All roads lead to Kabir: Diaspora unite to celebrate the Southasian philosopher poet

Photo: S. Ali Rizvi.

By Rajeev Soneja

Aisi baani boliye, man ka aap khoye
Auran ko sheetal kare, aapuhi sheetal hoye 

(One should speak words that eliminate the ego,
That sound good to others, also good for you). 

Sapan News This doha, a traditional form of short symmetrical poem, by Sant Kabir Das, the 15th century poet, mystic, philosopher, scholar continues to resonate today. Kabir’s influence was and remains all-pervasive, Artists across Southasia have achieved fame, prosperity and a vast following by setting his dohas to music. Kabir’s relevance is such that I think of him as the Influencer OG, to use the contemporary slang for an authentic, highly regarded personalitySo it was no surprise to see the full hall at the Kabir festival at a high school in suburban Waltham near Boston, Massachusetts.

In the corridor the aroma of hot samosas, jalebis and  welcoming cups of chai beckoned.

Krishnakali Dasgupta, a research scientist at Yale University and professional dancer in Manipuri style, performs to the background of Moko kahan dhoonde re bande (about finding faith within oneself) at the festival.

Reflecting the diverse heritage of the Southasian diaspora, those who flocked to the event came from all walks of life — physicians, scientists, academics, students, and IT professionals. Their origins ranged from Karachi through Punjab, from Lahore to Chandigarh and on to UP and Uttarakhand to Kolkata and across to Nepal, and from Nagpur to western Maharashtra and south from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu and Telangana. It was almost as if one traced a winding line through the landmass of Southasia.

Dr Irfan Dasti, a dentist from Lahore who has lived in the New England area for 30 years, drove nearly an hour with his Karachi-origin spouse that rainy Sunday evening, evoking the beginning of monsoons in the Subcontinent. He says what drew him was “to feel part of the community, meet friends and to connect with people”.

Kabir’s universal message is that “no one is friend or enemy”, says Professor Zakia Sarwar, 83, for whom the dohas hold a special memory as she grew up in 1950s Lahore, moving with her family from their native Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh. 

“The words have a special relevance, since they are conveyed without animosity”, she added, noting that people of all religious and cultural identities across Southasia and the diaspora respect the poet’s work.

She is among the many for whom Kabir evokes nostalgia. Amandeep Singh, an IT professional who has lived in the New England area for over 20 years, remembers hearing shabad (sacred hymn) during visits to the gurudwara as a child in Punjab. The Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, includes Kabir’s dohas with their ideas about unity and social justice that Singh finds especially meaningful.

Visiting friends in Boston is Salahuddin, a retired teacher who grew up in Patna and Karachi and has lived in Sydney, Australia since going there as a student. All good poets are true prophets and their writing holds true regardless of time and place, he comments.

Unfamiliar with Kabir’s work, Brandeis University student Thangam from California with a Tamil and Kannada background had come to the venue on seeing the posters. As a trans person, they hesitate to attend social or cultural events but felt welcomed warmly here and found the recited dohas similar to the Bhakti poetry of their roots. 

The Kabir festival idea arose from the need to develop a sense of cooperation amongst the people from Southasia that call this area home, conceived as an entirely voluntary effort by community members. Organised under the umbrella of the recently formed nonprofit Kabir Society of America, it aimed at delving into Kabir’s writings to help bring people together and promote a spirit of bhaichara or brotherhood. 

This was the second year the festival was held. Sangeeta Prasad, a former banking executive originally from Delhi now living in the Boston area, and a Kabir Society founding member, says that the all-around conflict in the world today prompted the need to hold the festival on a regular basis. 

The first one last year came about spontaneously and was held outdoors during the pandemic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This year’s event was better organised, hosted at an indoor venue with a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, in collaboration with members of local Southasian organisations, invoking the spirit of cooperation inspired by Sant Kabir’s work. 

Sangeeta Prasad is keen to make this an ongoing effort and hopes that support from the local community will help sustain it. Organisers put together a diverse group of performers from the community, in terms of age and artistic endeavor, showcasing poetry, sound and dance

Kabir’s ideas of social justice also resonate with people like Sanjay Bhagat who hails from Nagpur in Central India. A co-founder of the Boston Study Group, an organisation committed to social justice towards marginalised groups, following the lead of Dr Ambedkar who was one of the foremost advocates for the Dalit community, he considers Kabir to be his spiritual guru. 

For Nepali-origin emergency medicine physician Dr Ramu Kharel, the event was a way to reconnect his love of Urdu poetry based in Sufism that was part of his curriculum as an undergrad student in Texas. 

Growing up in rural Nepal, he teaches at Brown University in Rhode Island, and had driven up especially for the event with his spouse and some friends. On his first visit to Pakistan recently, he was “surprised” to hear Kabir dohas being recited at the shrine of the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh. 

Jaspal Singh, a co-founder of the Kabir Society makes a point. Photo: S. Ali Rizvi.

At the end of the event, audience members and performers feasted on the home-cooked dal, sabzi, chicken and kadhi with tamarind rice. While enjoying the food, I found special relevance in the doha:

“Pathar puje hari mile to mein puju pahar, 

Ghar ki chakki koi na puje 

Jaaki pisi khai sansaar” 

(if you can pray to a idol made of stone 

I can pray to a mountain 

Nobody prays to a flour mill, though it feeds everyone).

In the vast oeuvre of Sant Kabir, there are always ideas that reflect contemporary reality. 

Rajeev Soneja is an IT professional in the greater Boston area. Born in Bombay, he grew up in the 70s and 80s listening to Kabir’s ghazals and bhajans that formulate the auditory basis of spirituality in Southasia. His ancestors from Sindh settled in Quetta, then moved to India in 1948 after the Partition, eventually settling in Bombay. He would love to visit Pakistan some day.

Lead image: Event emcee Sangeeta Prasad introduces the Uttarakhandis of New England, who sang well-known dohas in a folksy cadence reminiscent of the style popular in the pahari (mountainous) regions of Uttarakhand.

Published in:

The South Asian Times, All roads lead to Kabir: Diaspora unite to celebrate the South Asian saint, 19 June 2023

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