Maybe a genius and his work are best understood by another, even if they are separated by a few hundred years. That is why, it took a Kumar Gandharva to understand Kabir; to reach the abstract behind Kabir’s poetry and convert it into music.
Mulla Nasruddin walked down the street with a bunch of his followers in tow. Every now and then, he would jump in the air, his arms flailing wildly, and yell “Hoo, Hoo, Hoooo!” His followers only did what they knew best, which was to imitate him. One curious onlooker friend asked Mulla what was going on. “I have become a Sufi Saint, and they are all my disciples, searching for enlightenment”, the Mulla replied nonchalantly. The friend persisted with his questions – “how do you know when someone has found it?”
Mulla Nasruddin said, “Simple, I count them every day. The ones who leave the bunch and go away are those who have found enlightenment!”
I am not sure if Kumarji and Kabir ever heard this story, but given their strong dislike for blind followers, I am quite sure they would have found it endearing. Kabir’s scathing taunts towards following rituals just for the sake of following (or because “Guruji has told me to”) are well known -
माला तो कर में फिरे, जीभ फिरे मुख मांही
मनुवा तो चहु दिसि फिरे, ये तो सुमिरन नाही
String of beads goes round in the hand, tongue goes round in the mouth. But the fickle mind is also going round in all directions – what kind of prayer is this?
People have often found parallels between Kabir and Pt. Kumar Gandharva. Other than having an aversion to meaningless rituals, one can pick several other striking facets. Fearless and outspoken in their ways. Questioning old redundant systems. The unending search for truth. Not subscribing to any dogma. Rejoicing in their alone-ness. One can go on and on.
Today we are not even sure of the exact period when Kabir walked this land. We only have a vague idea of him being here sometime in the 15th century. Scholars still debate whether he was born in 1398 or 1440. Whether he was a Hindu or Muslim, married or unmarried, had children or not and so on. If Kabir would get to hear these debates today, he would surely shake his head wistfully and wonder if all his sayings have gone in vain. Thankfully, Kumarji’s life is well-documented and there aren’t too many myths surrounding him. (Barring a popular one – that one of his lungs had been surgically removed.)
Not myths, but unfortunately, one adjective has got stuck with Kumarji; that he was a Rebel. I can’t quite fathom why he is called that. Rebels always have one clear agenda – to overthrow the existing system and bring in a new one that they want. When did Kumarji say or indicate that this was his intention? Never.
Today everyone agrees that Kumarji didn’t belong to any one gharana. But that only amounts to hiding the actual truth by telling a half-lie as this can lead people to believe that he didn’t approve of the Gharana system, or worse, that he looked down upon the Great Masters who were trailblazers for their respective Gharana(s). In his many interviews, he has spoken eloquently about Bhatkhande-bua, Paluskar-bua, Vaze-bua, Alladiya Khan, Rajab Ali Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, and numerous others. His opinion about these legendary artists reflects pure respect and nothing else. What he definitely disliked was accepting the Gharana system without the spirit of objective enquiry. How does he become a rebel then? In his opinion, not having an inquisitive mind was a crime. It would be apt to say that he belonged to all Gharanas, rather than perpetrating the silly notion that he was a rebel and didn’t belonged to any one.
A story of Dalai Lama immediately springs to mind. As an inquisitive child, when he gazed intently at the moon through a telescope he wondered why he could see mountains and their shadows. He had the courage to question (with humility, not contempt) centuries of Buddhist scriptures and accepted that the moon lacked its own light and was instead lit by some other source. Does that make him a rebel too? Nonsense.
In a documentary that explores Kabir and Kumarji (Koi sunta hai – by Shabnam Virmani. Refer to www.kabirproject.org for more details), acclaimed poet Ashok Bajpayee says, “कबीर की अविचल आस्था है, लेकिन आस्था प्रश्नवाचकता को समाप्त नही कर सकती. जबकी ज्यादातर आस्थाए यही कहती है की अगर आस्था है तो सवाल मत पूछो. लेकिन ये ना तो कबीर के यहां है और ना कुमार के यहां.” (Kabir’s faith was rock-solid. But his faith does not undermine or prevent the essence of inquiry.)
Today most faiths prevent questioning. Some by coercion and brainwashing, others by blackmail or even threat. Forward this message to 100 people and you will instantly receive a blessing. If you delete it instead, you will be struck by a thunderbolt…
It is hardly a surprise that Kumarji found relevance in Kabir. His nirguni bhajans are part of our musical heritage now. Out of every 100 new fans of Kumarji (and the number is only increasing), I reckon that about 90 of them first get hooked to his Nirbhay nirgun gun re gaoonga, or Yugan yugan hum yogi.
