Ahead of the annual Kabir Festival in January, a screening of Shabnam Virmani’s documentary, Chalo Hamara Des, was held at a suburban venue in Mumbai on Christmas – a good day to observe saints.
In the 2008 film, Virmani embarks on a road trip across two continents, which involves meetings with folk singer Prahlad Tipanya from Madhya Pradesh and scholar and translator Linda Hess from Stanford University in California. Both have devoted their lives to the poetry and philosophy of Kabir, and both have featured in Virmani’s various other documentaries on Kabir.
Along the way, Tipanya elucidates his journey through song and Hess through text. Virmani’s quest becomes the hardest to grasp. She finds herself being questioned about her religion and faith by a priest in Varanasi. Yet, she continues to film her meetings with ordinary believers of Kabir’s teachings and philosophy, offering viewers a nuanced study of her own exploration and the impact of Kabir on countless lives.
An artist-in-residence at the Shrishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, Virmani is also the co-founder of Dhrishti Media Arts and Human Rights Collective, which uses the arts to create awareness about human rights. She has made four documentaries on Kabir and also performs his poems. Had-Anhad, Chalo Hamara Des, Koi Sunta Hai, and Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein were made between 2003 and 2009. it was through these films that Virmani says she finally found her calling. “As a documentary filmmaker I worked with women’s groups and human rights groups for many years before I came to this work,” she said. “In that phase, I was always making films for others, with self-conscious social agendas. It was in the Kabir films that at some point I totally let go of that vexing question of who my audience is, and how I want to ‘change’ them. I realised something about communication that I didn’t understand earlier. That if you have a very powerful and honest personal experience, it becomes ‘universal.”
All the films are interlinked. Had-Anhad was the first in the series, the filming for which began after Virmani met Tipanya and Hess and a host of other folk singers on a road trip from Ayodhya to Pakistan.
Virmani describes Had-Anhad as the film for which she met “an urban folklorist, a street fruit seller, a social activist, a Dalit folk singer, a Zen Buddhist scholar, a neo-fascist cleric of a Kabir sect, a Muslim qawwal – each encounter offering a moment of insight into Kabir's poetry and its contemporary meanings”.
In Koi Sunta Hai, Virmani combines the folk music traditions of the poet with the life and music of the late classical singer Kumar Gandharva, who popularised several Kabir poems through his soulful renditions.
Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein offers a view into the deification of the poet by the Kabir Panth sect. The social activist group Eklavya champions to portray Kabir as a secular figure in a politically intolerant climate. Virmani also engages in lengthy discourses on the philosophy of the poet with singer Tipanya.
The Kabir films also lead Virmani to organise the annual Kabir Festival, which began in Bengaluru in 2009 and included artists from Pakistan and India. The festival grew from the city to different parts of India as well as the United States of America, and has now become an important date on the cultural calendar for people to soak in the “Kabir culture” of music, film and poetry. The YouTube channel, Ajab Shahar – Kabir Project, also showcases the musical talents of the varied artists who perform at the festival.