For the people, of the people, by the people

The sixth edition of Mumbai’s Kabir Festival continues to promote India’s syncretic history and culture and runs on community participation rather than corporate sponsorship

It was in 2009 in Bengaluru that Priti Turakhia heard documentary filmmaker and artiste Shabnam Virmani sing Kabir. “I had not heard his music, had only read his dohas in school,” she said. The bhajans left a strong impact on her. Turakhia had just retired from her family business with which she had been involved for over 20 years and had all the time in the world to attend Kabir festivals in Vadodara and Pune. So inspired was she with the saint’s music that she later invited Virmani for a satsang at her Mumbai home. It was here that the idea to initiate a large-scale, community-based Kabir Festival in Mumbai took root. It finally rolled out in 2011.

It was the same year that Falguni Desai, a solicitor, attended the festival and heard Prahlad Singh Tipanya sing Kabir bhajans in Malwa style. She was mesmerised. “I am familiar with the works of the various saints but the way Tipanyaji sang, spoke and explained things, moved me. I was drawn to him. His music sent me on an inner journey. I wanted to know more.” Next year, she became part of the organising and coordinating committee, an association that has grown over the years. Her core interest is curating the content. “I like exploring bhakti poetry, and in turn, help people explore it.”

Sachi Maniar was just 22 when she got involved with the festival in 2011. Six years down the line, she admires the festival for retaining the pure, organic spirit it started off with. For Turakhia, the most unique and important aspect of the festival has been community participation and volunteerism. The festival accepts no corporate sponsorship. It is the ordinary Mumbaikars who have contributed liberally, giving their time and expertise and also helping with fund-raising initiatives, contributing amounts from Rs 500 to Rs 1 lakh. “People work without any expectations, selflessly, and they are from all age groups. The youngest, Aadya, is about 13-14 years and there are many older people in the 65-70 age group.”

Ms Desai adds, “People have offered their homes and cars for the artistes to stay and move around in Mumbai.” Some have just helped in manning call lines and guiding people around the venues. “All this helps involve people. They feel a sense of ownership for the festival. It is not just about being the audience.” Currently, they have a database of 2,500 such individuals.

Desai also calls volunteerism a boundary-breaking exercise, one which gets people together for something bigger. The city is riddled with differences: economic and social, religion, caste and class-based. The festival seeks to erase these boundaries. “A confluence of mystic poetry, stories, music and films”, as they call it, the Kabir Festival Mumbai is unique in how the performances underline our syncretic history and culture and take messages of community spirit, peace and harmony propagated by the saints of yore to the mohallas of Mumbai. As Ms Desai says, “It’s not about telling, teaching or preaching to them. But the process begins while attending the performances.”

According to her, urban life is all about material needs. “People no longer engage in an inner journey,” she says. The festival helps people to take a pause and think. Turakhia concurs. “Life in Mumbai gets too mechanical. You get bound to things. The performances in the festival make you look inside and beyond.” “It is about connecting with oneself from within, to feel grounded,” she says.

All events are free and open to the public and are held across the length and breadth of the city. See for schedule and other details.

Art with a heart

The core of the festival is the numerous rural performers, the repositories of the oral tradition, and urban artistes who have experimented with a newer idiom of presentation. Through their songs, storytelling, dance and films, they bring the audiences closer to the thoughts, teachings and works of the mystic saints.

Hindustani classical singer Radhika Sood Nayak attended the Kabir Festival for the first time in 2014. She was fascinated by the audience. “The performances were no-frills-attached. There was no big orchestra but the audience was deeply immersed.” It was the involved audience that prompted the singer to perform at the festival for the first time last year. “As an artiste, you always look for an audience that is aware and open,” she says. Nayak put together a performance of the kalaams of Bulleh Shah. “I wasn’t sure if it will tie in well with the festival but they were open to the idea,” she adds. And so, the Punjabi sufi kalaam got introduced to the audience. Nayak is an XLRI graduate, who has a day job as visiting faculty at the Human Resource Management department at SP Jain Institute, Nayak is otherwise fully devoted to pursuing music. She has been singing devotional thumri and dadra and feels there’s a lot to explore in Punjabi Sufi poetry, “It’s so vast, one needs to go deeper,” she says. This year at the Kabir Festival, Nayak will sing Baba Farid, whose poetry, she feels, is far more complicated when compared to Bulleh Shah’s. She will explain, tell anecdotes as she sings, so the audience will know the context. “It’ll be a challenge to take his complexity on to the stage.”

