Last month I was privileged to be included in a select, by invitation only, presentation about the 15th century saint Kabir at the Kala Academy. A mono-act musical, entitled ‘Kabeer’, it was performed by a remarkable talent, Padmashree award winner Shekhar Sen, 57. A one-man virtuoso, Sen single-handedly composed, directed, acted, sang and produced the two-hour drama. His energy and flair is spellbinding: the quality of the play is top notch by international standards. During the concert, he renders riveting ghazals, 45 song sequences in all, even as he modifies his mellifluous voice to imitate the various people who form part of Kabeer’s story: his mother, his wife, his friends, his guru.
The script, subtitled in English on a stage-screen, was mesmerising. I sat glued to my seat for the two full hours and when it was over, I felt invigorated and fortified spiritually. I didn’t know very much about Kabir till the invitation arrived. But as is my habit before attending any function or meeting, I prepped myself in advance by reading all I possibly could about the legendary personality. I am also blessed with a husband who is extremely erudite in ghazals and Urdu poetry: he primed me with dohas and couplets from the Kabir panth (the path of Kabir).
The drama depicts the life of the great reformist, poet and philosopher, a fabled saint who confronted social evils prevalent during the period, and even today. The story parses Kabir’s journey from birth to death: it chronicles the making of a revolutionary social reformer, who, according to some historians, was born to an unwed Brahmin mother in Varanasi, through a seedless conception and delivered through the palm of her hand. She then placed him in a basket and abandoned it in a nearby pond, where the baby was found and raised by a Muslim family of weavers.
According to the Indologist Wendy Doniger, however, “Kabir was actually born into a Muslim family but various birth legends attempt to drag him back over the line from Muslim to Hindu.” She contends that his early life was Muslim oriented, but he was strongly influenced by his teacher, the Hindu bhakti leader Ramananda. This fusion of religions within him formed the wellspring from which he projected the best in humanity, rising above the disputes and disagreements which caste, creed and cultural variances inevitably bring in their wake. His philosophy has special validity in this day and age, riven as it is with strife and religious hate. Kabir preaches love, peace and religious harmony, a message that binds us together in a secular society.
Kabir was critical of all religions. He believed that people had been misguided by sacred texts, conveniently mal-interpreted by priests with vested interests. He questioned the need for meaningless rites and endless ceremonies; he criticised circumcision. As a consequence, he was threatened by both Hindus and Muslims for his views. But he persisted, once standing between two angry mobs of Hindus and Muslims, beckoning them to kill him first before they turned on each other. They calmed down and dispersed. Oddly enough when he died, both the Hindus and Muslims he had inspired claimed him as one of their own, engaging in a vigorous dispute as to whether to cremate or bury his corpse.
Kabir professed that the True God is within the person who is on the path of righteousness, who considers all creatures on earth as his own self, and who is passively detached from the affairs of the world. His words are truly inspiring:
“Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat. My shoulder is against yours. You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor in mosques, nor in cathedrals: not in masses, nor kirtans. When you really look for me, you will see me instantly — you will find me in the tiniest house of time. Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God? He is the breath inside the breath.”
“If you don’t break your ropes while you are alive, do you think ghosts will do it after you are dead?”
“I see the world is mad indeed. If I tell the truth they rush to beat me, if I lie they trust me.”
“I don’t believe there is such a thing as an intelligent mega-rich person. For who with a fine mind can look out upon this world and hoard what can nourish a thousand poor souls.”
“As long as a human being worries about when he will die, and what he has that is his, all of his works are zero. When affection for the I-creature and what it owns is dead, then only the work of the Teacher is over.”
Shekhar Sen has also written and produced three other single-person dramas besides ‘Kabeer’: they count ‘Vivekananda’, ‘Soordas’ and ‘Tulsidas’. His plays have won him immense acclaim around the country as well as in major cities overseas, from New York to London, Hong Kong to Singapore. But he does not confine himself to the elitist metropolitan areas. He forays regularly into smaller towns and villages where he performs free for scores of humble and simple people. His aim is not to acquire wealth through his recitals, but to educate and expose people, especially our youth, to noble sentiments and the humane concepts of our nation’s great minds.
Thanks to the encouragement and support of the Governor Mridula Sinha, the arts and culture minister Govind Gaude, and the visionary vice chancellor of Goa University, Varun Sahni, students were able to imbibe the spiritual strength and nobility of Kabeer. Sen told me he plans to come back to Goa with his other three plays. I strongly recommend that no-one should miss any of his brilliant theatrical masterpieces.