When Kumar Gandharva Fearlessly Sings Kabir’s Formless Form

Listen closely and intently to the singer breeze through Nirbhay Nirgun and marvel at how breath can be held with just one lung

Kumar Gandharva begins to sing Kabir’s Nirbhay nirgun with a flourish, a quick statement of abstract intent that lasts barely two seconds, a flawless enunciation of the swaras pa-dha-ni-sa-re, an arc in the broad ambit of what may be characterised as Raag Maand, which in Kumar’s style could well be, as a friend’s friend helpfully suggested, Nirguni Maand (one of the most happily miscegenated ragas), if such an exercise in identification is to be undertaken when there are more interesting questions to pursue, though we can’t but be struck by the unasked question Kumar leaves hanging at the swara re, a question that quavers in anticipation, followed by a pause, a faint pause that we scarcely realise drowned by the drone of the tanpura, and this moment of utterance of the short aakaar, a –a –a –a –aaa, a contour without any decipherable meaning that forms the basis of all musical expression, is especially poignant in Kumar’s case since he had to adapt to singing with one lung after tuberculosis sundered him from the only thing he loved to do, to completely stop singing at what was the peak of his career, for this was almost six years before streptomycin would be discovered, till which time he was ‘bed-bound and coughing up morsels of his lungs’ leaving his bed-sheets scarlet according to his biographer Raghava R. Menon, which is when Kumar heard, rather discerned, the nirgun and silences that Kabir extolled, administered to him through mendicants and wandering minstrels in Dewas in the Malwa plateau of western Madhya Pradesh, itinerants who sang for no one yet everyone, who sang equally for themselves, and Kumar felt they sang for him too as he convalesced there after being forced to flee a Bombay humid with the air of material success, and somehow we have to be perversely grateful to this near-fatal disease but for which Kumar, who started as a prodigy blessed with an unaccountable faculty, could have been yet another concert-circuit performer albeit an excellent one, for when he recovered with antibiotics and surgery he was left with only one of his precious lungs, which meant he could express himself only in short phrases unlike his compatriots who held lungfuls of breath and imperiously stayed put on one note sometimes for two cycles of a tala, dazzling and astounding audiences with breathtaking taans and meends like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Kesarbai Kerkar or Bhimsen Joshi did with practised nonchalance, whereas Kumar had to discover the meaning of breath and musical expression all over again, to learn to linger on and in silences that seemed to contain as much music, like the silence we now return to, when Kumar, after a splash of Maand with pa-dha-ni-sa-re, follows it with a pause that lasts barely a second, and this moment of apparent silence—perched between the aakaar, formless form, and the piercing words of the song to follow—captures the essence of Kabir, who made it his business to restate the Buddha’s core antigod philosophy, atta dip bhav, be your own light, in memorisable words that belie the depths they plumb, words that are simply profound, sheer and luminous, words whose meanings flower anew each time they wrap themselves around music, and here let us allow ourselves just another excursus, not needless, for in the idiom of music that Kumar represents, the basic unit of the music, swara, is not to be rendered as note, for as Raghava Menon, whom we met a while ago, says ‘swa stands for self and ra stands for shining forth’, which means the person who sings, and sings like Kumar, throws forth light, illumines, and these words of Kabir that Kumar makes sheer for us are in the tongue that was likely spoken in the segregated quarters of Benares (heed the use of thir instead of sthir, and tatt not tattva in stanza three; nhaunga instead of nahaunga—nuances Kumar pays meticulous attention to), quarters that were likely thick with the whiff of spent marijuana mixed with the smoke that wafted from brahmin-kindled ghee-laced yagna fire-pits and the pyres along the banks of the Ganga, like it still mostly is, where Kabir the Weaver and his cohorts, Gora the Potter and Ravidas the Tanner, rapped about love and truth in rhyme and metre, berating the brahmin and mocking the mullah, in a Benares that lay in the vicinity of Sarnath where Siddhattha is said to have had his first brush with wisdom and spoke such that even the deer in the park heeded him, an image that Kabir heeds too, for the five deer representing the five senses become a leitmotif for him, alluded to in the fourth stanza after the refrain of Nirbhay nirgun, where he sings of conquering and taming the five senses that combine with the five elements to birth twenty-five sensibilities that bind you in a series of attachments to the world, attachments from which Kabir, like Buddha, seeks release, and thus aspires for the formless, aspectless, amorphous abstraction called nothingness, a journey from being into nothingness mediated by consciousness and heed, a consciousness that equally militates against the unreason of caste for Buddha and Kabir, and thence for Ambedkar, born into a Kabirpanthi family, a consciousness that Ambedkar believes is ‘cognitive, emotional and volitional’ (aspects that perhaps Kumar and many of his fans, sadly, seem unlikely to grasp), and such consciousness is doubtlessly formless, yet such formlessness is something Kabir cannot but help state fearlessly in the form of a song, for, like Browning was to later say, here is a man whose reach exceeded his grasp (or what’s a heaven for?), hence the joyous, even ecstatic, affirmation of a negation he opens with—I’ll sing the formless form—an unwonted expression of that which cannot be expressed, which Kumar renders afresh for us, orchestrating it deftly to the rhythm of the loom in the seven-beat Rupak taal, accompanied by his partner in music and life, Vasundhara Komkali, the woman who helped him find his breath again, who, to use a cliché as old as breath, breathed her last recently, thus giving us a pretext to dwell upon this song that imbues what is beyond all aspects with an aspect, shines the light on something that cannot be seen with our eyes, an aspect that cannot be heard with our ears, cannot be tasted with our tongue, nor felt on our skin or be smelt, an absolute abstraction bestowed with form, for to utter something, anything, is to give it form, and Kumar does this with Nirbhay nirgun, to which, without further ado, let us listen, a song that will soon end even as it sings of endlessness.

  • Sunita Nagarajan

    Left me breathless — reading, and listening to the song !! Well done !!!

  • G. Pankaj


  • Gitanjali Kolanad

    anand, this is wonderful, you are so good at this

  • jes

    Fantastic essay and analysis! (And yes, fantastic music.)