A New Year’s Resolution Recommendation from the 15th century: Folk singer Prahlad Tipaniya presents Kabir

Prahlad
The indomitable folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipaniya of Luniakhedi, Madhya Pradesh. Photo courtesy: Kabir Festival, Mumbai.

61 year old Prahlad Singh Tipaniya of Malwa discovered the joys of Benares born mystic poet Kabir through the the tambura, and shares with us the importance of a practical approach to Kabir’s anti-communal philosophies, their relevance in an increasingly intolerant and divided world, the impact of Kabir vaani (speech) on those who hear it for the first time, and the crucial relevance of listening inward to the music within. Presenting your poetic bookend to the year!

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“Kabir Sahab’s vaani enters every listener’s life as an experience that can only be completely understood by practice. I felt a growing attachment to the words of Kabir and to the man himself when I heard great singers perform his work. The world has been at work for thousands of years, creating divisions between one another – boundaries of religions, caste, gender, colour – but here was this man who just moved away and talked of things beyond such limiting demarcations. He wrote that the supreme power exists within each of us – that it isn’t handed to a select few. That is such a big way of bringing people together.

And he didn’t just talk the talk, he lived it practically too. Today, people are out to loot one another, but the Kaviraj spoke not of looting but of being looted.

‘Kabira aap thagaiye, aur na thagiye koi
Aap thage sukh upaje, aur thage dukh hoy.’
(Kabira let yourself be looted, nobody else should be,
When you let yourself be looted there is happiness, when the other is looted it brings sadness.)

Even back in the 1400s, this man wasn’t just concerned with the protection and security of mankind, but also of the environment. He found so many parallels between the two, so many connections…

‘Iss ghaat antar baag bagiche, issi mein sirjanhara…’
(Within this earthen vessel are bowers and groves, and within it is the Creator.)

I read these lines, and began to think that the impact of such verse on people’s lives can be indelible, that the changes can be permanent. This realization hit home when I was working among the highly exploited and stigmatized Kanjar community in Madhya Pradesh for five years, with members of denotified tribes that were legally considered to be ‘born criminals’ under colonial rule. Of course, humans aren’t criminals; it’s about bad circumstances and company, so we tried to change the mentality of those who habitually committed theft and took narcotics. What did we do? Sit among them and sing bhajans, nothing more. Our aim was to empower and remind them that they weren’t criminals by birth, that they could lead any life they choose. After all, wasn’t sage Valmiki formerly a dacoit? A change of heart, a change of lifestyle – so many of our folk tales talk of such things.

We discovered an absolutely startling change in the people of the community because of our songs – may they be the words of Kabir or Baba Bulleh Shah or Sant Tukaram! The tribespeople may be illiterate and unable to read or write, but they remembered the bhajans sung for them, and sang them repeatedly. Forget looting and stealing, many of them don’t even smoke beedis and cigarettes anymore.

Such things remind you that bookish knowledge is one thing, but seeing that knowledge put into action and transform the way a group of people live is quite another. What is read in a book is not completely representative of reality. Were I to write your name down in my book, I could not claim that the name is you, for it’s just a conduit to reach you. In the same way bhajans, otherwise read in textbooks, only become real when we get up and travel, meet people, enter situations – only then are they truly discovered. Saying them or singing them or writing them isn’t enough. You must live them to make them real.

I don’t know how much I can give to Kabir, but the sound of the tambura keeps me going. Each of us has a sound that exists inside of us, the one that needs no instrument to bring it to life. Only when we listen to ourselves do we truly focus and begin to actualise our dreams and desires. Alas, we’re so consumed by sounds from the outside world – constantly swaying to them and humming them – that we often forget to listen inward!

The day they we really listen to the sounds resounding within us and understand ourselves, we will stop perceiving others as ‘the others’; they will become our own, part of our reality. It’s simple – if I find you to be different from me, I can disallow you entry into my world, I can commit atrocities on you, I can lie to you. But, if I look at you and see my own body, I can do nothing to harm you, because you are me. There is now no difference between you and me. The day such a colour descends before our eyes…

Remember Kabir’s ‘Laalee mere laal ki, jit dekho tit laal/ Laalee dekhan main gayee, main bhi ho gayee laal’ (The sweet colour of my beloved is spread all over, wherever I look I see red/ When I went to see His colour, I turned red too). In such a colour, not merely the words but the gods too descend.

‘Kabir khade bazaar mein, sabki chahe kher,
Na kahoon so dosti, na kahoon se ber’
(Kabir stands in the marketplace, with goodwill for everyone’s health/ There is no friendship with anyone, neither is there hatred) – he wasn’t speaking of or to a particular religion.

A man critiquing and challenging Hindu and Muslim orthodoxy in thw 15th century is more relevant today than ever, and necessary too. The tragedy today is that it’s our differences that define us. Call it a sorry state of affairs that circumstance makes people erect walls around themselves, people who are watched and mimicked around the world, people on whom the actions of many are based. Now let’s talk of Sufi poet and humanist Bulleh Shah – he spoke of soulfulness as the supreme power that exists, has always existed, will always exist. It is what keeps everyone’s dignity intact, safeguards everybody’s honour. The day we understand this, Hinduism and Islam will stand side by side. Granted, the methods of worship are different – one approaches one’s khuda or ishwar or parmaatma as one is taught to, but there is no right and wrong. To assume that one can be right over the other is a sign of our own misgivings and misunderstandings.

‘Hadd gayee, anhadd gaya, raha Kabira hoy
Behaddi maidan mein, raha Kabira soy.’
(Beyond the limited and the boundless, there is Kabira/ In an infinite field, lies Kabira asleep.)

Prahladji and Dev Narayan
Prahlad Singh Tipaniya and violinist Dev Narayan in performance. Photo courtesy: Kabir Festival, Mumbai.