Carnatic classical singer Shruthi Vishwanath will also weave in stories to contextualise the Gyaneshwar and Waari songs she will sing during the festival. She has been associated with the festival for the past two years. She moved to Mumbai in 2012 to work as an analyst for the Bombay Stock Exchange and recently shifted completely to music. “I have been singing abhangs through my childhood, but it’s the music that chose me and not the other way round.”

For the artistes participating in the festival, it’s not just about the pure art or the craft of performance but also the socio-political environment within which art lives and breathes, and an artiste’s own awareness of it. And, most of all, channelising art to reach out to the people. Ms Vishwanath says, “We are living in the age of increasing intolerance when the voices of reason of the saints are increasingly becoming important. Sheikh Mohammad wrote about Vitthal, Sant Tukaram wrote an ode to Allah. Numerous other abhang saints bridged the religious divides through their poetry.” For her, the festival is about taking the message of unity and harmony to the people.

Crossing musical boundaries

“Exploring Qawwali” is a musical collaboration that will make a debut at this year’s Kabir Festival. Ajay Tipaniya and Vijay Tipaniya, who have been performing as part of their Padma Shri awardee father Prahlad Tipanya’s troupe, are keen to try their hand at something new.

The Tipaniya siblings belong to a Dalit family from Madhya Pradesh that traditionally sings Kabir, Mirabai and other poets in the Malwi folk bhajan form. Of late, they have been training hard to perfect the qawwali. This is outside their framework of oral transmission of songs from generation to generation, and therefore a challenge.

“We are using a lot of the material we have learnt from our father but presenting it in a form that is different. A qawwali is much longer than a bhajan, and it allows you to weave in shorter poems from various poets. Qawwalis are usually sung by Muslims but we thought we too could do it. The style may be different but the feeling and the essence are the same,” says Ajay, the older of the siblings. This “mingling of region and religion” has been documented by Kabir scholar Linda Hess in her 2015 book, Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India.

The Tipanya brothers’ interest in Sufi music comes from interactions with diverse singers on their travels and at music festivals. They have been rehearsing over the last few months to present much loved Sufi songs such as ‘Allah Hu’, ‘Nit Khair Manga’, and ‘Aaj Rang Hai’, among others. They hold Pakistani qawwals Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen in great esteem.

This collaboration also includes Devnarayan Saroliya and Mahesh Yadav from Madhya Pradesh, who have been performing with the Tipanya family. Joining them are Vedanth Bharadwaj from Chennai, and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy from Bangalore, both of whom are trained in classical music. This coming together of the folk, the classical, and the qawwali forms, was the brainchild of Falguni Desai, coordinator of the Kabir Festival.

“I was apprehensive about an art form that I am not traditionally trained in. Without the guru-shishya tradition, it might sound like an imitation of what I have heard as recording. That was my worry. Over the last year, my relationship to qawwali has changed. It makes my soul soar. It is a new found love,” says Narayanaswamy.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer.

Sensitising communities

In January 2014, the first time SAHER (Society for Awareness, Harmony and Equal Rights), a Mumbai-based NGO staged a musical performance for the Kabir Festival there was not a single Muslim in attendance. But when the same musicians sang, ‘Allah Hu’ later that evening, people came out in hordes to see the performance.

Located in Jogeshwari, SAHER’s office is sandwiched between impoverished Muslim and Hindu communities on both sides. “The young people from the Muslim community, who have grown up in the ghettos aren’t aware that Kabir’s songs are not Hindu devotional songs but deeply connected to Islam as well,” says Rama Shyam, one of the co-directors of the organisation known to work with children and young people from various religious communities, especially with that of the nearby slums of the neighbourhood. It works towards a holistic peace building among various religious communities through various activities.

Since that January in 2014, there has been a marked behavioural change in the Muslim community. Today, they form an important workforce in the annual festival through volunteering. Through talks and discussions that provide the context of a shared culture to the musical performances, the residents’ ideas about religious differences have also evolved. “It’s the only space in the festival, where slums are involved in putting up a public performance,” says Rama, married to Masood Akhtar, the co-director of the organisation, traces its origin to the communal disharmony caused by the 1992 Hindu-muslim Bombay riots. Fittingly, their son is called Kabir.

Another NGO that is involved with the Kabir Fest is the Ashiyana Foundation that works with the Umerkhadi Children’s home, Dongri. Here music is binging in quiet, profound changes in orphan boys and girls aged 8-18 who often resort to violence. “In a one room space, we sometimes have more than 200 boys. In such a negative environment, the value-based music of Kabir almost works like a therapy,” says Sachi Maniar, co-founder Ashiyana.



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