Who will be sheriff [judge]
In a town littered with meat
Where the watchman
Is a vulture? […]
Snake on guard;
Bull giving birth
Lion forever leaping
To fight the jackal.
Morning, noon and night;
Kabir says, rare listeners
Hear the song right.
∼ Kabir, translated by Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh
When I first heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi praise Kabir, I took it to be a pun. But soon, I was aghast on realising that Modi was serious in his remarks. Knowing the political and cultural climate of the country, it came as a ‘cultural shock’ to me. Modi has been invoking Kabir, the saint-poet who fought against the very same divisive ideology that Modi represents. It was revealing to hear Modi quote Kabir and misinterpret history standing right beside the saint’s burial ground in Maghar. In a desperate political scenario for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi’s visit to Maghar, needless to say, was a daring act.
How are we to interpret Modi’s homage to Kabir? What is the relationship that BJP wants to portray between Kabir, kamal (lotus, BJP’s symbol) and Kashi? I see in Modi’s love for Kabir the ultimate ulatbansi (inversion of language) of our time. In Modi’s conduct lies the BJP’s objective to dumb down Kabir’s complex narrative and straighten the queering embodied in Kabir’s deep quest.
Kabir’s poem ‘Who will be sheriff’ resonates with the realities of present day India. The question becomes more real in the context of judge B.H. Loya’s death and the historic press conference organised by the judges of the Supreme Court. Likewise, the metaphor of chowkidar (watchman) and the figure of the cow are acquiring absolute reality, unaffected by other narratives and traditions. Figures and narratives are getting fixed and narrowed down to one interpretation, making traditions straightforward and absolute.
Alarmingly, what were once metaphors are now turning real. Metaphors can be an exaggeration of the real, but their becoming mirror image of the real is indeed dangerous. Not only is such a turn of events perilous for poetry, it also has dangerous implications for society as well. What we are witnessing in contemporary India is an anti-poetic act, where metaphors and utterances are employed to produce violence.
Sheriff and watchman, mouse and vulture, cow and calf, lion and jackal – these humans and animals figure as extreme metaphors in Kabir’s poetry. The poem is part of the rich repertoire of ulatbansi. The form of poetry is also known as ulta bani, the discourse that goes against the tide. I remember some popular sayings of Kabir from my childhood that exemplify the upside-down perspective of Kabir: “Kabir Das’ inverted speech, the courtyard is dry, but the house is filled with water / blankets fall, rains get wet.” Ulatbansi is indeed a reverse perspective that sees and analyses the world after subverting the existing relationship.
I see in Kabir’s ulatbansi a deep sense of queering. Queering here stands for a perspective that challenges the normative and hetero-normative modes of thinking. Breaking as it does the hierarchies of ‘up’ and ‘down’, ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, ‘human’ and ‘animal’, ulatbansi is an act of queering. It is an act of reverse role-playing – frog sleeping and snake on guard; bull giving birth and cow being sterile. Kabir’s ulatbansi is an extreme queering of all aspects of life.
I’ve burned my house down
The torch is in my hand.
Now I’ll burn down the house of anyone
Who wants to follow me.
Who would want to follow Kabir with such a warning? Following the path of Kabir with conviction is a commitment one would rarely like to make. Rather, appropriating Kabir is much easier. The tradition of appropriating Kabir began even before he died, when he was popular among subaltern communities. So much so that various communities fought over his dead body, staking their claim over the deceased saint. The motive on the part of appropriators then was not to follow Kabir’s path but to accommodate the subalterns. Rather than Kabir’s ideology, they were more interested in accommodating Kabir in their respective ideologies. From traditional seers to modern scholars to some Kabir maths, everyone has the same vested interest. Dalit critic Dharm Veer, in his book Kabir ke Alochak, wrote how, to an extent, critics such as Hazari Prasad Dwivedi and Purushottam Aggarwal among others also present ritualistic and Brahmanical readings of Kabir.
Modi’s interest in Kabir and Maghar is to appropriate Kabir to gain the electoral support of Dalits and lower castes. By misinterpreting and erasing Kabir’s radical language and philosophy, Modi wants to accommodate him as part of his Brahmanical and Hindutva ideology. His homage to Kabir is a performative act that declares Kabir as dead and normalises what Kabir had reversed in his work. Whereas Kabir moved from Kashi to Maghar to break the normative mode of life and thinking, Modi moves from Kashi to Maghar only to represent Kashi in Maghar. He goes to Maghar keeping the same Kashi in his heart and mind. The ideology he represents aims to transform Kabir as another sevak of Rama and Tulsidas. Importantly, it aims to erase the distinction among Kabir, kamal and Kashi.
Kabir’s ulatbansi or ulta bani is about breaking boundaries and looking at things through the prism of paradox. The perspective offers a creative potential to think against the grain – to the point that “when the traveller moves, the road gets tired”. For me, the meaning of ulat or ulta is radical queering, which goes beyond the reversal of the normative sexual order. What could be more queering than to say that the “cow is sucking at the calf’s teat” and “the nanny got married to a wild cat”? Or, what could be more queering from a class perspective than to think of a lion (the king of the forest) as yoked to a plough and the sowing of rice in a barren field? What could be queerer in relation to caste and body-politic to say that:
It’s all one skin and bone,
one piss and shit,
one blood, one meat.
From one drop, a universe.
Who’s Brahmin? Who’s Shudra?
Women saint-poets like Mirabai, Andal, Akka Mahadevi and others defied the social norms, reclaiming their bodies and celebrating their ‘shamelessness’ in the entrenched feudal society of their times. Mira’s Rana mahne ya badnami lage meethi (Rana, this shame is so sweet / Condemn or commend me, I’ll carry on) is a clear sign of defiance of the social order. However, the male saint poet’s master erasing all the shame, attacking the male ego and subverting the fixed gender roles in a male chauvinist society is something remarkably queer. Kabir sings and erases the shame:
[…] Spreading the easy bed
I stretched my legs and slept
Now I don’t come, don’t go
Don’t die or live.
The Master has erased all the shame
Though the body is central to the queering discourse, the approach relates to all aspects of normative life.
When metaphors turn real
Kabir, kamal and Kashi are metaphors standing in for present culture and society. Kabir meditating on kamal is one of the popular and striking imageries in Kashi. A version of the saint’s hagiography says that an infant was found floating on a lotus flower in the Lahartara pond in Kashi. This becomes a unique metaphor for the BJP to propagate its ideology in popular culture. The regime has been carefully mobilising these aesthetic symbols, while erasing Kabir’s Muslim lineage, beginning with the omission of Urdu/Persian words from his composition to changing his iconography.
Kabir lived and worked in Kashi, but he was never a part of the Kashi that is the site of Hindu pilgrimage. The Kashi of Kabir and the Kashi of pandits remain quite apart from each other. But there is an attempt to show Kashi sans the fractures and faultiness, to present a sewer as a river that smoothly flows from one side to the other. The point is not that both sides do not meet and negotiate, but that they often meet in confrontation. One can see these confrontations during Kabir Mela and Ravidas Jayanti celebrations in Banaras, when Dalits and ‘lower-caste’ followers swarm the city and destabilise the pandit-centric image of Kashi.
A city changes from time to time. Only time will tell whether Kabir also has some place in Kashi or he became a part of Maghar forever. I wish Modi would truly believe in Kabir’s words:
First of all, I was born,
then my elder brother.
With pomp and show,
my father was born,
last of all, my mother! (Ali and Ram 2008)
Modi would have said: “I Narendra Modi, am a bearer of my mother, Gau mata.”
Brahma Prakash is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharalal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is author of the forthcoming book Cultural Labour.