Kabir Das, the humble weaver of Varanasi, sits at the pinnacle of South Asian mystical poet philosophers. Not only are his bijak and dohe recited every day to illustrate the hidden and subtler truths of the human condition, but his example as a human who was able to navigate a fractious rigid and hierarchical society, with sublime disregard for the boxes his fellows seemed forever entrapped within, inspires everyone from the proponents of a secular India to the well-heeled Western audiences searching (eternally) for the “spiritual East”.

His simple lyrics have also inspired generations of musical artists and we share  just a few with you this week.

Farid Ayaz Qawwal
Bhala Hua Mori

Kabir’s poetry has generally been adopted into the Hindu and Sikh bhajan song form. Certainly Sikhs and Hindus of a certain bent understand his poetry in a deep and inherent way. But  as this  abruptly-ending clip  by Pakistan’s brilliant qawwal, Farid Ayaz, shows, it  fits equally well within the structure of the qawwali. The qawwals provide contextual and explicative information on one of Kabir’s most famous lyrics to an audience that is less familiar with the great man’s philosophy.

bhala hua mori gagri phooti, mein paniya bharan se chooti re
bhala hua mori maala tooti, mein raam bhajan se chooti re.
Glad that my (earthen) pot broke, I am now relieved of the task of filling water.
Glad that my prayer beads snapped, I am now relieved of the task of praying.

Prahlad Singh Tipaniya
Thaara Rang Mahal Mein

Though separated by hundreds of kilometres from Varanasi the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh has a deep historical attachment to the thought and person of Kabir.  An entire folk sub culture of singers and musicians who specialize in performing Kabir and nirgun (a Hindu philosophical concept stressing the ultimate non-material essence of reality) songs has in recent years been finding new audiences around the world.  Prahlad Singh Tipaniya is probably the best known of the Malwa nirguni singers. Born in 1954 he comes from a traditional line of singers.   His voice is brilliantly clear and strong, reflecting that essential immutable link between the human and the divine.

Thara rang mahal mein/ ajab shahar mein
Aaja re hansa bhai/ nirgun raja pe sirgun sej bichhai

In the colorful palace/the wondrous city,
come on my swan, my brother / see the visible mantle on the formless king

Trevor Hall

Rather than singing his words, up and coming reggae-folkie American singer, Trevor Hall, channels the spirit of Kabir to inspire his own (slightly undercooked) lyrics.

Like an arrow and the hunter
Aiming for the thunder
All of this I wonder
Shadows on the sky

Hall has performed with many of the biggest names in reggae music including Michael Franti, the Wailers, Steel Pulse and the inimitable Jimmy Cliff.  As this track suggests, while his musical roots may lie deep in Jamaican soil, his philosophical moorings are in India.  In addition to his musical career he supports the work of his Allahabad-based guru and his ashram.

Queen Elephantine

Another track that evokes  the name of the 15th century poet but by a very different sort of band.  Queen Elephantine’s music has been called ‘meditative blues’ , ‘solarized wind from an alien planet’ and ‘distorted dirge and Hindu atmospherics’ (among many other things). The brainchild and project of Indrayudh Shome, an Indo-American from Rhode Island (via Bengal and Hong Kong), QE has sported a number of line-ups but always with Shome on guitar. On this track Shome’s psych guitar noodlings come to the fore near the end of the track which ends with a rather un-Kabir like and somewhat alarming pronouncement.

Pandit Kumar Gandharva
Ud Jayega

Ud Jayega Huns Akela
Jug Darshan Ka Mela
Jaise Paat Gire Taruvar Se
Milna Bahut Duhela
Naa Jane Kidhar Girega

The swan will fly away alone
Spectacle of the world will be a mere fair
As the leaf falls from the tree
[and] is difficult to find
Who knows where it will fall

No other singer made the poetry of Kabir such an integral part of his repertoire as the fabulous Kumar Gandharva.  Quite simply, this famous rendition is one of the pinnacles of modern Indian music. The lyric speaks of the fundamental spiritual nature of existence which Kabir describes as a swan taking eager flight towards the Divine.