Wednesday, Dec 06, 2023

Kabir, c.1440-c.1518

Kabir, c.1440-c.1518

‘Hey, you! Listen!’

Kabir, c.1440-c.1518 Photo By Alamy

The Jaipur Literature Festival, held every winter in the capital of Rajasthan, is the world’s largest free literary festival, and perhaps the most freewheeling. In 2015, a quarter of a million people came to hear some 300 writers speak. At a time when free expression in India is under pressure from many directions—heavy-handed governments, thin-skinned communities of caste and religion, offendables of all sorts—the podiums and shamiana tents of the Jaipur festival have become pop-up shops for thinkers with contrarian positions.

To judge by how often he’s invoked, the festival’s guiding spirit is the 15th century poet Kabir—a man venerated across northern India as a saint, almost a god. It’s a rare being who manages to be claimed by conservative religious sects and the liberal literati both. But the broad-spectrum adulation might have made him uneasy: Kabir was an aggressive critic of institutions and orthodoxies in pretty much any form, a debunker of humbug in an unadorned poetic style. There is no other voice from the Indian past quite like his:

Strutting about,
A smirk on your face,
Have you forgotten
The ten months spent
In a foetal crouch?
Cremation turns you to ashes,
Burial into a feast
For an army of worms.
Your athlete’s body’s only clay,
A leaky pot,
A jug with nine holes.
As bees store up honey,
You gathered wealth.
But after you’re dead,
This is what’s said,
‘Take away the corpse.
It stinks.’

Death undermining mortal follies and pretension: one of Kabir’s favourite themes. These are his verses in translation by the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Like many of Kabir’s poems, they are directed straight at you. “Kabir challenges us,” says Linda Hess, a professor at Stanford University and a Kabir scholar. “He says, ‘Hey, you! Listen! Hey, you saint or you truth-seeker or you idiot or you brother or you mother or you priest, you mullah.’ Sometimes, he challenges our foolishness, our blindness, our ignorance, our hypocrisy, our pretentiousness—all those kinds of things. And when we first encounter it we think he’s talking about those other idiots and it’s not about us. But of course he is talking about us.”