by Raju Peddada
[ed. essay on Songs of Kabir, by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.]
[Author's preface: I was uninclined to wrench my brains on a hagiographic song book; that is, till I heard from my sentient editor, who inadvertently induced me to dredge up my India years in search of Kabir. I crave anything published by the New York Review of Books, with classic selections and layouts. Only days ago, I had snapped up this pert and pithy collection of verses, briskly illuminated anew by this scholar from Allahabad, India. The only thing that gave me a craniotympanic rash was that equal billing for Wendy Doniger on the cover, for having written just the preface. I would have simply preferred two of the deeply immersed scholars on Indian poetry and culture: Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman for the preface.]
"No problem is as consubstantial to literature and its modest mystery as the one posed by translation." —Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
(Swans - July 18, 2011) Kabir's work had been at best scholastic fodder for the academia, printed at the university presses under various grants, circuitously and monotonously essayed in the poetry-cultural study classrooms. After drinking in Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's book Songs of Kabir in a sitting, I found it to be inordinately refreshing. It manages to pierce that professorial-student-body cocoon within the university systems, with a rare user-friendly translational lucidity for the average consumer of esoteric folk poetry. The 106-page time-travel capsule is an earthy, spicy, and aromatic compilation that evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of the dusty rural villages of India, half a millennia ago, where these devotional songs reverberated.
The question is where do I really begin today in search of Kabir? Then, it clicked: The best place to begin this sojourn would be in January of 1967, in that 5th grade tent, at the Summer Fields School, under the hawkish Mrs. Kanda, our teacher. I was the "fresh fish" in the class, and had accidentally scraped Rajiv Rastogi, my new classmate's knee, with my sharp aluminum school case. It was then, our first day of school in winter at the lunch recess, that he peeled off something bawdy, angrily to my face in Hindi that was aimed at my sister:
I'll do your sister good,
with my knotted piece of wood!
With no sister to victimize, it was rather funny. All through our youth, Kabir's work was the armature on which we built our ribald rhymes to sling at folks we wanted to provoke or offend, lure a girl with a tender amorous paean, or win an argument.
"Inverse irreverence" might be an apt exordium for this 15th century devotional rebel, who parodied religious traditions and conventions. Kabir's pervasive aphoristic songs had permeated the north Indian society for the better part of half a millennia. An oral tradition and concatenation that bound generation to generation, ever mutating into localized versions. No manuscript was unearthed, neither was it available in one scroll text, but a family of texts, in three distinct regionalized collections: 1. The Bijak of the eastern tradition; 2. the Rajasthani or the western tradition and; 3. the Punjabi tradition anchored around the Adi-Granth, sacred book of the Sikhs. To make their point, my Sikh friends, even today, rely on Kabir's deliberately inverse axiomatic verses.
Kabir (1440-1518?), the mystic poet, according to legend was born to a Brahmin widow, who was blessed by a powerful ascetic, with a son for her steadfast devotion. Fearing societal recriminations, as Brahmin widows were forbidden from getting pregnant, she abandoned the infant, only to be rescued by Muslim weavers. Kabir grew up to be a poetic rebel against dogmas of the religious elite. He moved away from Benaras, his hometown, to a small unassuming place called Maghar, a Buddhist destination in antiquity that later became home to the Hindu "lower castes" and Muslims.
The devotional saint Ramananda took him in as a disciple at an early age; consequently, Kabir became an ardent devotee of Lord Rama, his personal god from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. In fact, Lord Rama figures as the darling of both the serene and sanguine composers from the north and the south. The south Indian counterpart to Kabir was the great Tyagaraja (1767-1847) from Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu -- a prolific composer, who was essentially the father of the South Indian classical music tradition called Carnatic Music. Tyagaraja, like Kabir, wrote and composed thousands of devotional songs on Lord Rama. If Tyagaraja was an epic composer, Kabir was the seminal lyricist on the same subject.
As a young man, Kabir became a part of the larger devotional concept called "Bhakti movement," whose germinal was in south India, particularly with the Tamils, people who spoke Tamil. The word bhakti originated from the Sanskrit word "Bhaj" with various meanings like "to serve with honor," revere, love, adore. Bhakta was a lover of God, the carrier of this bhakti devotion. It was an attachment not based on ritual, but romance, which intrinsically possessed eroticism and sensuality.
