Reliving Tradition at The Kabir Festival in Mumbai

As the sun begins to slowly melt into twilight, we wade through the inharmonious traffic to reach the Ramakrishna Mission Auditorium located in the Khar suburb of Mumbai. From the main road, where the world moves around us in a whirlwind pace and where our mind is still saturated with innumerable thoughts, we take a turn towards a small, quiet bylane. And finally, we arrive at the composed surroundings of the Ramakrishna Mission complex. As we walk across a statue of Swami Vivekananda on our left, two women outside the auditorium greet us with a warm smile and a pamphlet that lists out the schedule of The Kabir Festival 2017.

The Kabir Festival was launched in Mumbai in 2011. Every year, it is lovingly and thoughtfully put together by a community of people that shares a common love for the poetic past, and a deep desire to communicate the teachings and thoughts of some of the greatest spiritual minds to the contemporary audience. Considering the colossal scale of the festival – this year, for instance, it is spread over three days and various venues across the length and breadth of the maximum city – it is heartening to know that it is completely sustained though volunteering efforts and sheer love. It is also open to and free for everyone to attend.


'Exploring Dnyaneshwar' by Shruthi Vishwanath

‘Exploring Dnyaneshwar’ by Shruthi Vishwanath, Courtesy: Payal Khandelwal

Inside the auditorium, the promised convergence of poetry, music, dance, stories and peace awaits us. The auditorium for this particular evening is filled with people from different age groups, ranging from old folks to people in their 30s or 40s to small children who have come along with their parents. Mumbai based musician, composer and educator Shruthi Vishwanath, along with other musicians, spends about 30 minutes on the soundcheck. Her patient and peaceful demeanour is highly infectious, as the audience calmly waits for an unforgettable flow of music and poetry that’s to follow soon. When Shruthi and her team come back on the stage formally, the auditorium is filled with the sounds of welcome claps and cheering. Shruthi quietly acknowledges some of the regular audiences of the festival as she settles down.

Her music for the evening is inspired by the 13th century Marathi saint, Dnyaneshwar. She narrates various anecdotes about the saint, followed by the songs and music. ‘Mogra Phulala’, a song about Jasmine flower that symbolises the transient nature of life, leaves the audience in the hall swaying in every direction. A lot of mobile phones and cameras, that had initially made an attempt to capture the present for the future, shyly slide back inside the bags and pockets. The mystical past seems to have taken over the present and the future.

“Call of the Bauls” by Lakshman Das Baul

“Call of the Bauls” by Lakshman Das Baul, Courtesy: Ritu Joshi

As the evening progresses with Dnyaneshwar’s tales, told through words and music, another congregation emerges at the back of the auditorium. A group of devotees break out into a spiritual dance, giving themselves over to the music completely. After the audience gives Shruthi a highly deserved standing ovation, the stage clears out for yet another talented musician from Bengal, Laxman Das Baul, accompanied by table player Netai Chandra Das. Clad in soothing saffron attire and holding a dotara in his hand, Laxman Das sings, plays his instrument, and dances exuberantly across the stage. The audience is lost in reverie more than ever.

As the festival organisers often say it themselves, the people that come together for The Kabir Festival, especially the volunteers, are bound together by the strong belief that the teachings of the mystic poets of the past have become even more relevant with time. The poet saints including Kabir (the 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint to whom the festival owes its name), Bulleh Shah (the philosopher and Sufi poet from Punjab), Tukaram (the 17th century Marathi poet), Meerabai (the 16th-century Hindu mystic poet), and Amir Khusro (Sufi mystic and a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya), among others, have left us a legacy that keeps unfolding at each year’s edition of the festival. The audience in the city gets to feast on this legacy every year through this festival.

The festival assumes an even greater role and importance in a city like Mumbai which is often mired with its own blindingly fast speed. The festival slows down the city for a few days at least, and magically draws many of the city-dwellers into its soulful world.

