Shabnam Virmani is known for her soulful renditions of Kabir’s bhajans through which she educates people not just about Kabir but also inspires them to imbibe the values preached by the mystic poet.
The annual Kabir Festival has it all; singers who create magic with their voice, musicians who make music through their very being and the audience who absorbs these soul stirring renditions like a sponge. However, as unique as every artist is, Shabnam Virmani seems to be a person who has travelled the road less taken.
In the beginning of her career, Shabnam Virmani was one of the first journalists to report Roop Kanwar’s Sati in Deorala in Rajasthan. But then, she decided to pay heed to her calling and became a documentary film maker. Her films on Kabir earned her a special jury prize in the 58th National Awards. She is also known for the soulful renditions of Kabir’s bhajans through which she educates people not just about Kabir but also inspires them to imbibe the values preached by the mystic poet whose festivals are been becoming more and more popular in the country.
When I started conversing with this multi-talented yet grounded personality, little did I know that I would be introduced to the true essence of Kabir by a person who has imbibed Kabir into her very being.
When did you start listening to Kabir’s works?
I think I have been hearing Kabir since my twenties. I think I first heard Kabir from Kumar Gandharv, wherein the course of my work as a film maker in rural area I started absorbing the folk poetry. Kabir would crop up in many conversations with the villagers and draw of his poetry would intrigue me. But really the quest for Kabir began in 2002 after the Godhra riots. I started to inquire into the true meaning of Kabir then.
Was delving into Kabir’s poems and couplets some sort of a reaction to the riots?
When there is a riot and you are disturbed or when there is violence and unrest in the society, you are concerned and search for answers. You wonder about why such things happen and if they really need to happen. I thought Kabir would have the answers and the solace I was seeking.
Why do you think there is an increasing interest in such festivals?
I think historically or socially when there is intolerance, there is counter movement towards a philosophy of greater wisdom. So, I think there is a surge of interest in Kabir and other mystic poets right now because we are also seeing in the last two three decades so much hardening of identities that are causing a lot of unrest and overt conflict in the society. I think there is genuine interest in the youth. There is interest in the youth as they are looking for a kind of return to meaningful spirituality and the adhyatma that is located within ourselves. I believe that these things are like the Yin and the Yang. When one side gets too heavy something helps in countering the extra weight. So where you have people becoming more and more public in their displays of religiosity which is clearly depicted in the number of religious festivals celebrated publicly everywhere including housing societies. I think to balance that energy, there is equal a growth and interest in what I would call a much deeper, more genuine inner work which is not outward but very inward.
Do you think we need bigger venues than Jawahar Kala Kendra so that more people can come to such festivals?
No, not really because I believe the tradition of Satsang is intimate. Kabir Yatra is more or less a Satsang which cannot be clubbed as entertainment. In this, there isn’t much distance between the audience and the singers sitting on the stage. The tradition has actually thrived over the centuries in very small and meaningful settings and I feel to revive them in that idiom is a very valid enterprise.
What makes you think that such festivals are becoming more popular with the youth?
To me, it is pretty apparent from the feedback I get and the interest with which people view our films. Festivals like these are mushrooming all over the country. We are doing the Malwa Kabir Yatra with the famous singer Prahlad Singh Tipaniya. We have also been doing the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra. Now, people are telling me that the famous writer from Gujrat, Dhruv Bhatt will also be organizing a Kabir Yatra in Gujrat in December this year. This will be very similar to the one we have in Rajasthan. So, there is obviously something about this that is capturing people’s hearts and minds. People probably are feeling that this is a meaningful thing to do in the times we are now. That is why lot of people are interested in such programs. However, on the other hand there is an equal amount of extremely orthodox religious formations as well and maybe in larger numbers. However, I cannot comment on the intricacies of these changes since I am not a social scientist. All I do is draw value from the work I do. The scale does not matter, all that matters is that we do our bit in fueling and amplifying the wise and the good and the higher spirit of the human society.
What is the connection between spirituality, faith and fear?
I believe at a fundamental level the human nature is predicated on a very insecure ego. It is the nature of all human tribe. We are born, we are separated from some source whether it is our mother’s womb or original energy if you will and we yearn for that comfort, that love and that embrace to feel okay. Most of us wander feeling disconnected, fragmented, feeling alienated and we seek connection. When we seek connection, identification and security in structures outside of us which include a community identity or national identity or through material assets like big cars and houses, we try to derive security out of those connections. However, that insecurity does not go away, since we’ve put all your hopes and aspirations and made all these external things as the base for our insecure self. This makes us so vulnerable to them going away. The truth is all these external objects are threatened by uncertainty which makes us very fearful. We are fearful about everything and that is why we build walls around us to keep our world safe. All these places that we place our faith leads to fear. I believe faith and fear are very deeply connected when our faith is in something other than our self. I believe Kabir and all these mystics and Sufis are telling us something very simple but difficult to do. They are trying to tell us to place faith in the self and go within. When we will find that God is really within us, then the faith in our heart will not be easily destabilized by some Babri Masjid demolition. We will not feel insecure because then our faith will be rock solid within us and independent of anything that happens in this world. It is then we will become truly fearless. Spirituality means do we have the capacity to feel stable within ourselves regardless of what other people say or do.
How does one get centered within themselves?
It depends on person to person. People use all sorts of methods to get centered. Some choose the path of meditation or serving others without any motive. There are some who just bring up their children lovingly and beautifully. All you need to do is choose a method and be alert enough to understand if your sense of security is coming from things or people or objects around you. If you develop a sadhana or practice where you find your peace and faith within you, you will do something very meaningful and be an asset to the society.
Published Author, Poet and Youtuber
This article was published in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit section on 7 October 2019.