Baazigar ka baandra/ jeeba man ke sath
Naanaa naach nachaay kari/rokhe apnaa haath
[Like the magician’s monkey/man is enslaved to his mind
It makes him dance to its tune/and keeps him tied, you find]
Indians have been living by the pithy sayings of Kabir, such as the doha above, for hundreds of years. And probably even when he was yet alive, in the early 15th century, many of his sayings and verses were already set to music. The tradition of Kabir bhajans is a long and beloved one. And one that truly crosses all sectarian boundaries. Equally revered by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, indeed anyone who has even an inkling of spiritual curiousity and mystical inclination, the writings of north India’s greatest mystic have been and continue to be a source of deep spiritual insight and comfort.
Over the years I have collected several recordings from across the subcontinent of Kabir vaani and I thought it might be interesting to share these. To explore and enjoy the different approaches that singers and musicians from all across India and Pakistan have used to express their inspiration.
Like that of most ancient mystics the biography of Kabir is short on emperical facts. But like the others it bears the expected colourings of the disciples’ myth. Therefore, its not surprising that this great spiritual figure was said to have been born in the centre of India’s spritiual Universe, Varanasi. The city of light. The abode of Shiva.
Like Moses he was abandoned by his mother who set him afloat a raft made of reeds down the sacred Ganga nadi. Not before long he was rescued by a childless Muslim weaver who with his wife raised him as a follower of Allah.
Like Jesus, the Hebrew carpenter’s son of Galilee, who debated philosophy with the Jewish elders in the synagogue while not yet a teenager, Kabir was precocious. He spurned all formal learning in favor of the mystical path of intuition and longing. He engaged from a young age with all the great sages who visited Varanasi, drawing on but also refining their wisdom.
He was an iconoclast. Rejecting the hidebound, hand-me-down rituals of the all creeds his sayings and recitations obliterated all except the human heart hungry for the unnamed, unknowable, ungraspable Nirgun.
The spirit of Kabir may (or may not) have originated in very heart of the north India plains but it spread all over the subcontinent. And one of the places where it found especially fertile ground is the central Indian region of Malwa. This volcanic plateau centered around western Madhya Pradesh and southern Rajasthan has been a distinct cultural and political region for centuries. Ujjain is the old historical center of the region, famous since the time of the Buddha. The modern city of Indore is today the main city. In addition to a rich legacy of Hindu science, culture and politics the region is equally renowned for its folk singing. And within that tradition a group of people who uphold the nirgun philosophy expressed so powerfully and simply in the words of Kabir.
Kaluram Bamaniya, whose recording we commence this series with, belongs to a vibrant tradition of singing bhakti poets such as Kabir, Gorakhnath, Bananath and Meera in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. He comes from a family of farmers, but has taken to singing as a full time occupation himself. From the early age of 9, Kaluram started accompanying his father, grandfather and uncle on the manjiras [finger cymbals].When he was 13 years old he ran away from home and went to Rajasthan, where he absorbed a wide repertoire of songs from an itinerant Mirasi singer Ram Niwas Rao for 1-2 years. For Kaluram, singing Kabir is not merely a profession, it’s a way of life. “You get a lot of power, you get fearless by singing Kabir,” he says. His impish wit adds colour to the direct simplicity and soulfulness of his songs. While continuing to be part of the satsang tradition in Malwa, Kaluram and his troupe give many public performances in the state and the country. He sings and plays the 5-stringed tambura and khadtaal and is accompanied by his troupe on the dholak, violin and manjiras.
I am travelling to parts of the world where internet connections are weak and unpredictable so cannot say when the next instalment of Kabir songs will be posted but in the meantime, I know you will love Shri Kaluram sahib singing his heart out.
01 Lan Laagyo Mero Fakiri Mein
02 Surta Ko Karna Hai Byaah
03 Piya Mera Jaaagta
04 Santaa Thaaro Melo Hai Bhaav Ro
05 Jaagrit Rehna Re Nagar Mein Chor Aavega
06 Ab Thaara Laal Samandadaaraa Maay