“The well is just one, says Kabir
But water seekers, many
Our pots are all different
But the water in them is one”
Artist Roy Varghese’s impression of Sasui created for an exhibition curated by the Kabir Project. Sasui is the indomitable woman seeker featured in the poetry of the Sindhi Sufi Shah Latif.
- Smriti Chanchani
- Prashant Parvataneni
- Swagath Sivakumar
- Psalm Paul
Fiercely iconoclastic in their social critique, Kabir and other Bhakti, Sufi and Baul poets urge us towards deep inner and outer transformations through the power of love and compassion. Their poems insist on an unblinking self-interrogation, asking us to reflect on how we construct and perpetuate narrow divides through identity, while also reflecting on life, impermanence and the human quest for meaning. In their poems a radical spirit of resistance is simultaneous with a profound surrender. This wisdom resonates through songs across the entire sub-continent in diverse poetic voices, creating a powerful warp and weft of mystic thought which dissolves boundaries of space and time. This wisdom, and its deeply plural origins and manifestations, is our core inspiration, and all our work seeks to contribute to its discourse and share it in new ways.
Over the last 18 years the Kabir Project has curated, translated and re-expressed this poetry and music through documentary films, music CDs, books, folk music concerts, urban festivals, travelling rural yatras, school workshops, exhibitions, college curriculla and a large web archive called ‘Ajab Shahar’ which is open to all. The Kabir Project was seeded at Srishti in the year 2002. (www.ajabshahar.org, www.kabirproject.org)
Web Archive Ajab Shahar
Work is ongoing towards expanding and enriching our web archive ‘Ajab Shahar’, a vast online repository of songs, poems, conversations, artworks and writings from and about the living oral traditions of Bhakti, Sufi and Baul poetry and music, which went live in July 2019.
Songs on Ajab Shahar web archive.
Words on Ajab Shahar web archive.
Radio playlist on Ajab Shahar web archive.
Writing & Books
Bringing our research and writing over the last decade to fruition, two of our books on the mystic traditions were published in 2019 – ‘I Saw Myself: Journeys with Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’ on the powerful voice of a Sufi from Sindh, co-authored by Shabnam Virmani & Vipul Rikhi (Penguin, July 2019) and ‘One Palace, Thousand Doorways: Songlines Through Bhakti, Sufi & Baul Oral Traditions’, authored by Vipul Rikhi with Shabnam Virmani, (Speaking Tiger, September 2019). These books are being shared through book readings with live concerts by folk singers of Shah Latif from Kutch in diverse literature and music festivals and events.
‘A Cawing Clamour Fills The World: The World of Shah Latif’ – Sumar Kadu Jat and troupe & Mooralala Marwada and troupe sang the Waais and Kaafis of Shah Latif along with narration by Shabnam Virmani at an event in the Mumbai Festival of Kabir, Jan 2020.
Meanwhile, research and writing is ongoing for the book ‘Burn Down Your House: Life Lessons from Kabir’ (provisional title), authored by Shabnam Virmani, to be published by Aleph (upcoming). This book distills some of the core poetic and philosophic ideas of Kabir along with a translations of some of his most striking couplets and songs drawn from the oral traditions as well textual references from 'Sakhi' by Drs. Jaydev Singh & Vasudev Singh.
Writers Shabnam Virmani & Vipul Rikhi read from their books on stage, in conversation with art critic C S Venkiteswaran, Bangalore International Centre, January 2020.
Shabnam reads from the book ‘I Saw Myself’ at the Kondotti Sufi Festival, Calicut, November 2019.
Artist Roy Varghese’s impression of the Sindhi Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, created for an exhibition curated by the Kabir Project.
Web-Series on Mystic Poets
The pandemic has locked us into our respective homes, but the borderless spirit of the mystics has stirred us to keep the conversations going, albeit virtually. We are meeting, talking, conducting interviews, and recording songs with scholars, singers, and seekers from across the country and the world - over Zoom!
Kabir Project is developing an online documentary series of music and conversations that delve into the legends, history, poetry, and philosophy of iconic mystic poets like Kabir, Meera, Gorakhnath, Ghulam Farid and others. We have interviewed scholars like C P Dewal, John Hawley, Neelima Shukla Bhat, and will also be featuring a diverse range of folk singers from Malwa, Rajasthan and Kutch to create a rich dialogue of music and culture.
Still from an online interview with renowned scholar of folk literatures from Rajasthan - C P Dewal
Still from an online interview with Dr Neelima Shukla Bhat from Wellesley College, Massachusetts
Dr John Hawley speaking from Columbia University, New York on the Life and Legend of Meerabai
Rooh Ji Rehan: Soul Conversations with Shah Latif:
A special series of online programs curated exclusively around the poet Shah Latif and the folk legends that inspire his poetry is also under production. The series is called and will feature music and conversations with waai singers, folk singers, experts and seekers of Shah Latif rooted in the land of Kutch, and scholars from urban academic spaces. We are also working with animation students at Srishti Manipal to create a rich visual tapestry that lives up to the magical quality of folk legends behind Shah Latif’s poetry.
Shabnam Virmani in conversation with Haji Umar Sulieman - a passionate and organic scholar of Shah Latif from Kutch.
