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Kabir’s Poetry Comes Alive in Atlanta

June 2006
Kabir’s Poetry Comes Alive in Atlanta

"When you anchor an arrow on a bow, you have to draw it back before the arrow can go forward. A civilization that looks at its past is the one that moves forward with knowledge." According to Shekhar Sen, the talented writer, director, actor, singer and music director of one-man shows, this is why he plays characters like Tulsidas, Vivekananda, and Kabir.

On Friday, April 28th, his rendition of Kabeer had the complete attention of an excited audience at the Ashok Center in Atlanta. The two-hour one-man show, had an unexpectedly fast pace and included forty-five song sequences, all gems, poems of Kabir (consisting of two-line stanzas called doha), each set to its own unique music. Shekhar's deep, rich voice, as pliable as a leaf in the wind, connected the audience to the beauty of the message. The theater resounded with sighs and accolades of wah, wah, bahut khoob.

Kabir, a weaver and illiterate man of 600 years ago who saw little value in formal education, spoke with a simplicity of words and complexity of ideas that remains timeless. He spoke openly and eloquently against religious fanaticism and other deep-rooted traditions that ailed society.

Shekhar wove Kabir's poems in and out of the story of his life. It is speculated that Kabir was born to an unwed Brahmin woman who abandoned him. He was found and raised by a Muslim weaver couple with no children, who were at times ostracized by their community. In one scene, when Kabir is six years old, he tries to enter a Mosque with a friend for Namaz. He is not allowed in and is called names. Crying, he returns to his mother, who says, "Who are they to call you names? The Mosque is made by people, but you have been made by God."

Kabir grew up questioning the Mullahs and Priests, as well as their rituals that promote exclusion and "keep them away from love and knowing God." He was particularly effective in expressing subtle truths in simple words. Here's an excerpt from one his poems:

Moko kahan dhonde bande, mein to tere paas mein?

[Where are you looking for me, I am right here with you.

Not in pilgrimage, not in idols or solitude or temples or mosques or Kaba or Kailash. I am right here, with you?. In your faith, your belief]

In another story, Kabir brings his young bride Loi home after the marriage ceremony, to find his hut burnt to the ground by villagers unhappy with his constant criticisms. At the same time his bride decides to reveal that she loves the son of a lender in her own village. Kabir's unusual response is to offer to accompany his newlywed wife back to her village and to the young man she loves. Of course, midway, Loi changes her mind, and they turn back.

As exemplified by this scene, the play's focus was on glorifying a man of conviction, full of poetry and messages. It did not go deeper into the problems Kabir must have faced and the consequences for his being so vocal with his criticisms of organized religion. Overall, the play was a narrative, rather than an analysis about the life of Kabir. Nonetheless, it was an important reminder that the Hindustani culture has produced great visionaries and wonderful poets who should not be forgotten.

The show was performed in Hindi with English translations of the poetry by Linda Hess projected to the side. The performance was brought to Atlanta by Mustafa Ajmeri and Dr. Paddy Sharma of Bharat Cultural Organization. Proceeds from the show went to support an education trust in India.

Born and brought up in a Bengali family from Raipur, Shekhar learnt music from his parents, classical singers of Gwalior Gharana. Shekhar is a prolific performer, with more than 1,000 performances worldwide and releases in excess of 165 cassettes and CDs. He has also composed musical scores for serials, and playbacks in the famous serial "Ramayana."

By Alka Roy

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