Nuggets From Shabnam Virmani's Call
Posted by Rahul Brown on Nov 25, 2018
Shabnam Virmani is a documentary filmmaker, former journalist, feminist, 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, and impermanence. 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. In her quest, the magic of Kabir’s song and poetry began to slowly seep within, and to hold up a transformational mirror to the fault-lines and judgmental "othering" within her own mind.
We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, some abbreviated notes and nuggets that stood out from the call:
Gayathri: What was your relationship to Kabir before you started on this journey? I’ve heard you are often at a loss of words when people ask, “Why Kabir?”— and that your answer was, “Kabir chose you.”
Shabnam: I am one of those few who doesn’t remember Kabir from my school days. I had a fairly irreligious upbringing in a middle-class, materialistic Punjabi household. We had no beliefs, practices, or rituals growing up. Yet in the course of being a documentary filmmaker and being drawn to music, I was often drawn to folk music that I heard in the villages when I travelled there on work. I never really understood much of it in the early days. There was a kind of beckoning that happened after the Godhra riots. I feel there was a sort of undercurrent, and a crack or trigger that makes the water beneath sort of gush forth—though the preparation happens much before that.
G: This line “The world has gone mad” that flashed into your head when you witnessed some of the mob violence during the Gujarat riots first-hand -- was that something that came to you from folk music?
S: Not really, but it’s from a Kabir bhajan—but yes it spoke to the disorientation I was feeling around what was happening with riots. The inner and outer are all connected—making peace inside was connected to making peace outside. As humans there is a deep angst with which we are born. There is a seeking and a restlessness and an inexplicable searching that we all experience.
G: How did you start, where did you go first, and how did key companions join you over your six year journey with the Kabir Project?
S: My invitation to be an artist in residence at Srishti (institute of art, design and technology in Bangalore) was the fertile ground in which the seed could be sown. This was straight after the riots. I was already churning with the question of how to respond to the situation in Gujarat. I started reading Kabir through books and online. Several threads began to fall in to place. I realized that there were many, many Kabirs that I could start tracking.
In my 20s, I loved Kumar Gandharva—and there was a desire to make films about musicians. I met Tara Kini who was friends with Kumar Gandharva’s family so I knew that was one thread we would follow. Then there was another thread through the NGO Eklavya whom I encountered at a conference. Working in the development field, I often felt this disconnect where the mainstream relegated artists and music to evening entertainment. Yet I discovered and know strongly believe that humans are moved not just by bread but by also beauty.
Through Eklavya, I traveled to Malwa, Madhya Pradesh where the first person I met was Linda Hess who then became a very dear friend through the years of working together!, And I just started researching the films at that point. So all these people and threads started coming together. The first time I met Prahlad-ji (Prahlad Tipanya) was actually in America – we were both there at the invitation of Linda Hess who was organizing the Kabir concerts there! The three of us then traveled far and wide.
Those long journeys and conversations on trains have been incredibly fertile journeys of many questions and answers—and a deep sharing of spirit. And then I just followed one thread to another…
I used to have a much more ambitious plan to ‘map this world’, but then I realized that Kabir is like a huge ocean and the best I can do is wet my feet, but I certainly cannot map this man through a set of documentaries. What also happened is that I initially decided to look into Kabir in the Sikh holy books, but never got that far because the journey I undertook, that itself was so overwhelming and kept me so busy. That’s how it all unfolded.
G: I’m so glad you got to dip into that ocean of Kabir because so many of us got to vicariously experience him as a result. So do you feel that you got a complete set, or rather how did you decide when to stop shooting?
S: Actually, I just couldn't stop shooting. I was so greedy for the music and experiences. I was subconsciously already recording for an archive and so that I could also learn and sing the full songs. Keeping something more vast in mind. These are really jewels and gems. If I didn’t record, it would be just a travesty. I was traveling 10 -15 days a month, not really reviewing my footage. The mountain of footage was growing. I reached a crisis point where I realized I have to stop shooting and start crafting stories. Delaying that point was important because I was going through so much transformation and turmoil myself that I had no idea what to say. I had to first absorb some of it myself before I could say anything to the world. I blew through so many deadlines from my funders!
When I started editing, I felt totally at sea. Eventually the stories emerged from setting aside the logical mind that wanted to make arguments and edit things outwards-in – I had to “cut off the head” as Kabir says. I had to work inwards-out and see with no grand design. Just carving, shaping, and very associatively and laterally connect pieces with no preconceived idea. It’s not like an architect—its more like a seed. You don’t know what kind of tree it’s going to look like. It’s quite magical and arduous at the same time--- one of the most creative times of my life.
G: What made you start singing after recording so many of these songs? Its now such a central part of what you do, but seemingly quite different than being behind the camera.
S: Interesting question. In the course of these journeys, I was itching to put down the camera and pick up the tanpura. I think it’s because the whole experience hits you like a full body blow. It’s not an intellectual thing. Feeling that is imperative to knowing what Kabir means. I don’t know if that sounds weird.
If there is one thing I have clearly learned, it’s that one must show the mind its place. To know that I am not my mind. The mind can be devious. As Kabir says, the mind can be a thief, a looter, a swindler. Along with language, it can embed us in very unhelpful dualities. Music is one of those spaces where mind, body, soul can become one.
It’s like eating the poem—not listening. Sufi poets often talk about that—‘eating each others’ flesh’—and you wonder what is the significance of that. Its about the question of how do I make my separation from you even less. That sense of separateness has to disappear so viscerally.
It was just a very strong pull. When I started singing, it was with students, in Srishti and in weekly satsangs. A friend asked me to do a program in Srishti for faculty. I was so scared because I didn’t know if I was good enough and I was also scared of losing something. Yet the impulse of the human spirit is to share. It’s a very interesting process.