I’ll tell you of an instance that occurred over five years ago in Raipur, near Kota, in Rajasthan. We reached Raipur for a show from Malwa rather late at night. On arriving there, we found ourselves in the company of many Mohammedans. They welcomed us, but there was no time to eat dinner before our music performance began. After a whole night of performing bhajans that ended at 5 am (as performances in villages tend to do) we returned to one of the organisers’ homes, where immediate preparations for a pohe and jalebi breakfast began.

As we sat in one small room, we saw a man come and sit at the threshold of our door, where one normally take off one’s shoes. I didn’t know who he was – he certainly wasn’t one of the organisers – so I called out to him and asked him why he was seated that way, and told him to come and join us. He declined the offer, saying he was fine just as he was. I insisted repeatedly, and soon after he began to cry. Do you know what he told me? He said, “Sahab, I had never heard bhajans before tonight – it was my first experience of this kind of music. I have done a lot of bad things in my life – stolen, looted, physically attacked people – but I want to leave all that behind.”

The villagers came to me and asked me what I’d done. I was dumbfounded – I had never laid eyes on the man before! He said it of his own mind, own volition. After this incident, I was told that he currently lives quite a humble life free of violence and crime, and that the area he lives in is breathing a sigh of relief. The vaani of the mystic saint poets can do this – it needs no coercion or conversion, it happens from within. If a fundamental change is to come about, this is the only way it will happen.

Every year, we organise the Kabir Mahoutsav and Malwa Kabir Yatra, and people come out in large numbers from villages and cities for it. It is my request that you come for it from 19 – 22nd February this coming year, come live with us. It commences in my village, you would live at our home, whatever rookha-sookha there is to eat we will share, and there you will see the extent of the faith and love of the people.

I am a people’s singer; neither do I know much about musical traditions nor am I a professional. Inspite of all that, I get to travel the world. I hold Kabir responsible. There is so much strength in his vaani, so much power. The only question is – are we ready to bring his speech into our lives practically, and make our commonplace actions a reflection of our learnings?

This will be the 20th year of the Malwa yatra. You must be there – write it down in your inner diary, you have no need of outward calendars! At the yatra, there are several all night performances by singers from around the country, and many discussions too. The first day is held at Luniakhedi, our village. The Malwa region is made up of many Madhya Pradesh districts – Ujjain, Indore, Ratlam, Mandsaur, Shajapur, Jhabua – across the districts, people believe in the saying ‘Malav maati geher gambhir, das das roti pag pag neer’, which pays homage to the hospitality of the people in Malwa. The local dialects, the food – dal baati is our speciality! – all add to the charm of the yatra. From Luniakhedi, the performances go wherever people invite the singers. Tens of thousands of people come out to watch these performances – many travel across the world for it, but most come from nearby villages. Some arrive by train, some by motorcycle, some by bus – they come, listen all night, and return home in the morning! This yatra happened one year in Rajasthan, but otherwise continues annually in Malwa. It has taken the form of the annual Kabir Festival in Mumbai. Now, would you believe it, young people come to learn about Kabir and attend workshops on his writing! Such things make me very hopeful.

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For most people, Kabir exists in school textbooks only as the writer of ‘Kaal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab/ Pal mein parlay hoyegi, bahuri karega kab?’ (What you would put off till tomorrow, do today/ What you would do today, do right now. If the moment is lost, when will the work be done?)Schools and colleges haven’t made a solid effort to introduce the philosophies of one of India’s most enduring thinkers to the youth. If I had to pick my favourite dohas and saakhis to introduce to younger readers who may know virtually nothing about Kabir – disguised as New Year Resolution Suggestions from me and the poet himself, as you ask of me – I know the ones I would pick.

‘Sabse hiliye sabse miliye, sabka lijiye bhav
Aur haanji haanji sabki kijiye, par rije apni thaav’

Mingle and meet people by all means, but stay connected to your own self to safeguard the truths that are yours. Connect with your inner music. Kabir believed that the only true guru was experience, and that this truth was different for each living creature.

‘Ye sab guru hai hadd ke, behadd ke guru naahin
Behadd aape upje, anubhav ke ghar maahi.’

Nowadays each household has its own ‘guru’, a person who professes to know the truth, who claims to possess the power to send people to heaven or hell. All he really wants is disciples, the pride of a legacy being passed down, and some money in the bank. What really counts is anubhav. Experience. It’s the only guru worth learning from. Remember, the boundless dwells inside of you.

Now let us talk of how I dream Kabir will be studied and enjoyed in the future. Even books of literature don’t have all of Kabir’s poetry. The tradition has been passed down orally among singers and performers who were largely illiterate, but dedicated to keeping the tradition alive. The unfortunate thing is that while people these days have international conferences and seminars on him, what is said is rarely authentic because it’s all bookish knowledge. It only becomes authentic when you live it and talk about it. Reading about suffering a setback and actually experiencing a setback in life are two very different things. All the saints’ bhajans stem from personal experience, and only then do subsequent learnings emerge. That is how I would like Kabir to be treated – as somebody who was speaking to each reader and singer across the ages individually, as somebody who endures not only in his own voice, but in the resounding voices of millions of others.

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(For more lovely insight into Prahladji’s world, we recommend this Hindi Urdu Flagship interview!)

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Interviewed and experienced by Tanvi Shah.

Join us for Prahladji’s session titled ‘Ghat Ghat Mein Kabir: Finding Kabir Within’where he will share more stories of Kabir and regale us with his now classic musical renditions of Kabir vaani! The session will be held on Sunday (Jan 10, 2016) in the Bhau Daji Lad Museum garden at 12 pm. This Mumbai Local talk is free and open for all.

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