The air in Bikaner is fragrant with frying when I step out of
The air in Bikaner is fragrant with frying when I step out ofthe railway station on a pleasant February afternoon. Every other shop here sells sweets and snacks, and outside each of them are mounds of pakoras, mathri, kachoris, and most conspicuously, about ten different types of bhujiya, from filamental to ropy. These piles outside the shop seem to be there not so much for display as for simply being impossible to fit inside. Can a single town really snack its way through all that? If the link between fried foods and heart disease is indeed established, then why aren’t people keeling over all around me? I walk about for a while and taste some of the snacks before taking an auto to Lokayan, an NGO that is the local host for the (Rajasthan Kabir) yatra. The auto judders through narrow lanes past densely nestled homes and havelis, the yellows and oranges outside sweet shops blurring into the creams and sandstones of the walls until it feels like all Bikaner is built from fried besan.
Lokayan is offering logistical support to the Kabir Project, Bangalore, which conducts the yatra. With a day to go before we start, their office resembles a war headquarters. Volunteers rush in and out; participants and musicians arrive; someone has to be picked up at an odd hour; equipment is on its way; concert venues have to be readied; arrangements must be made for food and accommodation at each of the villages the yatra will visit. Coordinating all this is a diminutive man named Gopal who is seldom without a cell phone at one ear. (As the yatra progresses, he keeps a charger dangling from the phone so it can be charged wherever he can find a plug point.)
The yatra is a two-bus caravan of singers, accompanying musicians and participants like me who are along for the ride. But it’s all somewhat freewheeling: some participants will join late; some will drop in for a couple of days and leave; some will follow the bus in a car for a leg or two. Halfway through the yatra, I’m talking to a new arrival, on a break from his job as a BBC cameraman. Suddenly, he glances at his phone, says, ‘Oh, I have to go to Afghanistan,’ and rushes off. Most of the yatris are youngish people from cities across India, many of them working in creative disciplines such as art, design, advertising and photography (which is particularly well represented). We also have a half-dozen foreigners — a journalist, a few who are engaged in South Asian studies at universities in the United States or Europe, a couple of residents of Auroville, near Pondicherry — and some of them will turn out to be the most enthusiastic of the yatris.
Only a few participants trickle in on the day I arrive, and they’re mostly volunteers. But the one who makes the most striking first impression on me is Oum-Hani, a retired opera singer of French-Moroccan origin. She often travels to Sufi festivals, and here she’s an ethereal presence floating about in white robes. She comes upon Rahul, a photographer from Ahmedabad who’s wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt that reads Appetite for Destruction and has the image of a skull-encrusted cross. Oum-Hani looks sadly at Rahul’s T-shirt and says, ‘You will invite asuras.’ She goes on to inform us that it’s the kaliyuga and she can sense bad energies swirling about us. Rahul looks hurt. I try to lighten the situation by saying that he obviously doesn’t mean whatever the T-shirt seems to be saying. This offends Rahul further, who says he means exactly what the T-shirt says, and we all leave it at that. Later, at dinner, Oum-Hani isn’t eating because the food has spices in it, and when someone comments about it, she says, beatifically, ‘I’m fine. I’m eating prana.’ One of the organizers runs to get her a couple of chapattis with sugar so she can supplement the prana. And my breath catches when she lets drop with a faraway gaze, ‘Water is my sister. The ocean is my mother.’ Kabir was the only mystic I was expecting to encounter on the yatra, but Oum-Hani outdoes him comfortably.
* * *
The Kabir Project was started in 2003. This was in the fraught aftermath of Godhra and the horrific communal violence that ensued in Gujarat in 2002. For many young urban Indians, this was when it became apparent that religion was being hijacked for political ends. Those who had appointed themselves as the public face of religion were so obviously distant from anything that could be called sacred or spiritual that some people grew disenchanted with religion itself. These were perfect times to look to the fifteenth century mystic-poet Kabir, who has never been far from the Indian consciousness, but whose vigorous mockery of orthodox religion and its hypocrisies now felt particularly apt. His words leaped over the narrowness of any single faith while laying out spiritual goals that were hard to disagree with. With Kabir, you could feel that you were rooted in your own culture, and that you had a connection to the spiritual. And if you liked, you could keep wearing your G N’ R T-shirt.
* * *
Since there’s no shortage of self-created distractions, an aspect of the yatra I particularly come to appreciate is the chance to listen to the singers every day. It’s the first time I’m hearing most of them, and this repetition lets the songs grow on me. Prahlad Tippaniya and his group of seven accompanists fill the breadth of the stage and are reliably energetic and full-throated. Gawra Devi, a singer from around here, who’s now in her sixties, sings with an abandon, a heightened sense of drama, that blind singers so often seem to possess. She’s accompanied by a manjira player who sits glumly, a wad of tobacco in one bulging cheek, and clatters his tiny cymbals furiously until they vanish along with his hands. We may have PA systems now, but most of the singers here come from a tradition in which a singer’s voice had to carry to the audience without assistance. Bhanwari Devi is particularly strong at throwing out her voice. But the most notable exponent of both volume and pitch on the yatra is Muralala Marwada from Kutch, who quickly becomes one of my favourites. His songs have undulating drawnout melodies that he renders with great joy (while singing higher and louder than anyone else).
One morning the Australian radio journalist wants me to act as interpreter for an interview with Muralala, so we repair to a relatively quiet room of the dharamshala in which we’re staying. Muralala’s been singing since he was a child, and he says his family has been singing Kabir for perhaps ten generations now. Shabnam Virmani visited him in Kutch after hearing about him, and invited him to Bangalore to sing in a Kabir festival. Muralala says he arrived in Bangalore with a harmonium because he thought it was expected of him, but he was told by Virmani that his group should perform in the traditional style of Kutch — no harmonium, just the manjira, dholak and santara, and wearing turbans typical of the region. I continue talking to Muralala after the interview is over. He’s been on all three Kabir yatras, and has had his music released by the Kabir Project. Here he’s been singing Kabir, Mirabai, and the Sufi Bhitai Shah, but back home he also sings a variety of other bhajans. I ask if he misses performing those other songs in his repertoire. ‘You have to give people what they want,’ he says, with his sweet gap-toothed smile.
What we want on the yatra is usually more music, and there’s no better way to get this than living and travelling with musicians. In Napasar I wake up to the singing of women — a wedding sangeet is on in a room nearby. But what has really woken me is Muralala standing outside by himself, looking delighted, clapping and adding the high-pitched blast of his voice to the women’s chorus. The fact that the musicians on the yatra are performing every night doesn’t prevent them from frequently breaking out into song during the day. Singing on a bus journey to pass time takes on an entirely new dimension when the bus is packed with folk singers. We also have a couple of sessions when just the yatris gather round to listen to songs and explanations of the words being sung. One of the people on the yatra is Abdulla-kaka, a quiet, unassuming elder from Kutch who is not performing, but is a repository of knowledge when it comes to Sufi songs. He talks of the content of some of those songs, which on the surface are fables with princes and horses and lovers, but are really rife with symbolism. These informal sessions usually end on a high note with the music building up to a crescendo and everyone breaking out into dance.