The Art of Life|Feb 5, 2013 4:08 AM| by:

Walking with Kabir

My journey began eight years ago in the city of Ahmedabad. It was the year 2002, and riots were sweeping across Gujarat after the Godhra train burning. People down the road were looting shops, creating a carnival of raiding an ice-cream parlor owned by a Muslim. I felt repelled and angry. A poet’s voice seemed to shout out how I was feeling, echoing across 6 centuries… Sadho, dekho jag baurana! Look seekers, this world has gone mad!

We were like cartoons in a cartoon graveyard… all of us pointing fingers at each other… the Hindus at the Muslims, the Muslims at the Hindus, the secularists at the communalists, the communalists at the pseudo-secularists… and so on and so forth. I sensed we were locked in a dance of endlessly spiralling dualities, and I wanted to break free. Kabir whispered a clue…

Bura jo dekhan mein chala, bura na milya koi.

Jo tan khoja aapna, mujh se bura na koi.

I set out to find evil and found no evil one.

I searched my own self and found no one as evil as I.

As they say in the Kabir oral traditions, “ulat samana aap mein” “I turned upon my own self”, and caught a glimpse of the real enemy – the enemy within, the paranoid ego which perpetually needs to create an external enemy in order to feel secure about itself.

The angry accusing finger faltered, and I was plunged into uncertainty. In the six years that followed, I set out on many journeys with my camera in hand in search of Kabir across many landscapes – religious, cultural, musical – meeting with people who love Kabir, singing, quoting and making meaning of him for their lives. Some of these experiences have found expression in documentary films, music CDs and books. But while I journeyed into outer worlds, at Kabir’s urging I also journeyed within – and the story for me didn’t proceed according to script.

I had thought I would preach Kabir to the violent, misguided ones out there. But Kabir started speaking to me, in here. He started showing me the fissures in my own mind, the violence and the dishonesties I am capable of when I construct and defend my ego. This is not what I was expecting to find on these journeys – to find myself complicit in the social scenario I had set out to condemn, at least in some measure.

Kabira khadaa bazaar mein, liye lukaathi haath 

Jo ghar baare aapna, chale hamaare saath! 

Kabir stands in the market, flaming torch in hand. 

Burn down your home, then come walk with me!

Kabir is asking us to burn down the walls of identity we build to separate us from them. Kabir pushes us out of these comfort zones, our carefully constructed identities and self-images, our cherished beliefs and frameworks, which quite like our houses, are material, located and very fragile. I try to intuit the freedom that may come from such a homelessness.


Haath mein tumba, bagal mein sota!

Charon disha jaageeri mein!

A bowl and walking stick is all I own,

Yet my kingdom stretches in four directions! says Kabir.


I try to intuit how my sense of self may expand, when I disengage from all the labels I’ve assiduously accumulated for myself throughout my life.


Sab thor jamaat, hamari jamaat

Sab thor par mela

Ham sab maahin, sab ham maahin

Ham hain bahuri akelaa

In all places, my community

In all places, I meet with them

I am in all, all are in me

I am alone and together


Evidently, this is not an easy identity to cultivate, one that’s beyond definitions. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Kabir’s own identity today defies definition. There is not one but many Kabirs.

Kabir is claimed by upper caste Hindus, who see the Upanishads and Vedanta echoed in him. But then Kabir is so dear to the Dalits, who gain dignity and self-hood in his voice. Kabir is in intimate dialogue with not just Dalit and Hindu traditions, but also Sufi, Buddhist and Sikh communities. Kabir is a secular icon for atheist activists, who use his couplets as slogans. But then there are the devout Kabir Panthis who deify him with temples and aartis!

So how do we make sense of Kabir? Indeed the hidden question in all this is, how do we make sense of ourselves? Another Sufi poet whispers a clue… Bullah, kee jaana mein kaun? Bulla says, almost triumphantly, Who knows who I am? In a human society erupting with confident and acrimonious assertions of identity – I’m proud to be Hindu, or Dalit, or Indian, or what-have-you –To NOT know who you are is a deeply profound Not Knowing. It’s the only thing that may lead us to compassion, and the beginning of Love – this Not Knowing.

