An American scholar's love for saint-poet Kabir

An American scholar's love for saint-poet Kabir

California-based Dr Linda Hess who was recently in the capital as part of the week-long ‘Second International Conference on Ramlila, Epic processes: Mobility, Patronage and Aesthetics 2015’ held at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts believes in Kabir’s philosophy.

She mentions that though mystic poet Kabir is popular for his dohas or rhyming couplets, there is much more to him.

Fascinated by India since the age of 16, she made her first trip to the country when she was 21 years old. Currently in her 70s, Hess has continued to travel here ever since and has studied and translated the poetry of Kabir since the 1970s.

“I started reading and translating Kabir’s texts in collaboration with a professor in Banaras Hindu University’s Hindi department, who had worked on the poet’s work earlier. Kabir was well-suited to my interest, my personality and my kind of belief system. I liked it very much and decided to do all my work on him,” she tells Metrolife.

More than couplets, the lyrics of the late medieval mystic of north India are considered to be “extremely popular and powerful” as songs.

Elucidating, Hess says, “Most people associate Kabir with dohas. But Kabir composed many songs which are not just dohas, or two line verses called padh or shabd.”

She adds, “I have been out listening to people sing songs which are not collected in manuscripts. In 2002, I spent a year doing fieldwork with Kabir singers, based mainly in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, and especially learning from folk singer Prahlad Singh Tippaniya.”

She further mentions about the appealing forthright approach of the mystic poet. “He is very direct, straight-forward and with a challenging voice. He comments, criticises society,
attacks hypocrisy and speaks of the violence in all of us,” she says.

“He shows how the darting mind stays busy, keeping our fantasies and desires intact, shielding us from what we fear, until death falls on our heads and it’s too late to
wake up,” she adds.

She studied this approach in one of her earlier publications Kabir’s Rough Rhetoric which subsequently became a part of the introduction in her first book The Bijak of Kabir, which was published in 1983.

She recollects how along with Kabir, Benaras’ Ramnagar Ramlila (a monumental annual performance that lasts 30 days and moves over miles of terrain, incorporating environment and travel into the performance) held her interest.

“It’s such an immersive experience. For 30 days, the experientially rich performances don’t follow any of the theatre conventions that we are used to,”she says.

Though her connection with poetry continued through the Ramlila, she kept reverting to Kabir. “In the past several years, I have returned to Kabir with a radically different research agenda and sense of text. Though complicated by the histories of media and technologies, his living oral traditions continue to this day,” she points out.

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