Kabir never wrote down a single word. His thoughts have passed from one generation to the next viva voce, and hence it is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately determine whether a particular verse is Kabir’s original or not. All this is just as well because in today’s times we should probably consider Kabir more as a thought, an institution, a conviction, instead of treating him as a single individual.
In all likelihood, Kabir never received any formal education. Scholars point to two facts that support this belief. His own writings, for one. Secondly, his occupation of a Julaha (weaver) indicates that he belonged to a lower caste. Surely he wouldn’t have got admission to any school then, even if he had tried! (Just for the record, Kumarji never went to school either!) But having faith in a Guru is a frequent refrain in Kabir’s expression. Kumarji learnt the nuances of music from different Gurus, most notable among them being Prof. B.R. Deodhar and Anjanibai Malpekar. But he has also acknowledged other names as his Gurus, namely SN Ratanjankar, Ramubhaiyya Poochhwale & Wajid Hussain Khan. He further asserts that all those who were Prof. Deodhar’s ‘Guru-bandhu’ are also like a Guru to him and recalls Vinayakbua Patwardhan, Omkarnath Thakur and Narayanrao Vyas.
When it comes to writing about knowledge and learning, Kabir is well known for his sarcasm but his acute sense of humour is also not to be missed. In this bhajan Kabir can be almost heard chuckling at the quandary that sages and even Gods find themselves in, thanks to the tricks of ‘The Great Seductress, The ठगनी’ and then heaves a sigh a of relief at being saved by his Guru’s grace. Don’t miss how Kumarji breaks into a chuckle himself at 4:30!
And here is Kabir in a different mood, now wondering at the ways of the world, its contradictions and paradoxes.
Where did Kumarji meet Kabir? In Malwa, surely. For many years Devas was the seat of Shilnath Maharaj, a respected saint in the Nath-pathi sect. Sadhus of this sect (sometimes called Kaan-phate sadhu) come here often during their wanderings and Kumarji got to hear them singing. Someone also gave him a little known book called Shilnath Shabdamrut (1st published in 1915) which contained Nirguni bhajans.
But Kumraji’s experience of Kabir was certainly beyond the printed word. Ashok Bajpayee and his friends once thought of putting together a play on the life of Kabir. They planned that Kabir wouldn’t be shown as a real character, but his presence will be indicated by symbols and of course, his bhajans. They even had a plan (a courageous one, I would say) of roping in Kumarji into this, and to have him actually singing the bhajans during the play. They (Bajpayee, Jagdish Swaminathan and B. V. Karanth) got down to discussing this project with Kumarji. Even before they had come to the point of talking about Kumarji’s role in the play, he suddenly remarked – “No ghunghroos for Kabir! All others - Tulsi, Meera, Sur – they are all standing in the Bhakti queue. But Kabir stands alone, separated from all others. No, definitely no gunghroos for Kabir.”
This project never saw light of the day, but the incident surely underscores Kumarji’s view of Kabir. It is not as if he dismissed the other saint poets. Far from it. He has sung the bhajans of many other saint poets in his other thematic concerts like Tulsidas-Ek Darshan, Triveni and Tukaram Darshan. Throughout these concerts, his endeavour was to depict how the persona of each of these poets was unique. A detailed review of this is outside the scope of this writing, but a careful listening of his album “Triveni” will show how he saw Meera-Sur-Kabir differently.
Kumarji learnt Kabir through living his own life with awareness. He lived through his hopes and aspirations, his moments of ecstasy and disappointment – all with a sense of “friendly detachment”. What all thoughts must have crossed his mind as he lay on the bed for 5 years from 1947 to 1952, fighting a daily battle with death? During this bleak period he once reassured his distraught wife Bhanutai “don’t you worry. I will not die without singing.” It was an unwavering faith that he had in himself that must have made him say this without hesitation.
Talking of the fear of uncertainty, Kabir often expresses this in some of his verses. Only someone who experienced Kabir in his own life (not just understood his words) could do justice to these lyrics. Kumarji, who else?
In another bhajan the poet doesn’t mince words at all. (This one is not by Kabir, but belongs to the same category. More about this later in this article.)
But Kabir didn’t just end up worrying and predicting about doomsday. After all his faith in Guru was unshakeable. With such a solid backing, even a frail boat can withstand the fearsome waves –
According to scholars, Kumarji has also sung nirguni bhajans that are probably not by Kabir. However, as stated earlier, Kabir is not just an individual, it is a voice that has carried on for centuries. Here is a haunting bhajan attributed to Gorakhnath. Kabir was a master of metaphors, Gorakhnath seems too, as is seen here—
Kabir often talks of sleep, and of death too. An old Greek proverb says that sleep and death are brothers. But at no point do we find Kabir being scared of death. His constant friendly warning is – stay awake. Obviously he is not being literal. What he means by being awake is being aware of oneself and one’s world.
