where dost thou seek Me?

Lo! I am beside thee.

I am neither in temple nor in mosque…”

Kabir, the mystic poet and singer-saint of the 15th century, is regarded by many as the best icon for our troubled times. Brought up in the home of Muslim weavers in the holy city of Benaras, he considered himself “the child of Allah and Ram.&# 8221; Transcending the boundaries of religious divisions, Kabir sought the Truth. His dohas (two-line verses) speak to us through metaphors drawn from everyday life.

In North India, Kabir lives in numerous ways filling various spaces with the depth of his simple yet profound philosophy and the direct eloquence of his words. Documentary film maker Shabnam Virmani is the director of the Kabir Project which comprises four documentary films, two folk music videos and 10 music CDs accompanied by books of poetry in translation ( thekabirproject@gmail.com). Through her thought provoking films — “Had-Anhad,” “Koi Sunta Hai,” “Kabira Khada Bazar Mein” and “Chalo Hamara Des” — she conveys the spirit and texture of the continuing legacy of Kabir.

Contemporary spaces


“The films journey into contemporary spaces touched by his music and poetry,” says Shabnam. In her films, Shabnam juxtaposes the urban and the rural, the Indian and the foreign, the classical and the folk, and the secular and the fundamentalist, in their many approaches to Kabir and the search for a universal voice. “Had-Anhad” was a joint prize winner at the recent documentary film festival, “One Billion Eyes,” organised by Prakriti Foundation in Chennai.

She sounds upbeat as her films were also screened at the Kabir Festival hosted by the Auroville Foundation recently in Puducherry. “They received a very good response,” she smiles.

Briefly describing the films, Shabnam points out how “Chalo Hamara Des” brings together Prahlad Tipanya, a folk singer of Kabir’s songs and North American scholar Linda Hess who has researched his life and work: the film underlines the cross-cultural resonances of Kabir. “‘Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein’ investigates the ironies and tensions between the sacred and secular Kabir,” says the filmmaker. “‘Had-Anhad’ journeys in search of the ‘Ram’ invoked in his poetry delving into the heart of the divisive politics of religion and nationalism, encountering singers in both India and Pakistan. ‘Koi Sunta Hai’ dwells on classical singer Kumar Gandharva’s deep engagement with the saint poet and the spiritual ideas of Kabir to form the central binding thread in the film,” she elaborates.

In the CDs, the words of the poet ring out powerfully through the songs sung by ten singers and in a variety of musical genres — folk, classical, Drupad and Sufi.

Shabnam began her career in the print media. Her report of the Roop Kanwar case of Sati in Rajasthan created a great impact. She moved to the making of documentary films, mainly on gender issues.

Quite a few of the films she has directed, in close partnership with grassroots women’s groups in the country, have won national and international awards.

Shabnam’s camera has consistently and evocatively captured the suffering and the dignity of the rural women of India. “When Women Unite,” for instance, portrayed the successful anti-liquor agitation by rural women in Andhra Pradesh while “Mein Zinda Hoon” depicted the success of women activists in Madhya Pradesh. Just through a minute, “Bol” conveyed the agony of victims of domestic violence and succeeded in spreading awareness, and in “Lesser Humans” the plight of women night soil workers was exposed.

What made Virmani turn from gender issues to focus on Kabir?

“I felt I was saying the same thing again and again in different ways. I was not growing,” she reflects. “It came home to me most sharply with the Godhra riots. I was stupefied by them. I didn’t understand the realm of faith. The larger picture evaded me when I worked with grassroots organisations in the rural areas. I was searching for a spiritual perspective, one that didn’t divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us.’” I started out by turning to Kabir because he is almost a cliche of communal harmony. But rapidly Kabir started to speak to me. He showed that the people who commit violence are not outsiders — within all of us is a reflection of what unfolds in the outside world. I consider myself a feminist but such rigidity too makes you a violent person.”

Shabnam is at present Artist-in-residence at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Wanaparthy Educational Trust, Bengaluru. “Geetha Narayan, Founder-Director of Srishti School offered great support to me and the project over the last six years, starting with a residency,” says the film maker.

“That gave me the time and scope to travel and conceive the project along with my colleague Tara Kini. The project began in 2003 and was supported by Ford Foundation in Delhi.”

And what helped her connect to Kabir?

“I’ve always been deeply fond of music and my quest of Kabir began with a quest for music,” says the filmmaker.

Why did she choose to feature Linda Hess?

“I met a lot of scholars and singers of Kabir. I wanted to follow those who are “walking the talk,” she explains. “Both Prahlad Tipanya and Linda have been of immense help. Tipanya is a guru to me.”

Shabnam plans to travel with the films. “They will be screened at Kabir festivals held in various cities. I also plan to take them to different campuses,” she says.

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