Vipul Rikhi’s Drunk on Love: The Life, Vision and Songs of Kabir is a lovely book, it’s special energy coming from the fact that the author is a Kabir singer, a poet in his own right and a bhakt in the old-fashioned sense as one who is immersed in the love of their god. Having said that, I realise that, for Rikhi, Kabir and his songs are not simply the path to union with the divine, they are themselves the goal, the destination, the place where everything makes sense.
Rikhi says that his epiphany with Kabir came when he heard a folk singer, Prahlad Singh Tipanya, pour his heart and soul into the song. More used to classical renditions of Kabir (most notably the soaring, gliding, soul-elevating versions that belong to Kumar Gandharva), Rikhi suddenly found another universe of music and devotion opening up for him. He got involved with the Kabir Project that was initiated by Shabnam Virmani, who had found her own Kabir through her deepening intimacy with his songs and her own intensifying practice as a singer. Years of travelling to and with musicians gave Rikhi not only a chance to understand Kabir’s multi-valence and poetic charisma, it also gave him a chance to experience the music as an act of devotion, as a place where the singer disappears into the song, where every singer becomes Kabir.
Rikhi takes the reader through some of Kabir’s basic tenets and recurring themes and images, such as Raam (not to be confused with Rama of the Ramayana), guru, the swan (hans) and emptiness (shoonya) and such dualities as the simple (sahaj) and the upside down (ulat). He calls them “root ideas” and spins them out through carefully chosen verses in translation, in the legends that surround the idea and suggests what these concepts might mean. The second half of the book presents us with translations of Kabir’s most beloved and best known couplets and poems. The real treat in this part is that Rikhi provides us with the original verses transcribed into English. Many of us will recall them – despite the tedium of uninspired Hindi classes, they’ve stayed with us over the decades since high school because of their simplicity and their power. Rikhi’s translations are succinct and have a light touch. They point beyond themselves to both the larger Kabir corpus as well as to the many translations of his works that have come before.
As with others who have immersed themselves in the Kabir, both musicians and scholars, Rikhi comes to the conclusion that there are as many Kabirs as there are readers, listeners and singers. Apart from the Kabir-panthis who take his name to define their sect, Kabir’s songs are included in the Sikh Guru Granth and in the liturgies of the Gorakh-panthis. They also feature in the repertoires of Muslim/Sufi singers from Rajasthan and Pakistan. One reason for this boundary-and-border breaking popularity is, of course, is Kabir’s own many voices and his use of many poetical forms. His words are sometimes simple and direct, sometimes obscure and mystical (as in the ulatbamsi verses), sometimes koan-like, sometimes invoking the gods, sometimes exalting a formless absolute.
We know that Kabir existed, that he was a historical figure who probably lived between 1440 CE and 1519 CE. But the legends that surround his birth and life are so numerous and so imbued with miracles and super-natural occurrences, that the ‘real’ Kabir has become elusive. At the same time, this lack of specificity about who he was, what he himself actually said and the details of his life, has made him universal. Vinay Dharwadker, in the Introduction to his own translation of selected verses of Kabir (The Weaver’s Songs, 2003), says that, 500 years after his death, in point of fact, “Kabir” is now a tradition rather than an individual. It’s likely that over centuries, hundreds of other people wrote like him and further developed his themes and conceptions of the divine. Their verses and ideas have also been absorbed into the extremely porous and fluid Kabir “canon,” all of them contributing to the central credo of transcending organised religion. Rikhi takes this further – the blurb on the back of the book says, “ . . . that Kabir is not just a person but an idea that belongs to the people of India who have preserved and nurtured it . . .” In our dark times, Kabir might seem more like a chimera than a real person or even an aspiration that is within reach. But what is beyond doubt for many of us is this: if Kabir, poet of harmony who calls upon us to rise above religious dogma, had not existed, we would have had to invent him. Rikhi’s beautiful book helps to reset the compass of our imagination and our hope in Kabir’s direction.
Arshia Sattar is a translator and teaches classical Indian literatures at various institutes across the country.