Shabnam Virmani in conversation with popular sindhi musician Saif Samejo on the poetry of Shah Latif
Saif Samejo and folk musicians of Sindh present their renditions of Shah Latif’s Surs
New Courses on Mystic Poetry:
Prashant Parvataneni devised and taught a new course - Oral Traditions of Knowledge : Sufi and Bhakti Poetry - using the Ajab Shahar web archive as reference text with students of Christ College, Bangalore. The course offered a space for appreciating songs as poems and cultural texts, understanding the aesthetics and politics of diverse musical styles and poetic traditions, and identifying key themes, metaphors, and idioms that preoccupied mystic poets. The goal of the course was to create a dialogue between contemporary questions of knowledge, power and identity and the poetic insights of the mystics to generate novel frames and perspectives to look at the modern self in relation to the world.
Gaaye So Paaye:
Infecting seekers and students with the spirit of song and mystic philosophy through ‘Gaaye So Paaye’ Shabnam continues to take a bi-weekly singing class for Srishti students and others dedicated to an immersion in the oral folk traditions of Bhakti, Sufi and Baul songs from the regions of Malwa, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sindh and Bengal.
Srishti students join Shabnam Virmani on stage in a concert during the Gujarat Kabir Yatra, September 2019.
Revisit & Holistic Education courses on Mystic Poetry:
To begin the new academic year at Srishti, in the middle of the pandemic, Kabir Project offered a short ‘Revisit’ course on Mystic Poetry and Oral Traditions. The course was designed to address and engage with the personal and social anxieties that resulted from the pandemic-imposed isolation. By finding resonances within the songs of the mystics, to our own feelings of fear, hope, alienation and oneness, this course acted like a space for introspective learning.
This was followed by the facilitation of another Holistic Education module developed by Kabir Project which introduced students to the ‘philosophy and politics of mystic poetry’. Called ‘Poem in Song’ this course invited students to engage with the songs on Ajab Shahar archive and delve into the simultaneity of personal, spiritual, and socio-political layers of meaning and poetic expression.
These two courses mark a new chapter of pedagogic interventions by Kabir Project, as they were conducted entirely on online platforms and were attempts to integrate the web-archive ajabshahar.com with the modalities of virtual learning.
As part of his apprenticeship with the Kabir Project PGDP student Swagath Sivakumar is completing work on a series of three hour-long podcasts which interweave fiction, conversation, poetry and music while engaging with the wisdom of the mystics on the themes of ‘Fear and the Mind’, ‘Love and Non-duality’ and ‘Truth and Reality’.
The first podcast in this series “Fear and the games of mind: A musical heart to heart with Kabir'' is now out on ajabshahar.com.
Student & seeker Swagath Sivakumar performs a musical dialogue with Kabir, Vana, Dehradun, 2019.
Podcast created by Swagath Sivakumar - Fear and the Mind: A Musical Dialogue with Kabir.
Student & seeker Swagath Sivakumar performs at the Gujarat Kabir Yatra, September 2019.
Rural Yatras and Other Events
Our participation in the living oral folk traditions of Vaani (mystic poetry) continued at the village level through the diverse Kabir Yatras, while also creating opportunities for exposure and immersion for Srishti students and other seekers by travel to these rural events.
- Malwa Kabir Yatra in Feb 2020 organised by folk singer Prahlad Tipanya
- Rajasthan Kabir Yatras in Oct 2020 organised by cultural activist Gopal Chouhan, Lokayan
- Vasundhara Ni Vaani travelling rural yatras in Gujarat in partnership with Gujarati writer Dhruv Bhatt and NGOs Vishwagram Trust and Lokamitra, in September 2019 and Dec 2019-Jan 2020.
Several collaboration emerged with diverse individuals, folk singers and institutions across the country to share the wisdom of the mystics through talks, workshops, film screenings and concerts, including.
- A musical dialogue between the teachings and writings of famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the voice of Kabir to an interational gathering of engaged Buddhists at the INEB conference in Deer Park, Himachal Pradesh, October 2019, presented by Shabnam accompanied by Swagath.
- Aesthetics of Kabir & Nirgun Bhakti, a talk at Ninasam, Karnataka by Shabnam to gathering of artists and theatre practitioners, October 2019.
- Call of a Song: My Journeys with Kabir, a talk by Shabnam at the Mumbai Local organised by Junoon & Mumbai Festival of Kabir, January 2020.
- ‘Heli Mhaari: The Woman’s Voice in Mystic Poetry’ a musical presentation by Shabnam at the Wild Women festival organized by the NGMA, Mumbai and curated by Arundhati Subramaniam.
- Retrospective of 4 Kabir films by Shabnam Virmani and conversation with art critic C S Venkiteswaran at the Kondotti Sufi Festival, Calicut, November 2019.
- ‘Kabir Kabir Kya Kare’ - a retreat with films, conversations and satsangs by Shabnam Virmani & Swagath Sivakumar, Vana, Dehradun, April 2019.
Renowned Gujarati writer Dhruv Bhatt along with Shabnam Virmani and students of Srishti during the Gujarat Kabir Yatra, September 2019.
Rajasthani folk singers Mahesha Ram & Bhalu Ram with Yatris and students of Srishti during the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra in October 2018.
The Kabir Project is an inter-disciplinary space open to students (PGDP apprenticeship) keen to work with any from of research inquiry or creative expression, using the tools of research, writing, video, audio, graphic art, song, performance or any other artistic or knowledge-based hands-on inquiry.
Students are also welcome to join the ‘Gaaye So Paaye’ bi-weekly singing class to learn folk songs of mystic poets from the oral traditions of Malwa, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sindh and Bengal and engage with the philosophy of the mystics.