Kabirdas had been a presence for me from middle school… having taken Hindi as the second language there was no escaping the couplets from Kabir, Tulsi and others like Bihari. Kabir’s maxims on practical wisdom – that you must not postpone things, for example – were interspersed with weightier counsel like praying to God even when the going is good (a way, we were told, of keeping difficulties away) and the assurance of god’s protection to those who repose faith in Him (Jaako raakhai saayiyaan maarina sakkai koay ..Nobody can harm him who is protected by the Lord.
But apart from these, there were ‘dohas’ about the search for the ultimate truth (‘beloved’ in Kabir’s idiom) and how the seeker gets irradiated by god’s beauty and power and becomes one with him. In addition to the lilt and lyrical beauty of such couplets – ‘Laali Mere Laal Ki’ , for example – there was something mystical about them that rang a bell somewhere within me, sounding the thirst for a nameless experience about which at that time I had no clear idea.
But the contours of Kabir’s personality…a wonderful amalgam of Hindu, Muslim, heretic, visionary, reformer, dissenter..and the sound of his voice..fearless, ecstatic, challenging…kept haunting me. Here was somebody I knew…I could almost see him!
The impact of Kabir was reinforced by a similar personality Shirdi Sai Baba, who was, like Kabir, a boyhood, shall I say, acquaintance. Used to coming to Mylapore in Madras (it was not officially named Chennai then) from Calcutta, for vacations, I remember going to the Shirdi Sai temple founded by Narasimhaswamiji. (In the Calcutta complex, ‘Nandhi Mansion’ that we lived in Ballygunge, our neighbour was an old man called Varadaraja Iyer, a livewire in Sai activities in the city).
In the mid sixties, the Sai temple and its surrounding areas like Alamelugmangapuram, Saradapuram and Rangachari road, were calm and quiet. Today, the temple is crowded most of the days…with Thursdays seeing teeming crowds. The temple and its surroundings are the haunt of beggars, who are frequent recipients of the benevolence of Baba’s devotees.
In those days, the temple was a cool oasis. Narasimhaswami’s samadhi had a thatched roof and was laid with Cuddapah slabs…you could feel the nip in the air. Both Kabir and Shirdi Sai had a Muslim connection, but both crossed the barriers of religion (elementary, I suppose, if you are Hindu in spirit) through the spiritual dimension..it was the Vedantic declaration of oneness with the supreme albeit with a dash of Sufism.
As the years rolled by there were a few things that crystallized in my mind. One strong idea was the impossibility of words conveying the meanings that we intend them to. Words may have some sort of generally agreed upon meaning but the shades and dimensions that are so dear to each one of us…these were simply incommunicable! It is not that each person is an island..sometimes what we say might strike a chord in someone else’s heart..but it is not the power of our words..it is what is inside the other person! If this is the case of our lives..when it comes to questions like God (who surely is not divorced from our life, and is perhaps life itself, though we don’t realize it most of the time), I was able to see that no words, even revelatory words, can touch him. Rather ironical things for a journalist, writer, poet and aspiring communicator to say, but there you are. Questioned about fiction, I once made bold to say that every fiction writer is writing his own biography and passing it off as somebody else’s story!
These quasi epistemological and ontological probings based on intuition and experience led me to the realization that I was meant to probe reality through poetry, music and film…for vague though they may be, they were at least suited to the search in some intuitive way. In music, anything that was sincere and avoided the beaten track – the energy within is meant to break out in newer, fresher forms – attracted me.
One musician who bowled me over in this way was Kumar Gandharva. His unique style fascinated me, and the story of his life and musical exploration unfolded in my mind like a epic film with a symphonic score.
Born Shivaputra Siddharamayya Komkali in the musically generative Hubli-Dharwar region of North Karnataka in South India, he was named Kumar Gandharva by the spiritual head of his Lingayat community (a sect of staunch worshippers of Lord Shiva) when he showed precocious singing talent at the age of six. In the star-crossed upward trail of his musical journey, he got sucked into the quicksands of miserable health and personal bereavement, but transcended and transmuted his tribulations with his soaring musical energy and innovation.
He was called the ‘enfant terrible’ of Indian music and the ‘harbinger of the avant garde movement’ in the tradition-bound Hindusthani system, but adjectives apart, the extraordinary vivacity and empathy with which he assimilated the founts of the folk music tradition into the stream of his classical art marked him out as the cynosure of the music scene. My Hindusthani music teacher, an accomplished instrumentalist himself, would dismiss him with a single gesture of non-approval!
However, it was Kumar Gandharva’s unique rendering of some of Kabir’s greatest work – the ‘Nirguni’ bhajans, or the bhajans on the attributeless Supreme – that were a new discovery and experience of Kabir for me. Kabir takes off to great heights in these extraordinary songs – I can only think of the mystic poetry with tantric overtones of the Siddhars of Tamil Nadu to compare with Kabir’s take on the ineffable ultimate. But I don’t think the poetry of the Siddhars has ever got such a powerful mounting. We are busy making politics over language rather living and re-living our heritage.
Kabirdas lived in the fifteenth century in Kashi, the most sacred city of the Hindus. Legend has it –and there is a surfeit of legend and anecdotary lore surrounding his charismatic personality — that he was discovered as a baby lying on the lotus leaf of a neglected tank by a Muslim weaver. The sounds and literary figures of the loom do echo in his sublime poetry expressed in the Avadhi dialect of Hindi.