You see, because we all cling to forms. The Sufi sees the shoonyata, the emptiness that lurks under their surface. We cling to names, labels, ideologies, institutions, people… the Sufi confronts the dissolution that lurks under the surface of all these things. Just one breath away.  Kabir reminds us…

Pal mein parlay hoyegi, bahuri karoge kab?

In a moment of apocalypse –

heads whirl

Afraid of the future,

they howl at the past.


Death is no stranger for Kabir and other Sufi poets. In fact, Death is the Beloved.


Will you

follow me to the gallows

my friend? Says Shah Lateef – a Sindhi Sufi

The gallows await those

who seek the Beloved


And this is not some abstract, longed-for union in some distant future after the giving up of the body, after physical death. This is a courtship in the here and now. In the palpable moment to moment awareness of the transience of all things we are clinging to, that are dying.

It’s interesting that in urban India, it’s mostly at funeral ceremonies that one encounters a Kabir song of death. People sing and listen with long faces, looking solemn and sober. When I first heard it in a village in Malwa, the contrast was shocking. The moment the song started, the satsang erupted into dancing! And I thought, wait a minute. They’re singing about death! It was a moment of epiphany – to encounter the song of death as a carnival.

I realized that to take Death as a lover held one big promise – perhaps my fears may give way to Fearlessness. It was in this spirit perhaps that the great singer of Kabir, Kumar Gandharva once said – gaate gaate mein roz marta hoon. I die every day, singing.

Songs & Satsang

So what does one do with this wisdom, this wisdom of dissolving selves and boundaries? Put it in a holy scripture? Naah, that’s another kind of boundary. The true vehicle for this wisdom, I believe, is a song, which is as free as the wisdom it offers, which flies like a bird without visas, across lands and people, beyond the claims of godmen and religions, beyond the claims of state and censorship, beyond the claims of corporate control and ownership, beyond even the claims of IPR and authorship.

So don’t be a scholar and ask me for the “authentic” Kabir. Don’t show me with a trace of pride his “authentic” baani recorded in a holy scripture, fixed and frozen for all time to come. I’ll show you a thousand poems of Kabir flowing as songs, coursing like a river across lands from Nepal to Bengal, from Benares to Pakistan, changing languages and metaphors, moving with the times, songs entering our bodies and hearts, afflicting them like a virus might, striking them down with the shabd ki chot, the Wound of the Word. This is how we all become carriers of the truth, how we become its vehicles, how we become contagious, how we pass on the affliction. Sunne se aur sunaane se – or better still, gaane se!  By listening and telling, or better still, singing. I suppose this is what scholars call the oral traditions. This is how we all participate in them.

The nurturing ground for this song of wisdom has always been the Satsang, which literally means “sat ki sangat karna” “a gathering where you are in the company of the truth”. In the 15th Century it was a highly subversive act – this space where anybody, regardless of caste, class or gender, could gather to sing and reflect on the truth, to commune with the divine. It was deeply threatening to the religious order, to god’s middlemen and their salvation machines. I find it rather ironic that today satsang, in middle-class India especially, has come to denote the tamest of all spaces – a feel-good withdrawal from social engagement, a post-retirement option plan for uncles and grandmothers.

Can we reclaim the “satsang” as a space of radical reflection and action? A space not enclosed within walls of divisive cults and sects – but an open space? A house with no walls or gateways – a be-dar-o-deewar ka ghar – a space that welcomes and encourages other voices, other sources of wisdom without feeling threatened itself? Not a space where one preaches and many listen, but where many feel empowered to speak and many listen?

When satsangs are organized in this spirit around the voice of bhakti and Sufi poets it has the capacity to become a kind of social organizing around the force of love. Together with the rigour of interrogation – an interrogation of the world – which can only be authentic if it stems from an interrogation of the self.

