When Kumar Gandharva Sang Kabir

When Kumar Gandharva Sang Kabir(Photo of Kumar Gandharva by Kalapini Komkali)

Can two people divided by time be complementary to each other?  Maybe they can, starting from the lifetime of the latter, and forever after in memory and legacy.

It is a cliché, but we cannot proceed without repeating it here: nobody sang Kabir like Kumar Gandharva did. When you hear him sing Kabir, you know the meaning of the song, even if you don’t know the exact meaning of each word, or a few lines.

It is difficult to put a tag to Kabir’s language, his grammar or the lack of it, his syntax or his form of it. For some time, he wasn’t even regarded as a poet but only as one of the ‘bhakti saints’ of medieval era. And when Kumar Gandharva sang Kabir, it was as difficult to apply a category to that music.

The one theme common to Kabir and Kumar was the utter simplicity of expression. Both had complete mastery over their fields of knowledge; Kabir on matters spiritual and Kumar Gandharva on matters music. Yet, each of them chose the harder way to convey it: in simple form.

This introduction can go on for much longer. But we know you are here for the music. So let’s get straight to that. Here are our five favourite tracks of Kumar Gandharva singing Kabir.

1. Kudrat ki gat nyari

You’ve worked for something, or for someone. You’ve lost count of the number of hours put in. You stopped caring about time long ago. It was only about the goal. Always.

And then, just when it was within your grasp, fate struck and took it away from you. Forever.

You just stand there. But somehow, from somewhere, you find the strength to laugh at all of it. You are amused at the fragility of life. There’s a smile on your face. And deep inside, there’s a new found detachment and wisdom.

That’s Kumar Gandharva’s ‘Kudrat Ki Gat Nyari’. A faint, wise smile at life.

2. Nirbhay Nirgun

Confidence. The sheer confidence of this piece. Raw, unashamed, proud. So proud, it almost borders on conceit.

Kabir opens it with “Nirbhay” (fearless), Kumar Gandharva opens it, literally, on a high. There is no build-up; just a clear, direct declaration of intent.

3. Yugan yugan hum Yogi

A yogi sits and watches the world before him. Everything plays out in a cycle. From one era to another and back. From one emotion to another, to another and back. From one state-of-things to another and back. Creation leading to creation. End leading to end. Time, it appears, is cyclical after all.

But not for the Yogi. For him, it is linear. For, the Yogi himself is constant, and transcendent of the cycle of time. He is in an ever-lasting state of bliss. And, from there, he sings.

4. Kaun thagawa nagariya

Is it folk? Is it classical? We don’t know. What we do know is that it is a celebration of enlightenment.

This is one of those rare Kabir-Kumar pieces which would fall under the category of “social”. It is reflective like all of Kabir is. But over and above that, it is a celebration which asks all others to join in.

What scenes of revelry would have followed the singing of this in Varanasi in Kabir’s time? That we cannot answer. But if you listen to Kumar Gandharva’s rendition of it, we’re sure you’ll get a fair idea.

5. Sakhi wa ghar sab se nyara

Reflective. Meditative. Calm. But, frighteningly true. For this one piece, it is best to quote Professor Linda Hess of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford from her book, Singing Emptiness. The following is her reaction to the piece.

His voice is so plain and simple– hard to believe it is coming from an artist of infinite skill. He sings very slowly and deliberately with lots of space in the sound. I feel this voice, so quiet and calm, is coming inside my body and stirring me irresistabily. It stirs inside me, and a hard crust that is like a body within my body begins to come apart. It just comes apart and dissolves. What is underneath it is so pure and shining and open, it can receive that beautiful sound with no resistance. What was closed is open. The sound moves freely in my body, the beautiful body that shines forth when the crust dissolves.

I can’t believe that this gift is being given to me. When it’s over I can’t talk. They ask me to come to lunch but when I put my hand on the food, I can’t eat. I go into the other room and cry till it seems to be enough. I’m full of gratitude and amazement. It seems to me that for the first time I understand what they mean here when they say “The guru’s grace”. This gift comes into you and changes you. It is completely unexpected.

Hess listened to a private recording. We however, have to make do with the one available on the web.

So, these were our five favourite tracks of Kabir-Kumar. Please feel free to mention yours in the comments.

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