Journeys with Kabir

Earlier this week I went to a screening of the film Koi Sunta Hai, one of four documentaries produced by the Kabir Project, an expansive music and film project directed by Shabnam Virani.

In their own words:

The Kabir project brings together the experiences of a series of ongoing journeys in quest of this 15th century North Indian mystic poet in our contemporary worlds. Started in 2003, these journeys inquire into the spiritual and socio-political resonances of Kabirs poetry through songs, images andconversations.

We journey through a stunning diversity of social, religious and musical traditions which Kabir inhabits, exploring how his poetry intersects with ideas of cultural identity, secularism, nationalism, religion, death, impermanence, folk and oral knowledge systems.

I first learned about The Kabir Project a couple of years ago when they did a screening several clips from the films in Jackson Heights, Queens and featured a stirring performance by folk musician Prahlad Tipaniya, who is featured in the films. I was deeply moved and inspired by the films’ (and musicians’) explorations of Bhagat Kabir’s bani, and especially by the way the filmmaker and artists highlight the Kabir’s powerful message in the face of of contemporary manifestations of sectarian violence, caste oppression, and religious and national tensions in South Asia.

I was inspired again this week in watching Koi Sunta Hai, which highlights the Kabir-oriented journey of classical musician Kumar Gandharva. Kumarji, as he is referred to with admiration in the film, was a child prodigy classical Hindustani singer who developed an illness (the film says TB, Wikipedia says lung cancer) as a young man that forced him to not sing a note for five years. In that time of his world being turned upside down and his profession and main form of expression indefinitely at a halt, he began to hear singers from very non-classically trained backgrounds — folk singers, “common” people — singing the poetry of Kabir. This began to change his entire approach to music, spirituality, and life. The below clip from the film explains more about Kabir’s poetry and Kumarji’s relationship to it.

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As many readers are well aware, the Guru Granth Sahib contains 292 hymns of Bhagat Kabir, by far the most of any non-Sikh Guru. A predecessor to Guru Nanak, Bhagat Kabir’s message has greatly informed Sikh philosophy, and is embraced not only by Sikhs, but by many Muslims and Hindus as well.

My Ram, Rahim, Karim, Keshav
Allah, Ram — all are the truth.
Bismil, Bishambhar are one.
There is no other.

They who have qazis, peers, and prophets,
fast and worship to the west.
They who worship god in the east,
eleventh day dip in the Ganges.

Turks their mosques, Hindus their temples,
the two with their Ram and Khuda.
But where there’s neither mosque nor temple,
who’s the master of the land?

Says Kabir Das, the wandering faqir:
take your own path, my friend.
The lord of Hindus and Turks is one.
His way cannot be seen!

(translated by Shabnam Virmani and Vidya Rao)

Reflecting upon the amazing work that the Kabir Project has done to highlight the message of Bhagat Kabir (including 4 full-length films and 10 audio CDs with accompanying books of the poetry), I realize the great need for this kind of accessible exploration of the shabads of our Sikh Gurus. Not simply Sikhism 101 materials which exist in abundance (thankfully) or Sikhi to the Max translations, but deep exploration of the contemporary relevance of the beautiful and inspiring poetry that makes up the Guru Granth Sahib. We need more than listening to katha at the gurdwara. We need a way in which Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike can appreciate the beauty and power of Gurbani.

Perhaps readers can share any resources along these lines that exist, projects underway, or ideas in the comments. In the mean time, you can watch clips of the Kabir Project films, including Koi Sunta Hai, here and purchase the CDs and DVDs here.

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4 Responses to “Journeys with Kabir”

  1. kantay says:

    Actually katha is a good way to learn punjabi sometimes.

    I think Christopher Hitchens wrote something to the effect that a culture without a store of works to sustain it will not survive long. The good thing is we have so much available to us already. Start with the Guru Granth, and study the history of the time to get the references and all and go from there. There is a lot here already and luckily punjabi is not really that hard to learn.

  2. kantay says:

    the history of the region from the 15th – 18 century is amazingly awesome (technical term)

  3. Swami Firang says:

    "I ask that you give up everything to meditate on peace.
    If you could have peace by giving up your possessions
    then all the deer of the forest would be freed from rebirth.

    What use is chanting, penance, fasting or bowing to a statue,
    If your heart loves duality?"

    The master of poets, Kabir, spoke these words. Hear more of his wisdom spoken here: