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The sufi in our times

Praveen Bose  |  Bangalore 

Shabnam Virmani

There is a living Kabir tradition in many parts of India

Most of us studied Kabir’s dohas in school, and then forgot them soon after. But now the soon-to-be-launched Azim Premji University plans to include Kabir’s dohas in its post-graduate courses on education, development and teacher education.

It was a chance meeting with Shabnam Virmani that convinced Anurag Behar, co-CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation, of the pedagogic potential of Kabir’s dohas — his couplets expounding home truths and preaching religious harmony. Virmani leads the Kabir Project which explores how the 15th century mystic poet continues to sirvive in diverse social, political, religious and spiritual spaces in India and parts of Pakistan.

filming Mukhtar AliAlso, the Kabir Project is now supported by Wipro Applying Thought in Schools and will look at how Kabir can be taught in more dynamic ways in schools, including those supported by the Azim Premji Foundation in rural and urban areas.

A documentary film-maker, 45-year-old Virmani is artist in residence at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. She’s also co-founder of the Drishti Media Arts and Human Rights collective, where she directed several documentaries in partnership with grassroots women’s groups.

Virmani’s tryst with Kabir began in 2002. She was living in Ahmedabad then, and saw first hand the anti-Muslim riots that followed the Godhra carnage. Kabir seemed to call out to her — “Sadho, dekho jag baurana!” (Oh seekers, see the world’s gone mad!). “I instinctively felt that this man was saying what I felt,” Virmani says. In 2003, she set off, camera in hand, travelling all over, meeting people who sang, loved, quoted, revered and interpreted Kabir for a living.

Seven years down the line, some of these experiences have found their way into four documentary films, several music CDs and books. Now, she and her team are working on a virtual encylopaedia of Kabir and other mystic poets, incorporating meanings of these poems through text, audio and video clips of songs, reflections, art works and conversations.

The Ford Foundation has support the Kabir Project with three grants of roughly Rs 2.5 crore, covering a period of 10 years from 2003-2013.

Shabnam says, she had set out thinking she would preach Kabir to the “violent, misguided ones out there”. But soon Kabir started “speaking to me...showing me the fissures in my own mind, the violence (gross or subtle) and the dishonesties I am capable of when I construct and defend my ego”.

In 2003, she spent three days in Damakheda village in Chhattisgarh, amidst followers of the Dharamdasi Kabir Panth sect at their annual chauka aarti festival. “I was able to see the divisiveness of religion, its unholy nexus with politics and commerce, the distortions and exploitation in the practice of ritual. But I was also moved to see the faith and spirit with which people gathered there. I began to recognise the power and attraction rituals can hold.”

This uneasy tension became the underlying quest of her film Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein: Journeys with Sacred and Secular Kabir. It follows the life of Prahlad Tipanya, a folk singer and activist of the secular group Eklavya, who decided to join the Kabir Panth as a mahant (cleric). The film tracks the opposing pulls of the individual and the collective, the spiritual and the social, as Tipanya tries to translate the ideas of Kabir into his life.

Shabnam now aims to make the Kabir Project self-sustaining and support the folk artistes and oral traditions which keep Kabir alive. Part of the proceeds from the films and audio CDs, thus, have been used for this purpose.

In March 2010, she organised the first Malwa Kabir Yatra. The nine-day yatra started from Luniyakhedi village, Tipanya’s home, and travelled through villages and large cities such as Ujjain and Indore in eight districts, spreading the message of Kabir through live music and film screenings. It brought together folk singers, activists, artists, students with rural audiences ranging from 1,000 to 13,000, putting on the same platform the many different Kabir oral traditions. It gave rural audiences in Malwa a chance to appreciate for the first time the spirit of Kabir in Kutchi, Gujarati and Marwari folk music, through the voices of Mooralala Marwada, Hemant Chauhan and Mukhtiyar Ali.

First Published: Sun, March 20 2011. 00:22 IST