The most profoundly moving performances are those where the singer is actually singing to herself, for herself, in an inner conversation. And you are eavesdropping in, to something inner. It’s a very fragile state—this deeply internalized state—as opposed to when you are playing to the gallery.
After I came on public platforms, I have journeyed on this very tricky path. To quote Kabir, “The foot of an ant doesn’t find ground to hold, on this slippery path”—there are so many ego traps. One can only keep picking oneself up and going on. The small intimate performances are my favorite spaces.
G: Folk singers often struck me by their fearless, full-body singing—such freedom and power in their music. That’s always what I found so compelling about them, as opposed to classical music performances. Do you feel that’s true?
S: Exactly my own experience of this music. The folk music in Malwa—even the composition invites you to experience that fearlessness. Sometimes, the very first note of the song takes you straightaway to the highest note, the sa. You need fearlessness to have that kind of cry. There is a freedom to this genre that makes it pierce people’s hearts, which makes it very here and now.
G: Could you tell us a bit about you guru-shishya relationship with Prahlad Tipanya-ji. I know you were wary of becoming a formal disciple. He does believe that we are all seekers and the true guru is within. What kind of guidance does he give you in your music and spiritual journey?
S: We shared a partnership for 7 – 8 years. At the level of Q&A I gave him endless questions that he graciously answered, that opened up the whole tradition to me. A guru also inspires through example. I found Prahlad-ji’s sahajta, (translated that means ‘spontaneous and simple’, or ‘arising naturally’ demeanor), very inspirational. That lack of ponderousness was appealing. A very deliberate, concocted atmosphere doesn’t speak to me. The spontaneity of here and now and everyday situations—of being whole, of being one—being who he is, as he is, where he is, was a very inspiring example. I absorbed a lot of that from him.
Musically I got the tradition from the folk experience. There was no formal practice. I just sang—no formal practice or discipline. Being in the villages for long stretches. And I had the advantage of coming back with long videotapes. Musically that has been the mode of transmission. Prahlad-ji and I are in touch, but not so intensely as that deep phase back then. The energy shifts over time, as is natural, so we’re not in the same phase anymore, but very much friends.
G: I know you went into this project as an agnostic, and then began to believe in the divine as formless consciousness. Can you tell us about that shift?
S: I hoped that question wouldn’t come up! Anything you say falls apart from any paradigm. It’s a paradox—anything on any side of duality misses the mark. When I start to answer -- even saying I was an agnostic before and now a believer -- that is false. I would hesitate to say that do I not believe in a path with a form (the sagun) I can’t say that. So many dualities collapsed.
Many activists are happy to be ‘nirguna’ rather than ‘saguna’. I find it difficult to give words to the experience. Maybe I’d say there has been a glimpse or taste or dissolution of the sense of smallness and separateness. That dissolution of self – that erasure of separation—that core taste or glimmer is something these journeys have given me. That taste is the closest I would come to saying that is what I seek. I think that is what everybody seeks. If you don’t seek that you feel very alone, separate, isolated, violent, angst-ridden, etc. That’s how I can describe my understanding and faith.
G: When you do experience duality, what is your practice to try and dissolve this?
S: The practice is being present in every moment. I think there is no other practice. You have to be alert 24x7 in every moment of the day. You have to be constantly alert. That is the only wisdom that not just Kabir, but so many traditions invite us to cultivate.
G: Do you find that you are capable of doing more of that as you have progressed?
S: No! I don’t want to claim any such thing. It’s difficult to say if one has achieved that kind of equanimity and sensitive engagement that isn’t’ passive. To be moved, to be outraged but not in a polarizing way, but that moves you to reach out. That is something one still tries to keep cultivating in life.
G: Do you feel hopeful about the world given the state of the world today, given a deepening of your wisdom?
S: I find that difficult to answer. I really don’t know how to answer that question. Bad times and good times come and go. At some level, I feel all things stay in balance at all times. Other times, I feel things are particularly bad right now. I feel the pitch of divisiveness around identity to be very high right now—so then I feel we’re passing through bad times. Then I see such incredible humanity in so many places! So maybe I’m confused…
G: I know sharing is a very important part of your life for you. How does sharing music and stories contribute to collective healing of trauma in society?
S: I think touching each other through stories, emotions, and actions—is so fundamental to the human experience. How else would we find joy and healing? One thing I’d hear Prahlad-ji often say is that the one who is joined with the power within, he can connect with everyone. So I think sharing is important but I also think the state of your mind when you share, your clarity has an influence on the kind of impact or healing that can occur.
G: What do you think of gift ecology? All your films are on YouTube without having to purchase the DVDs.
S: The oral traditions are gifts and have always been freely shared. I feel that anytime the market economy has tried to monetize the oral tradition, it has mostly resulted in pain and suffering. It thrives only in that atmosphere of the gift ecology. Personally, I feel very strongly that this entire journey was a gift that I now have the responsibility to pass on to others. There is a new website due to come out that is slated to have many offerings, all in the spirit of gift for the world to share.
Rahul: How have your friends changed before and after the Kabir journey? How has it impacted your family?
Shabnam: They have all been swept up in it, to a lesser or greater degree! Many come to my musical satsangs…
R: How has your relationship with other artists evolved? How has your work impacted their journey and its evolution? Mukhtiyar Ali?
S: There is no one single answer. There were over 60 musicians and artist that we developed relationships with over the course of the work. Some have found that the films gave them exposure which allowed them to sustain themselves and deepen. Others have capitalized on the attention and perform to large gatherings in a way that is sometimes criticized as deviating from the tradition. Some groups have even complained that their art form is being eroded as a result of this exposure. So there is a wide variety of answers, as unique as the individual and their circumstance.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!