In one interview, Kumarji was asked this question – Can the Kundalini be awakened by music? Can you also demonstrate this please? Kumarji answered it in a way that only he could have. “I don’t think about all this matter. I only understand music. I have no idea about awakening Kundalini. What I know surely is that I am awake!!
Gulzar has said this in the introduction to one of Abida Parveen’s music album, about the Sufis’ take on death – एक बेतकल्लुफी है मौत से, जो जिंदगी से भी नही. An informality regarding death. Let it come when it has to. If one dearly clings to what one has amassed in one’s life, most of all one’s ego, then it is difficult to have an informal handshake with Death. So what does life and death mean really? Marathi poet Borkar’s poem has an answer to “who have really understood what life is all about?”
जीवन त्यांना कळले हो
मीपण ज्यांचे पक्वफळापरी सहजपणाने गळले हो
(Those who have let their ego drop away as effortlessly as a ripe fruit drops off the branch – they have understood life.)
Here is Kabir’s informal handshake with Death, replete with stunning metaphors –
A story about Shilnath Maharaj says that when he realized he had to move on, he dug a pit and sat inside. Then he told his disciples to sing ‘Hum panchhi pardesi baba’. As they stood around him and sang this nirguni bhajan, he left for the next journey. Many years later on 12th Jan 1992, as Kumarji’s mortal remains were being consigned to flames, a group of Kaan-phate sadhus came, sang this same bhajan, and went away.
In the same interview where he was asked about Kundalini, he was also asked “when singing bhajans, do you also experience spiritual bliss in addition to musical bliss?” His answer has to be understood very, very carefully, else it can lead to some wrong conclusion. He said
“अध्यात्मिक आनंद वगैरेचा मी मुळीच विचार करत नाही. मी फक्त संगीताचाच विचार करतो. अध्यात्म वगैरे शब्द वापरण्याचा मी कधी प्रयत्न करत नाही. मुख्य म्हणजे संगीत सांगता आलं पाहिजे. किती प्रकाराने संगीत सांगता येतं? ते आणखी कसं समृद्ध करता येईल? संगीताच्या माध्यमातून अजून खूप सांगण्यासारखं आहे. संगीतानं अजून फार काही सांगितलेलं नाही..... कारण जीवनाला सोडून काही नाही, पण आपण मात्र काहीतरीच करत असतो. नुसत्या ताना मारत बसतो. अरे कशाला ताना मारता तुम्ही?”
(I don’t think of spirituality and all that. I don’t even utter that word. Expressing through music is most important to me. There are so many ways, have we really seen how we can enrich the music that we have? I started doing all this when I realized that a lot needs to still be said through music. Because, there is nothing more important than living the life we have. There is nothing beyond life. But we waste time doing fruitless things. We just fall to the temptation of taking too many taan during singing. Why do you do that?”)
Does this mean that music and melody held more importance for Kumarji than the words of all the bhajans that he sang? Not quite. For him, music was life, and vice versa. So he merely looked at Kabir through his lens of music. As simple as that.
Every winter, some 40-odd students of music gather for a 3-day intensive music retreat workshop near Pune. It is held in a remote location surrounded by thick forest. I vividly remember the concluding session of 2016 retreat, as it is permanently etched on my mind. As the darkness slowly crept upon us from the woods, our hair stood on end as we listened to Kumarji’s immortal Kabir bhajan to mark closing of the workshop.
अवधूता युगन युगन हम योगी
आवै ना जाय मिटै ना कबहूं सबद अनाहत भोगी
सभी ठौर जमात हमरी जमात सब ही ठौर पर मेला
हम सब मांह, सब है हम मांह, हम है बहुरी अकेला
हम ही सिद्ध, समाधि हम ही, हम मौनी हम बोले
रूप सरूप अरूप दिखा के, हम ही हम से खेलें
कहे कबीर जो सुनो भाई साधो नाही न कोई इच्छा
अपनी मढ़ी में आप मैं डोलूं खेलूं सहज स्व-इच्छा
Each of us present there must have seen different meanings in these lyrics. As music students, we all wondered if we can ever attain that state described in the last line - Can I be with only myself? Can I remain calm in my own company? Can I be playful with myself in an effortless way?
1. Kabir (in Marathi) by Mangesh Padgaonkar – Mauj Publication. 1997. ISBN 81-7486-075-4
2. Singing Emptiness by Linda Hess – Seagull Books. 2009. ISBN 978 1 9054 2 283 8
3. Bahuri Akela - By Ashok Bajpayee. Vani Prakashan. 1999.
4. Kaljayee Kumar – Edited by Kalapini Komkali & Rekha Inamdar-Sane. Rajhans Publication. 2014. ISBN 978 81 7434 783 1
5. Koi sunta hai – A documentary by Shabnam Virmani (Refer to www.kabirproject.org for details)