And this really is what has unwittingly become the work of the Kabir project in its second phase… a series of satsangs in the form of festivals and events, screenings and workshops… a coming together of people from very different spaces… folk singers and classical singers, scholars and activists, older people and students, artists and teachers, rural folk and urban folk… all drawn to this space by a voice of a poet… by the twin imperatives of Interrogation and Love.

I’d like to share with you a moment from our Bangalore festival of Kabir in February last year which I felt truly captured this spirit. The context was the growing jingoistic mood in our country four months after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Despite the pessimism and lack of help from the world, our team had secured visas for our Pakistani singer friends to join other Kabir singers from Malwa, Rajasthan, Kutch and Karnataka. I think this was achieved through our sheer will and commitment to recall the voice of Kabir as a shared cultural heritage across the nation’s borders precisely at that moment in history.

It was the last day of the festival, the final concert of qawwali by Fariduddin Ayaz from Karachi and the auditorium was packed to the brim. Farid Ayaz is a man from Delhi, flung across the border during Partition. He says wryly, in Karachi we are called Dilli-wale, and when we come to Delhi to perform we are called Karachi-wale! When he burst into the famous Rajasthani folk song ‘Padhaaro mhaare des (Come to my country)’, the moment crackled with a tragic beauty. ‘Let us go to that undivided land,’ he said, ‘that country beyond India and Pakistan, that undivided mind space where we all belong, where Kabir is calling us…’ Many in the audience were weeping.

I am not surprised to hear that one of the root meanings of the term bhakti is ‘participation’. I am not surprised that on these journeys I find myself dropping the camera that reduces me to being a passive observer, to pick up the manjiras and tambura and join in the singing. This spirit of joining in is the greatest power of the Folk Tradition. This is the same democratic and inclusive spirit that is the greatest power of the Bhakti Tradition. And when these two come together in the all-night village satsang many boundaries begin to blur – those between singer and listener, between singer and song, between self and other, between self and God.

Laali mere laal kee, jit dekhun tit laal

Laali dekhan mein gayee, mein bhee ho gayi laal.

The redness of my beloved is such –

wherever I look I see that red.

I set out in search of red,

I became red myself.

When the act of singing, listening and sharing leads to such a loss of boundaries, I believe the wisdom of the poem is being enacted, practiced, embodied and realized – a kind of poetic praxis. When this spirit of the satsang begins to flow outwards into the ordinary spaces of our lives… it holds the power to transform both our inner and outer worlds.



The power of a satsang is derived not just from the singing but also the listening. Isn’t that what Kabir is always asking of us? Kahein Kabir, suno bhai sadho! Listen. It’s almost as though he intuits that these two eyes may get deluded by forms into a divisive sense of separateness. Almost, as though a greater and more connected truth could be apprehended through listening.

In some ways I feel I understand this truth of listening… through another route, through the experience of my craft, as a filmmaker. While trying to edit this footage – 400 hours of rich experiences – into coherent stories, I felt daunted, often paralyzed. The material resisted the forms I wanted to give it. And my anxiety grew. The anxiety was born in the artistic ego, which wanted to exert its will and authority on the material, and give it a form. And there came a moment when my ego was humbled. I accepted that I will not be able to make great films, great masterpieces.

I think it was in that moment, when my ego was defeated, that I began to listen. Listen to what the footage was saying to me. Not what I wanted to say through the footage. And it all began to fall into place. Simply.

What I realized in that moment was that in some sense, these were not my films. They were not something I made or earned or chose. They were experiences I had the good fortune to receive as gifts, from a space that lay beyond the claims of my small self.

There is an old folk belief in South America that says that for a gift to retain its power, it must always remain in circulation, it must be passed on, that if it’s hoarded it’ll cause bad luck. I realized that these experiences, these songs, these poems, were gifts of wisdom. All I had to do now really was to pass them on and gift them to others.

Meraa mujh mein kuchch naheen

Jo kuchch hai so teraa

Teraa tujh ko saunp dun

Kyaa laage hai meraa?

There is nothing in me that is mine

All that is – is yours

I offer to you what’s already yours

What can I say is mine?


Shabnam Virmani

(For more information on Shabnam’s work, look up