In the space between singing and listening: On my journey as a Kabir singer and translator

The idea of journey and Kabir have somehow got inextricably linked in my mind. And this is not a little ironic, since Kabir often pokes fun at all our restless perambulations.

Haan kahun toh hai nahin
Na bhi kahyo nahin jaaye
Haan aur na ke beech mein
Mora satguru raha samaaye

‘Yes’ doesn’t quite catch it
‘No’ is not quite right
In the space between ‘yes’ and ‘no’
My true guru hides

Near Mussoorie in June 2008, in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a small organisation called SIDH located in the village of Kempty, a small event unfolded. It was tentatively billed as a ‘Kabir workshop’. I was in residence there at the time, working on a novel as well as giving workshops, and I was curious about how this workshop would go. It included films and talks by a Ms Virmani, besides music, and I fully expected this Ms Virmani to come and give us lectures on Kabir – since lectures and Kabir had indelibly become connected in my mind since school days.

What I encountered was something quite spectacularly different. The films were not what I (lazily) expected documentary films to be. And to encounter Kabir in the voice of Prahlad Tipanya was as revolutionary a revelation as making love for the first time, or perhaps reading the Upanishads yourself, after hearing about these things for so long. There’s nothing like real experience. I was practically meeting Kabir for the first time.

Since that first event in Mussoorie, when the films were still rough-cut, several other Kabir festivals, concerts, screenings and yatras have taken place all over the country. Somehow the idea of journey and Kabir have got inextricably linked in my mind. And this is not a little ironic, since Kabir often pokes fun at all our restless perambulations.

Daudat daudat daudiya
Jahaan lag mann ki daud
Daud thake mann sthir bhaya
Toh vastu thor ki thor

The mind made you scamper
You ran, as far as the mind could fare
Tired of its flight the mind grew still
And the object was right there

What we were looking for, what we set out in search of, he seems to say, was always right here. In another place, he says to himself:

Kabir bahut bhatkiya
Mann le vishay viraam
Chaalat chaalat jug bhaya
Til ke ote Raam

What long wanderings, O Kabir
Let the mind cease its quests
Ages have passed in this search
In a granule, Raam rests

It’s a special feeling when something precious comes to you without your seeking it. Perhaps that is one meaning of ‘the thing’ being right here.

I struck up a friendship with Shabnam in Mussoorie and got involved in some of the Kabir Project’s subsequent travels. One of our first journeys together was a trip to Chhatangarh village near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan to vist Mahesha Ram. In the star-studded nights of the desert – clear, dry air, ample, cloudless sky – we had the privilege of listening to this man sing, outside of a performance context, in his own home, surrounded by his children who were learning from him. And the rasa of listening fully entered into the body. There was no showboating here – neither from the singer, nor from the listener – and no egos to please – neither someone else’s nor your own. Only the music, and an opportunity to be. It was as if the voices and words of Kabir, Meera and other poets came to live in that moment, inhabiting the throat of a singer who is a worthy inheritor of a long tradition of folk music. Mahesha Ramji remains deeply inspirational for us to this day.


Mahesha Ram in the mood. Photo by Jackson Poretta

More rollicking kind of trips followed – heady yatras in Malwa and Bikaner, for instance, which had whole busloads of people travelling from village to village for a week for nightly satsangs. But years later, another very quiet and intimate journey touched me deeply. The Kabir Project team went to the outskirts of Trivandrum in 2011 to spend a week with Parvathy Baul at her house, which had an akhada for her practice and three dogs called Raja, Rani and Kartik.

Parvathy is not only music, but also a very deep personal practice. She is also silence. She is also insight. She didn’t only sing; she also spoke to us. We talked to her about the intricacies of the Baul path, the practitioner’s obligations and rewards, viraha (separation from the Beloved, longing), seeking out the purusha and the prakriti within, and so on. All the songs that got sung and documented were very much embedded within this context. Again, they were not just performance material in that setting – they were living songs, bearers of subtle, profound and fragile meanings.

In the akhara with Parvathy Baul (Photo by Smriti Chanchani)

In the akhara with Parvathy Baul. Photo by Smriti Chanchani

In 2012, I moved to Bangalore and formally started work with the Kabir Project. A much deeper immersion took place. One could almost say – a transformation. I started working with these poems and songs as living material – I started to translate them. And in order to do that I had to learn to catch exactly what they were trying to say. Many poems opened themselves to me through this process.

I also started sitting in on Shabnam’s satsangs much more regularly. This informal space – where a group of friends gather to share music and meaning – invites you to dive in, to participate, to listen and to sing. I, like the others, started singing along. Always having been really fond of singing, I didn’t realise I could fall in love with it to this extent. And that there was this space, open and available and inviting, to sing, to express, to become the song. And that the songs could grow deeper with each bout of listening and/or singing.

I have not stopped singing since this time. The songs have not stopped speaking to me. This space – mystic poetry in the folk idiom – is a powerful space because it is the meeting-ground of melody and meaning. Neither is secondary – both are preeminent. This is the space whererasa (taste) turns into bhaav (feeling).

And it is a very powerful moment when this happens, because, as one song says: “Bhaav bina bhakti kadiya nai hove hai”. (There can be no devotion, without the presence of feeling.)

It is the space, or a moment, of a pregnant silence, when singing and listening, music and meaning, you and me, become one.

Kehna tha so keh diya
Ab kuchh kaha na jaaye
Ek raha dooja gaya
Dariya leher samaaye

I said all I had to
Now nothing more to say
One remained, no ‘other’ stayed
Like waves merge into the ocean


(All translations by Vipul Rikhi)



Vipul Rikhi is a writer, translator and singer. His current work is with the Kabir Project, where he’s involved in building a vast archive of mystic poetry in the folk music traditions. more


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Vipul Rikhi is a writer, translator and singer. His current work is with the Kabir Project, where he’s involved in building a vast archive of mystic poetry in the folk music traditions. more
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