Exhibition of Dohas at the Carter Road Amphitheatre

Exhibition of Dohas at the Carter Road Amphitheatre, Courtesy: Payal Khandelwal

This comes absolutely true on the evening when the stage is being set at the open-air Carter Road Amphitheater in Bandra, right next to the sea. The evening show is accompanied by a small exhibition of posters that carry the dohas and teachings of some of the saints, including Kabir, created by school children. Many runners and walkers temporarily abandon their daily routine to take in the moment. They slow down to look at the proceedings and to take a closer look at the posters. The posters also summon nostalgia for many people like us who have studied these teachings and dohas in their school curriculum. As we read

“बुरा जो देखन मैं चला, बुरा न मिलिया कोय, जो दिल खोजा आपना, मुझसे बुरा न कोय।”

we realize that the knowledge resides somewhere deep down inside, but is being fully brought back to life in this particular moment.

Like elsewhere, the artists at this venue take their time in fine tuning the sounds to complete perfection too, exuding a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance in the process. The evening’s formal proceedings begin as BindhuMalini from Bangalore and Vedanth Bharadwaj from Chennai (both trained in Carnatic and Hindustani Classical Music) create an exquisite melange of poetry, songs and guitar music for ‘Singing the Saints’. As the sun continues to slowly dissolve, the sound of the sea waves play a jugalbandi with the music by the artists. The backdrop of the sea and starlit might make the evening even more theatrical and moving. The stage looks completely different from its morning avatar when it hosted an inimitable Satsang where most of the festival artists congregated to sing and dance together.

The music wafts through the wind to the large audience gathered in the amphitheater, to the passersby on the promenade who have now formed a large group, to the people who have sat down on the ground to be in close proximity with the artists and the music, and to the accidental audiences that inhabit the skyscrapers across the sea. The inclusion of one and all continues to remain an integral part of the blissful Kabir Festival.

It also, in some way, mirrors the spirit of the city that’s home to people from different religions and regions. Unfortunately, in the contemporary times, many complications have erupted and people tend to focus on the differences and diversities more than the idea of unity. The festival inspires us to learn and understand the essence of the teachings and learning that the mystics have left for us, which are all about love, joy, brotherhood, compassion, gratitude, tolerance, and reflection.

Apart from the audiences, the festival also brings together musicians not only from different parts of the country but also from completely different genres. It strings together the performances of rural artists who have diligently carried forward the oral tradition of poetry with the urban artists who have been inspired by the past and have re-imagined and re-created it in their own way. So on one hand there is Padma Shri Prahlad Tipanya, one of the most well-known folk voices who combines the teachings of Kabir with the Malwi folkstyle of Madhya Pradesh and Mooralala Marwada who is a folk singer from Kutch, Gujarat. And on the other hand, there are contemporary performers like Dastango Ankit Chadha (Dastangoi revives the 16th-century Urdu oral storytelling art form), Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Cafe which is a folk-fusion band that sings “Kabir Rock”, a re-interpretation of Kabir with pop, rock, and reggae, and Manzil Mystics band that has been performing for/with different NGOs in Delhi on social issues such as environment, gender-based violence and corruption. Once the festival begins though, all the “sides” disappear. The traditional and contemporary come together seamlessly, with just the music and mystic spirit at their core.

Another aspect which is a really important part of the annual festival is its relationship with the different parts of the city. No matter which part of the city you live in, it’s hard to not find a festival session somewhere in the vicinity. Different sessions are designed for different venues including bookshops, schools, colleges, auditoriums, amphitheaters, gardens, and local streets across various parts of the city. The festival stretches itself to highly diverse areas of Mumbai like Fort, Bandra, Khar, Ghatkopar, Borivili, Byculla, Thane, Kandivali, Vidyavihar, Juhu, Matunga, Girgaum, among others. It subconsciously becomes an inspiration to explore our very own city, and to look at it from a different point of view and in mesmerizing settings.

The four-day long annual Kabir Festival epitomizes the fluidity of arts in every which way – be it in terms of locations or generations. It is a platform where all kinds of boundaries are blurred. It is also a platform that truly stirs the soul and the mind – invoking deeper understanding of the myths, legends and teachings of the past and hope for the future.

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