Lying beside you,
I'm waiting to be kissed.
But your face is turned,
and you're fast asleep (KG-19)
The bhakti movement's delineating feature was an internal love for the one deity, in complete condescension of and in opposition to religious orthodoxies and social hierarchies. This bhakti movement was a concept of observance manifestly expressed by a south Indian Hindu sect of Virashaivas in the 12th century. They believed that a worshiper -- a Bhakta, (devotee) is a "walking temple," that all God required was the devotee's bhakti, devotion. Interestingly, this concept of bhakti runs parallel to the Islamic precept that a Muslim is indeed a "walking mosque."
Kabir's work is resistant to style or philosophical whitewashing. As I read through his verses, I realized that this mystical poet had Lucretean propensities, with Epicurean proclivities. Like Lucretius, Kabir saw the hypocrisy of state religion, as evidenced in the disintegration of ethics and morals, and as the source of most human foibles. He was also fervid in the Epicurean leanings on natural laws to define existence, free of excesses and entanglements, to attain peace of mind. Kabir was especially bitter against the Hindu caste system and the repressive Muslim dogmas, espoused by the religious elites, which precipitated his caustic verses:
Were the creator
concerned about caste
we'd arrive in the world
with a caste mark on the forehead (page-viii-1-1)
And if you say you're a Turk
And your mother's a Turk
Why weren't you circumcised
before birth? (page-ix-3-3)
Sufism and mysticism heavily influenced the northern tradition in devotional fare; in this, Kabir reminds us of Rumi, who sought the abstract aspect of God. This, in the Hindu tradition, is known as "Maya" that strove to eradicate the illusory line between the true god without qualities and the vision of God with perceptible qualities. There is also an eerie similitude with many Greek philosopher-poets long obscured by the opacity of time. Here is Alkaios, in 190 BC, with his epigraphic verse that parallels Kabir's lyricism and grody logic:
I hate love. Why doesn't his heaviness hunt
wild beasts instead of shooting at my heart?
What's in it for a God to burn up a man?
Or what kind of trophy would my head make?
Here is another one by Dopslprodes, created around the 2nd century BC, that reminds me of Kabir's "Paradise" poems:
After having laid rosy-assed Doris
I felt immortal amidst green pastures.
Kabir's work is like the irregular and mysterious puddles of water, whose depth remains a mystery. Intrepid scholars and culturalists, literary investigators, and social archaeologists have submerged their intellectual proboscises into these murky puddles to find and extract meanings, and interpret the mystic's intent. Every scholar who had immersed himself into Kabir's mystifyingly inverse world surfaced with nuanced and distinct meanings, relevant even today.
Mehrotra's punishing ten-year labor, an obsession worthy of apotheosis, involved standing on many a scholarly shoulder to get another perspective on Kabir. It seems he succeeded by applying his soul in tandem with his intellect, to carve out an understanding of this poetic apparition, with no definite attributable poem. That is right, none of the thousands of songs we enjoy today can be ascribed to him with certainty. In other words, it is just "sure" speculation that Kabir was the author. It is like enjoying the sunlight without ever seeing the sun, but knowing the source of the light.
In a way, Mehrotra becomes that human telescope, through which we are able to grasp the distant and shimmering transgenerational pricks of light: the songs of Kabir, through the cosmic veil and mutations of time. Mehrotra claims the quality of the light leaves no doubt about the source: "his collective voice is so distinct that it cannot be mistaken for anyone else." As a reveler in such anti-establishment poetry, I prefer speculative clarity to metaphysical opacity. And, traversing the metaphorical minefields of Kabir's irreverence is a risky enterprise, even for the seasoned scholar, but Mehrotra delivers with verve.
