February 23, 2024

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Kabir: Rocking Kabir: When mystic melodies meet modern tunes | India News

4 min read
What makes you happy? A promotion? Having a baby? But what if you didn’t need any reason to be happy? With these words, musician and composer Vasu Dixit — who’s also the lead vocalist of the folk-rock outfit Swarathma — launches into a lusty rendition of a famous Kabir bhajan ‘Mann Mast Hua, Phir Kya Bole’ about someone intoxicated with the joy of what he finds within at the Shivala Ghat in Varanasi as part of the 7th Mahindra Kabira Festival.
Dressed in an all-black ensemble which includes a stylish dhoti over red sneakers, Dixit is accompanied by two other musicians on keyboards, launchpad and a retro-looking melodica (a cross between a harmonica and a piano accordion) instead of the regulation satsang instruments. The trio is part of the Bengaluru-based Vasu Dixit Collective which has been working to create a new soundscape of electro-Kabira. “When you dig deeper into the words of Kabir and understand its essence, you find the language to express his verses in your own way. And electronica allows such patterns and permutations that you get sounds absolutely unheard of before,” says Dixit, 42, who is also studying philosophy.
Even in a crowded spiritual marketplace, the wisdom of the 15th century bard from Varanasi continues to resonate and speak to youth, thanks to a bunch of Kabir music festivals, yatras and mandalis that have sprouted over the last decade. One of them is the Mahindra Kabira Festival which has over the years commissioned many new iterations of Kabir songs in the classical, folk and contemporary space. “Through this music festival, we get people to do a deeper dive, perhaps get a little bit more considered knowledge, and maybe push back on the ignorance insociety. Because from ignorance comes hatred, and from hatred, violence. Kabir is absolutely the essence of that pushback on hatred,” says Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts which curates the festival. Vedi Sinha and guitarist Sumant Balakrishnan of The Aahvaan Project compose original songs inspired by Kabir couplets and bhajans to comment on the fears and anxieties of the modern world. For instance, their song ‘Aune Paune Daam’ highlights the hypocrisy inherent in using sensitive language which does not translate into sensitive action.
As a woman, Sinha is also aware of Kabir’s views on women, and that he considered them ‘maya’ and an obstruction to the path of moksha (or salvation). She doesn’t shy away from a few tweaks to the lyrics. Recently, while singing a bhajan which had a line called ‘Bilakh, Bilakh Kar Tiriya Roye,’ Sinha replaced ‘Tiriya’ (a vamp or a woman of loose character) with ‘sab jag’ (universe). “Yes, Kabir was a great thinker, philosopher, teacher, poet but he was also rooted in his society. When we are recreating these wonderful people, we have to be a little aware of what we are saying. That’s why we wanted to do our own take,” says Sinha, who found her calling or ‘aahvaan’ after attend-ing a series of Kabir yatras following a phase of clinical depression.
Even school-going kids can access Kabir through music. Manzil Mystics, a Delhi-based non-profit and choral ensemble of 11 members, have not only been singing original songs inspired by Kabir dohas and saakhis but getting school kids to do so as well. “We started reimagining and rewriting Kabir for today’s youth. We are in a generation where by the time a doha in khadi boli is explained, people lose interest and songs get famous because of reels! So, we have to simplify his poetry,” says Anurag Hoon, a founding member.
Some stick to their folk style. Goabased Vipul Rikhi, who performs Kabir songs and bhajans with a tambura, says he has made one concession for his urban audience. “I explain the songs in English and Hindi before I start,” says Rikhi, who holds baithaks and immersive workshops where participants across all ages learn how to sing Kabir songs and are introduced to his philosophy. For several years, Rikhi worked on the famed Kabir Project along with documentary filmmaker and artist Shabnam Virmani, writing, translating, researching and curating a vast digital archive called ‘Ajab Shahar’ which has poems, songs and conversations around Kabir and other Bhakti, Sufi and Baul poets. He now has a new book out. “Kabir’s appeal is growing wider with so many festivals and platforms but the deeper meaning of his songs can tend to get lost in a bid to make him cool,’’ he warns.
Rajeev Ranjan from Anhad, a UPbased band whose six members are all visually-challenged, has dedicated his repertoire mostly to Kabir songs. He is a staunch believer in the power of the poet. “Kabir continues to be that bare stump of a tree which no longer bears shoots, leaves or fruits. But you can still rest your back on it and achieve things that you can’t even imagine,” says Ranjan.


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