Interpretations of Kabir’s personality and contribution, and his place in his time when Hindu India was under Muslim rule vary, but to the perceptive mind his truth is crystal clear. He was a spiritual savant who had had a transcendental experience and expressed it unequivocally in the eloquent strains of an illumined seer. And as he did not hesitate to hit out at entrenched interests, both Hindu and Muslim, who were out to sell their dogmas to the people as the only means of salvation,he provoked quite a bit of hostility.
A death in Kashi is supposed to confer ‘salvation’, but when Kabir saw his death approaching he left Kashi to die in Mag’har near Gorakhpur! What a great rebel this Kabir was! Morari Bapu, the famous Kathakar, was recently at Kabir’s mausoleum in Mag’har. Apart from rendering his famous musical discourse to huge crowds there, he made a handsome donation for the Kabir institutions there.)
Kabir’s ‘nirguni bhajans’ are spiritual outpourings celebrating the all-pervasive divinity in its impersonal and attribute-less aspect, (nir = without ; guna = attributes ; bhajan – devotional song). They are couched in the picturesque terminology of the yogis and sufis, who view the macrocosm (the universe) as being immanent in the microcosm (the body). For them, the body is a temple of God, replete with chakras (literally wheels, but meaning dynamic spiritual centres) that spell the spiritual possibilities of the individual.
In their view, the body is crisscrossed with manifold naadis, subtle channels of energy, the most important of these being Sushumna, which is in the hollow of the cerebro-spinal axis. Ida and Pingala, the other two important naadis, coil round the Sushumna. These three naadis are frequently mentioned by Kabir in his bhajans. Sounds esoteric and arcane? Perhaps. But they come to life when you listen to the stirring and mesmeric renditions of these songs by Kumar Gandharva.
Even as you hear Kumar Gandharva enunciate the first line of Kabir’s song Jheeni Jheeni Jheeni…Bheeni Chadareeyaa…, you are immediately transported to the world of a rare mystical muse. The rich tonality of Kumar Gandharva’s impassioned voice, the spacious ambit of the seven-measure (mishra) rhythmic cycle that he uses, the incantatory effect that he produces by repeating words, the modulations that he brings to this repetition, and the nativity of his diction are all part of the magic that he casts on you…
Kabir’s bhajan which presents the Lord as a weaver, and the human being as the intricately wrought blanket that He wove, shimmers as a divine vision in Kumar Gandharva’s unique interpretation.
Subtly, Very Subtly indeed Was this Blanket woven by Him…
What its warp What its woof And What the fibre With which He wove it?
‘Ingala’ is the warp ‘Pingala’ the woof And ‘Sushumna’ the fibre With which he wove this blanket…
The eight-fold wheel Of lotuses He rotated
And with the five great elements And the three attributes This blanket he wove …
He took ten months To weave it fine Chipping away like a sculptor He wove this blanket
The gods, men and hermits Wore this blanket Knowing not its purpose And desecrated it with filth…
Kabir, slave of the Lord Wore it with the right effort Kabir wore this blanket In its true spirit…
Wah! Wah!! What a grand song Kabir weaves when he speaks of the Masterweaver’s designs! And what grandeur and depth Gandharva brings to this theme. So telling is Kumar Gandharva’s presentation of this ‘Jheeni Jheeni’ song in a folk melody, that it is almost akin to a melodic trance, a musical meditation.
In another song, Kabir shares with a spiritual confrere, as it were, his wonderment at the marvellous turns that the divine dispensation takes… ‘‘When it turns its gaze on a pauper, he becomes a monarch, and when it turns away an Emperor becomes a beggar! The crocodiles begin to roam the deep forests searching for prey and the lions leap into the seas looking for meat…The blind roam the three worlds witnessing all the goings-on while the crippled vault over the Meru mountain and the dumb hold forth on the nuances of the sciences…’’
The infinite possibilities of the phenomenal world astonish even Kabir who has seen through the veil that hides the ultimate truth! Another song reverts to a subject well-beloved to the mystics…hearing the silent melody that resounds in the empyrean… the sound of the secret syllable (Om) that surpasses all understanding…the eternal mantra that flows in and out with every breath of the creatures asserting their essential identity with the Supreme… Such a lyric abounds with the intimations of the fourth dimension.
Kumar Gandharva is not only alive to such resonances, but also shows an almost preternatural sense of the spiritual and succeeds in echoing the eternal verities.
This is reflected again in the bhajan of another poet Aadinath. While the reverberations of the taanpura mingle sweetly into Kumar Gandharva’s high fidelity singing, the harmonium keeps itself in the deep background. Vasant Achrekar, on the tabla matches the large amplitude of the master’s rhythmic movements with great dignity and grace.
Even without a knowledge of the underpinnings of Kumar Gandharva’s explorations into Nirguni Bhajans, the sheer magic of his vocalism gets at you…and touches the shores of your memory again and again like the waves of the ocean. But with even a faint understanding of the contours of the realms that Kabir and Kumar Gandharva stride together, you may be on the way to the discovery of the greatest voyage of your life.
(The Nirguni Bhajans of Kabir in Kumar Gandharva’s voice were released by INRECO)