Now, this terse tome by Mehrotra accrues in clarity and manages to illuminate the performative-improvisatory-tradition, from which song mutations metastasized into various regional cultures. Kabir's entire repertoire is a preternatural mystical art, whose enjoyment, extension, survival, and perpetuation lay in the regional osmosis of words, language, lyricism, and cadence -- propagated by the oral traditions. His work survives because of its malleability. Mehrotra deploys precision as the ultimate tool, to delineate Kabir's work into distinct categories-chapters that help the savvy consumer appreciate and ingest the impudent and enigmatic oeuvre of Kabir.
In the first of the eight segments, "Upside-down poems," Mehrotra engages the anachronistic, yet, the poetic practice in the riddles of the upside-down language, of a specific time and place. Mehrotra, like Cormac McCarthy and William Styron, reinvents the language (English) to express the atmosphere of that milieu, in time, which effectively rendered the local culture, in all the dialectic tints. Kabir's songs didactically and cryptically provoked, scolded, and lectured the elite adherents of dogma, in localized plebien dialects. Showing us how language can illuminate and challenge the very yellowness of prejudice and bigotry. Mehrotra also, eloquently uses contemporary banausic quality in slang, to bridge the audience's need to understand and capture the preciseness of the regional dialects:
How do you,
Asks the chief of police,
Patrol a city
Where the butcher shops
Are guarded by vultures... (See full poem on page 8.)
Interestingly, these esoteric poems, known as the "Padas," were also called "Ulatbamsi" for their upside-down language. These songs were devoid of communicative properties; rather, their function was to disrupt, confuse, and obfuscate conventional beliefs, and to force one to contemplate in new ways. Kabir's upside-down repertoire was also a form of dissent within the literary and religious culture of his time, and he was quite particular about listening to the songs in the right way, with conscience.
I see a strange algorithm here: Kabir, a "sub-plebien" entity, did not create "solicitive and supplicative" songs for escaping the misery, like the negro "Blues" from the plantation culture of America; rather, he created a mystical world of lyrical belligerence, admonishment, and condescension on the religious elites (Hindus and Muslims) in the 15th century. Paradoxically, the academia had spent a better part of 100 years deciphering a sub-plebien's work, back for the contemporary "commoners," your average reader. Kabir's songs are like the diamonds among cubic zirconias; it takes expertise and perseverance to identify authenticity and then translate that for general consumption.
Translators are indispensable for the advancement of humanities and literary arts. They had wrought forth new perspectives and perception; unearthed meanings; discovered messages that had lain dormant in the subtexts; invigorated the literary landscape that seemed eroded of its vitality, and brought about a renewed enjoyment for all those who read, like me. I cannot imagine our escapes without the translations by a John Ashbery for Arthur Rimbaud; Maureen Freely for Orhan Pamuk; Seamus Heaney on Beowulf; Edith Grossman for Gabriel García Márquez; and the redoubtable Richard Prevar-Larissa Volkhonsky team for Boris Pasternak and Leo Tolstoy, or the masterly Lydia Davis for Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust.
Kabir, like Tyagaraja, Milton, Petrarch, Aligieri, Ovid, and Virgil will continue to reside in our cultural and intellectual consciousness, through diligent and dedicated literary auditors and translators like Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. His book serves up eight delicious and spicy chapter-sections, each with contemporary translation in various dialectical flavors, brilliantly assembled for the connoisseurs of poetry. In time, this particular work by Mehrotra may find stature and comparative symmetry with other masterworks known to us.
And finally, through the weaving of this review, and upon repeated ingestion of the verses, one query kept surfacing importunately: what did Kabir actually look like? Then it dawned on me, as I tossed and turned in the wee hours. I didn't have to cogitate on an image of him, it was there all along, right under my nose, in that New York Times Sunday Book Review from May 29th. And, as I gazed at the author and mused, it felt like Mehrotra, by virture of his loving labor on Kabir's melodic diaspora, had mystically morphed into an oscine Kabir, as in an Indian legend.
* Lucretius: Of the Nature of Things
* The Drowned Book: Reflections of Bahauddin, The Father of Rumi, by Coleman Barks & John Moyne
* Acts of Love: Ancient Greek Poetry from Aphrodite's Garden, by George Economou
* Scholarly shoulders: see source texts in introduction by the author on page xxxiii.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)