Three days in Dewas
By the end of three days in Dewas, one very important question took hold of our very skins – how much dal-baati is too much dal-baati? The answer is tricky. We discovered that meal after meal, a group of city bumpkins sheepishly dipping the tough, baked balls of dough in fiery gruels. We often slept to the lullaby of tummy grumbles.
One particular dinner at this one particular household was so fascinating then, and even more in hindsight. After a day-long session of group singing, we were invited to dinner at a local female Kabir singer’s house. The prefix is necessary because she probably is the only one in the village who shares stages with men. In the dimly-lit home, filled to the brim with people and cattle, we all sent out silent prayers to make this meal different. But the greatest lesson in humility dawns when things just don’t work out as you wish them to. So, there they were, proud and steaming, loaded up on large platters like ammunition for a protest rally.
All hopes crashed and swept, we sat down, dipped in and slowly felt our oesophagus morph into exploding volcanoes. This dal could kill. Half-way into a dough-ball and some of us looked dazed. The kind hosts, trying their best to hide their amusement at the first-world problems playing out around them, offered bowls of yoghurt. And, some glugs later, all was forgiven! We looked up from the wreckage and found contemplative buffalos staring at us in concern. We re- assured them that all was OK.
But wait, this is about Kabir. That mystic, who may live in some crevice of your memory if school had been even mildly interesting. Then, it was text book material; his dohe, and his life story of bold challenging of religious norms part of exam essays designed to be forgotten. But today, Kabir is in vogue. The 15th century mystic is like a fast-growing pop icon, attracting hipsters and aficionados, and melting the boundaries between them. Kabir is the poster boy of the music-loving free-thinkers in the cities.
But the Kabir of Dewas, of every small town or village where his words still breathe, is a different entity. Here, his poems and songs power protests. His bani makes crowds sway, clap and sing along. Here, Kabir’s words make you wonder whether a concert and a satsang are the same thing in the end.
And this is the land we were transported to.
We were a group of ten, it was the end of March 2013, and Holi was on no one’s priority list. Our individual experiences in singing varied greatly, but all of us were driven by the absolutely romantic idea of travelling to the heartland of the resurgent Kabir movement, and attempting to understand it better. From the moment we saw Kaluramji drive up to receive and ferry us to Dewas, some 36 kms away from where we de-bussed in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, we knew it was going to be a different experience of learning. Even the Himesh Reshammiya discography that blared from the cars failed to dampen our enthusiasm. After some breakfast, and more of the unbelievably sweet basundi chai, we were ready for the Dewas experience.
The first day was spent in the disused basement of a local temple. The most surreal thing about this set-up was an array of idols of gods and goddesses on an elevated stage, looking down upon us benignly while we sat about, cleared our throats and started gingerly singing along to Kaluramji. Now, he is as caring and warm a person you will ever meet. Even while teaching, he would look around with almost-motherly affection, coaxing questions out of us, and telling us that it was the heart that mattered, not the tune. He had already handed us a thick wad of print-outs of Kabir’s songs, and we shuffled through it while we sang, stopped, discussed, continued singing, and then looked around in amazement at what was happening.
Many songs rolled on like this,and we naturally started gravitating towards some favourites. Kaluramji on his tambura, his kin on the dholak and harmonium – that was the threadbare band we were singing along to. All the peppy rhythms caught on quick with us, but some singing devolved to croaking when asked to match up to Kaluramji’s amazing voice and soaring pitch. But that didn’t stop us at all.
Tu Ka Tu, an instant hit, was sure to be repeated in the coming days, and it was. As first-time learners, we felt a natural affinity to the simple syllabic combinations of some songs. We were hooked from the moment we uttered, “Inka bhed bata mere avdhu, acchi karni kar le tu; daali phool jagat ke mahi, jahaan dekhu vahaan tu ka tu.”
Zara halke gaadi hanko became an anthem, hummed during meals and bath times. It was even thrown at people given to speaking around than our tenuous singing.
On the second day, after a hearty meal of poha topped by generous layers of sev, and more chai, we settled down in the Bamniya drawing room. The kids would often take breaks from their raucous games and peep in through the windows, surely wondering what the hoot was up with us. Or maybe they had become genuine fans of our collective talents, but we couldn’t be sure!
This day, some of us were put in the spot, asked to wield the tambura and lead the singing. This is when we realised that ‘singing from the heart’ is real. Whenever we discussed Kabir, and his songs, his words and his deceptively simple phrases, something of a barrier broke down. The ideas of selfless devotion to one’s work or art, to simple living, and higher thinking, to human values and not material madness, to one’s teachers and elders, took on more clarity. It wasn’t the first time we had heard of these approaches, but woven into songs, and sung by musicians whose lives epitomised those words, they hit us harder than any conventional lesson.
For every mellow, contemplative song, there was the foot-tapping Meera zeher ka pyaalo pee gayi re…, where loud claps and sunny smiles would break out almost involuntarily. It took some restraint to not break into a dance as well! We were such good students at this trip; we took notes, we asked all these well-thought out questions. Kaluramji would beam from time to time. Chaadar Jheeni Rang Jheeni was another favourite because it is just so peppy. “Jheeni” seemed to ricochet in the air long after we had stopped chanting it rather fast.
The days were fairly warm there, so all the videos were marred by random arms stretching out either handing or being handed water bottles. And, because the Bamniya family is fairly large and all members inhabit the same compound, there was always a surprising number of young children with soiled faces running about. None of us were ever sure who was whose son/daughter/cousin/neighbour. And so yes, there were more voices
That night, many from the village gathered to witness a small gig organised by Kaluramji to mark our arrival. A small temple was the unusual stage for this mini-concert, and for the first time we saw a sound system being hooked up. Kaluramji sang, Leelabai and her daughter sang, and some other local singers joined in by the end. And of course, we were all served chai.
By the third and the last day, we felt like a family almost. Our hearts were heavy by the time we bid many goodbyes and headed out to a field, our final classroom of the trip. Here we sat in the shade of a beautiful large tree. The grazing cows ignored us, but the neighbours crowded around. This session required very little coaxing; we broke into song instinctively and Kaluramji looked proud. With three days of good exposure, we could sense the meanings of words and phrases of the songs better. Thrown into the deep end of singing solo once more, some of us nailed the lyrics of songs well, even though the tambura was still an alien thing to work with. As departure hovered, we attempted to imbibe “mat kar maya ko ahankar, mat kar kaya ko abhiman, kaya gaar se kaachi.”
There was still much to explore in the thick bunch of print-outs, but the process had begun.
As we waited for lunch, we just lounged and chatted. Dewas, we were told, was greener post- rains. Then, the fields will sing along with us. As more baatis were laid out before us, we couldn’t help but feel that we will be back.
More than the singing, more than the notes, and more than the stories, what stayed with us was the earthy hospitality. The people in the village were understandably befuddled at our motivations, but they were helpful, cooking meals for us, letting us bathe in their bathrooms, serving us endless cups of chai, and telling us all these quaint stories of faith and farms.
At the Indore bus stop on the last evening, we thanked Kaluramji, sharing effusive feedback, while he quietly teared up. After he left, we sat around, had some more chai, and then did something quirky. Someone started humming, someone joined in, and suddenly, all of us were singing “Vaari jaaoon re, balihari jaaon re…” Loudly! Oblivious to the shocked looks around us.
We had all become Kabir bhakts.
– Black Swan Journeys