Speaker: Shabnam Virmani

Transcending Identity Through Poetry and Music

Shabnam Virmani is a documentary filmmaker, former journalist, and singer of Kabir folk songs. In 2003, stung by the religious riots of Gujarat, India in 2002, she set out in quest of the 15th century mystic poet/saint Kabir, exploring how his poetry intersects with ideas of identity, religion, nationalism, harmony, impermanence and orality. She “ventur[ed] into diverse socio-cultural, religious and musical landscapes, meeting with people who sing, love, quote, revere and make meaning of Kabir” in their lives. In 2009, following six years of journey, Shabnam and the Kabir Project team offered to the world a set of 4 musical documentary films, and several music CDs and books of translated poetry, for reflection and healing.

The journey in search of Kabir in present-day India and Pakistan had a few unexpected and intangible twists for Shabnam. Living in Ahmedabad at the time of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 and witnessing some of the mob violence first-hand, she had recalled a line from Kabir at the time: ‘Sadho, dekho jag baurana! (Oh seekers, see the world has gone mad!)’. This flash of insight propelled her to seek out living Kabir folk traditions, with the conviction that here was something that she had to preach to “the violent, misguided ones out there.” But the magic of Kabir’s song and poetry began to slowly seep within, and to hold up a mirror to the fault-lines within her own mind.

She began to see how her subtle ‘othering’ of some people was securing her ego’s sense of self, and how this ‘othering’ trapped her in dualistic ways of thinking of ‘self’ and the ‘other’. It became clear to her that the inner and outer realities were linked, and that “dishonesty and violence at the individual level unfold into pogroms and war at the larger level.” To find herself complicit in the social scenario that she had set out to condemn was an unexpected and humbling outcome of her journey.

Into that now loosely-held space, however -- where there was once a certainty of truth and a strong judgment of the outside world -- there came the gift of music and of a guru, neither of which she expected to find on this journey. Prahlad Tipanya-ji, the wise village school teacher and Kabir folk singer from Malwa, Madhya Pradesh was an ideal guru for Shabnam, with her wariness of the hallowed Indian guru tradition, because he never set himself up as anything other than a seeker on the same path. His impish disdain for hierarchy and gentle barbs aimed at the guru traditions were a perfect fit for Shabnam’s way of thinking. And so, now encouraged and guided by Tipanya-ji and inspired by the inclusive spirit of folk music, Shabnam took up playing the 5-stringed tambura herself and now performs a wide repertoire of folk songs of Kabir and other mystic poets.

The release of the Kabir Project documentaries also resulted in a wave of other events that celebrated the tongue-in-cheek, pithy wisdom of Kabir and the folk singers who serve as channels for this wisdom. It led to Kabir festivals in various Indian cities, annual editions of the Malwa and Rajasthan Kabir Yatra, and the launch of a YouTube channel ‘Ajab Shahar’ in 2009 that features an eclectic mix of songs and snippets from Kabir, as well as other Bhakti, Sufi and Baul poets, including uploads of the complete documentaries for any and all to partake in. Shabnam is currently also working on ideas for taking mystic poetry and folk music to school classrooms and continues to perform music in public.

Perhaps, fittingly, for someone who is a feminist, Shabnam ensures that when she sings Kabir songs, she edits out lines and metaphors that are disrespectful of women. “I am not making Kabir sacrosanct. He was a man of his time and I am a woman of my generation,” she explains. Being a staunch advocate for women’s rights is a theme that runs through Shabnam’s career. As a young journalist for the Times of India in Jaipur in 1987, she filed a story on the young widow Roop Kanwar who was burnt to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, which led to the ban on ‘sati’ being reinforced once again in India. She then quit her journalism desk-job and, after studying mass communication in Cornell, co-founded the Drishti Media Collective at Ahmedabad in 1991, a non-profit group of media professionals "to support, document and strengthen grassroots struggles for gender justice, human rights and development." 

Inspired by the spirit of Bhakti, Sufi and Baul oral traditions, the Kabir Project team has now been engaged for over 15 years in curating and re-expressing the power of Kabir’s poetry through documentary films, music CDs, books, urban festivals, rural yatras, school workshops and a web archive. The work of the Kabir Project was awarded the Chishti Harmony Award, New Delhi, in December 2013 and the Sadbhavana Award, Mahua, Gujarat, in June 2017 for contributing to inter-faith understanding in the country. The Kabir films directed by Shabnam have won several awards including the Special Jury Prize, 52nd National Film Awards, 2010 for her film 'Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein".

Shabnam is currently working on two upcoming books on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Kabir. She is an artist in residence at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore.

Join us in conversation with this singer of Kabir and fierce love-warrior!

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