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‘Kabir Rock’: How an Indian Band Is Reviving the Poet’s Ideas Through Music

Dastaan LIVE picks up from the old and infuses it with fresh energy.

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Kabira Khada Bazar Mein, Bhishm Sahni’s classic play, was performed by theatre director MK Raina regularly for over ten years, from 1982 to 1992. The year 1992 was its last major outing that Raina can recall, when riots had broken out in Surat and groups in the city had invited his troupe to perform to help heal wounds and show a path of reason over the bitterness that then filled the air.

A band, Dastan LIVE, has taken the lyrics and tunes from the performance’s original songs and has recrafted them to create a riveting “rock opera”. The band gave a live performance this Saturday on the sidelines of Hum Sab Sahmat, an exhibition by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust of over 250 artworks, put on display to mark 75 years of India’s independence. MK Raina said as he introduced the group, “This is Progressive Rock, or, you can say, Kabir Rock, because Kabir truly rocked.”

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Finding the Real 'Kabir'

There is nothing that can be said to dispute that. If things that a 15th-century iconoclast poet said six centuries ago are ideas that people in 2022 India still find radical, it says plenty about his longevity, but perhaps more about modern-day India. Anant Raina, a percussionist and documentary maker, says:

“Kabir has been sung so much and we greatly admire all that has been done to keep his music alive. But we also sensed that Kabir had been caged in a box of being sweet, peace-loving and good. As if he was just about love and schmaltz. But that is not true, he was confrontational, rude and not saintly, in the way he was being made out to be. The music carrying his words also needed to reflect that edge and sharpness.”

Baan, bass guitarist and one of the two co-founders of Dastaan LIVE (the other being guitarist Sumant Balakrishnan), says musically speaking, “progressive rock means different time signatures, dynamics long intros and outros”. He adds, “It’s a technical term used globally to describe technical proficiency.” But he says that the band wanted to create a modern wall of music, which, even if not identified by each listener as that, can help “land the text that Kabir wrote, in a more transformational way to the audience”.

Fidel, the lead percussionist and a spirited performer, is from Panama, and brings a new feel to the music. They playfully call him Funkesh. Belushka, who plays the clarinet, is from Paraguay and joined the band just a fortnight ago. The band insists that their diverse backgrounds of rock, metal, jazz, Hindustani classical, techno and South American sensibilities are an asset and help create a complex assimilation that gives back to Kabir the radicalism that is demanded in today’s times to make the right point.

Understanding Kabir's Secularism

Dastaan LIVE says its range stretches well beyond a diversity of musical traditions. It comprises people from all kinds of professions, too. Among lead vocals is a paediatrician, Dr Anjali Raina, co-founder Balakrishnan is a trained lawyer, Manyu on keyboards is an adman, and Sudhir, Vedi Sinha and Faheem are theatre persons. The band says their lighting director also sang in the group for a show once. But on a more serious level, they feel their diversity adds punch and energy to their performances as they are able to fold in many influences. The band has even experimented with shadow puppets as part of their performance to add to their rendition of a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem, Mat ro bachhe.

Apart from Faiz, Dastaan LIVE has worked with works by Sahir Ludhianvi and Nagarjun, among other progressive poets, but Kabir’s is the latest that has drawn new fans to it.

In his most recent work, Kabir, Kabir: The life and work of the early modern poet-philosopher, Prof Purushottam Agarwal draws an important line on how Kabir cannot be seen to limit himself to ‘secularism’ as just about all religions being equal. The poet-philosopher was forthright and “interrogated the very basis of organised religion”.

On Kabir’s birth anniversary, observed on 14 June by state governments and the Centre, the advertisements ended up venerating him as if he were a saint, rendering them quite out of sync with what Kabir has had to say on sainthood and piety. Kabir was someone who stubbornly refused to spend his last days in Varanasi to get salvation, as was the general belief then. He deliberately and stubbornly made the journey to Maghar instead and made sure he breathed his last there. His idea was to defy the superstition and widespread belief that those who died in Maghar never attained salvation. In true form, groups of Hindus and Muslims are known to have fought to claim his body as their own. A temple and a mosque stand side by side to this day. Maghar is part of district Khalilabad, now renamed as Sant Kabir Das Nagar.

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Going Beyond Just Music

Dastaan LIVE feels strongly about bringing out “consonance”, but not by ignoring the “dissonance and the discomfort” that Kabir’s ideas and poetry should cause. This, they say, is best reflected if they can get the music going to not just be tame but also be able to carry the tension of what Kabir is describing to its logical conclusion.

As an example, Bann cites the musical and vocal arrangement of Raidas’s powerful Thotha Gyaan Pagharo, which they sang with Kabir's potery. It drew much praise from fans when they performed it recently. “It started with the idea of creating a cacophony of voices (an Accapella depicting the current times and madness), layering it with soundscapes and odd-time sound design. We still hear one voice (the sane voice), but somehow it gets lost in the dissonance.” So, there is rhythmic recitation, then odd-time renditions and changes in the tonal centre of the piece, too. “Once the madness subsides, we hear the last lines in a calm and serene way – sort of depicting the calm and stillness post the storm and destruction.”

(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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