(Photo credit: Kedar Desai)
The road to Maheshwar was little more than a narrow track. The bus, usually pounding with the beat of the dholak and a full chorus of voices, had gone quiet as we wound our way in the dark through the hills. Suddenly the bus stopped. Ahead was a small bridge, still under construction, with a bypass thick with mud from a heavy downpour earlier that evening.
There was no question of going down the bypass, and trying to turn around would just as likely get the bus stuck in the mud. We were in the middle of a forest and the locals declared that there were enough wild creatures around to make walking a bad option. After much debate, everyone got out, gathered rocks and levelled the gap between the bridge and the road. I held my breath, wondering if the sharp rocks would result in a flat tire, but it didn’t seem to worry the driver. He stepped on the gas and the bus made it across unharmed.
The next morning, we sat on the banks of the Narmada at Maheshwar, fresh from a dip in the sacred river, drinking in the cool morning air. Behind us rose the majestic Rani Ahilyabai fort and temple, changed little from the eighteenth century when Maheshwar was the capital of the Holkar empire. The Sahasrarjuna temple glowed with its eleven lamps. Legend has it that they have been burning since the time King Sahasrarjuna defeated Ravana, pinned him to the ground and placed 10 lamps on his heads and one on his hand. Mooralala Marwada, our fellow yatri and folk singer from Kutch, gave thanks for all of us with a soulful song, “Hamare satsang mein, hamare satsang mein, aavo Sri Bhagwan ki, hamare satsang mein” (In our gathering, grace us with your presence, O lord.)
Later that evening, Mooralala-ji would keep a young crowd on their feet, dancing the evening away in Indore to a foot-stomping, heart pounding, rock concert like rhythm, “Vaari jaaon re, balihari jaaon re, mhara satguru aangan aaya, mein vaari jaaon re” (My true lord has come into my home—I am dancing with joy and surrender everything I have to him.) The crowd kept calling for more and he obliged and the concert didn’t end until well past midnight.
I had first heard Prahlad Singh Tipanya in 2003, when Linda Hess, a Kabir scholar at Stanford, had brought Tipanya’s group on a tour of the United States. The music drew me in and then words pierced me to the core. “Shabd ki chot lag gayi” a friend remarked when I told her I couldn’t stop listening to his music. That’s Kabir for you. One of my favorite songs speaks to the presence of the universal spirit in everything on this earth. “Choron ke sang chori karta, badmashon me bhedon tu, chori kar ke tu bhag jaave, pakadne vale tu ka tu” (You are a thief among thieves, a troublemaker among troublemakers, you steal and run away and the one who catches you is you too.”)
Apart from the local Malwa musicians, the group included varied participants. There was Mooralala Marwada and Shankar, the percussionist, who had journeyed two and a half days from Kutch, near the Pakistan border, as well as a young English college girl, volunteering at Manzil, an NGO educating underprivileged kids in New Delhi. There was a group from Anhad Pravah, an NGO focused on building leadership skills among youth, Samarjeet, a young Sufi singer from Mumbai, accompanied by Durgaprasad, a versatile young tabla and flute player. Durgaprasad was a student of Hariprasad Chaurasia, who had run away from home to Mumbai to study music.
Luniyakhedi village, Prahlad-ji’s home, was a special place for me ever since I heard him sing. Prahlad-ji welcomed me with a sandalwood tilak on my forehead. There was a big tent set up and by 7 p.m., several thousand people from the surrounding villages had started to gather. There was food for everyone—we sat cross-legged on colorful dhurries laid out in the open and were served a traditional meal. A simple dal was served with baati (baked wheat flour rolls soaked in a pot of ghee) and a fiery aloo sabzi, packed with red peppers freshly picked from the fields that you could see drying all over in colorful mounds. Outside the tent, a couple of vendors served a sweet cardamom tea in tiny cups under a hurricane lantern all night long. Moths buzzed around, drawn to the light, wanting to be one with it. One group after another sang late into the night. When I couldn’t stay up after 3 a.m., I turned to Devnarayan-ji and asked him how long it would go. “Until just after the sun comes up,” he said, “you see, people come here as the sun goes down and they don’t have a way to make it back home in the dark. So we keep them engaged by singing until dawn.”
The next day found us at Sewadham Ashram near Ujjain and we were welcomed by Sudhirbhai Goyal, a bear of a man with a heart as large, who has taken in more than 300 destitute women, children and elderly and given them love, respect and a place to call home. As we helped give polio vaccines to the kids and fed chapatis and jaggery to the cows, Sudhir showed us his expansion plans for the ashram. “How do you fund it all?” I asked. “I just make the plans,” came the answer, “the lord makes it happen.”
One morning, as we lazed around, Shankar, the percussionist, showed off his skills with a ghada-ghamela or earthen pot and an everyday aluminium basin, which looked like it had been used not too long ago to shovel dirt from the fields … In his hands, they came alive and out poured a rhythm that had people on their feet. Samarjeet started teaching him a Sufi song and soon we had a ghada, flute and vocals jamming away. The audience got pulled into clapping hands to keep the beat and joining the chorus. These informal jam sessions were what the Kabir Yatra was all about—we’d crowd in a little room, under a tree or any place at all and the music would start—the rural and the urban all coming together, bound by the music, tossing aside any boundaries that existed earlier that may have kept us apart.
That’s what the Anhad Pravah group was doing too—bringing college kids into spaces that force them to step outside their comfort zone and challenge them to break all the boundaries that shackle their thinking. They went from being spectators to participants, and taking the lead in whatever needed to be done. For many of the city youth, it was their first taste of rural life—drawing water from a communal well for a bath out in the fields (you keep some clothes on), taking turns to serve food when you weren’t eating, and sleeping in communal quarters where you could whisper to your neighbor on either side. On the first night, I was feeling a little lost since the few people I know were the organizers and rather busy. But by the second day, after a few jam sessions and lots of singing on the bus, it felt like we had known each other for a long time.
Oh yes, the bus! Each time we’d embark for the next destination, we’d get no more than a couple of minutes of quiet before the music started and wouldn’t stop until the bus did. The hours seemed to be gone in minutes and nobody was in a rush for the bus to reach its destination. The dholak would emerge and Kishen, son of Bhanwari Devi (who always sang with a veil over her face) would stand up and get everyone clapping to the beat. Samarjeet led from the front with a rip-roaring “Damadum mast kalandar” and Pritam and Mohanlal of the Mohan Barodia village bhajan mandli kept us true to the songs of Kabir with a “Sahib ne bhang pilaye re, akhiyon mein lalan chhayi”(I am drunk with the thought of my lord, my eyes see love everywhere.”)
The aisle would be packed with people dancing and even Julia, the gray-haired horticulturist from Auroville, would be on her feet. I couldn’t help but sing along and soon was welcomed as an honorary member of the Mohan Barodia bhajan mandli.
“Peekar pyala hua deevana, ghoom raha jaise matwala,
Janam janam ka tala khul gaya, mere jyot lagi ghat mahi”
(I drank from the cup till I was out of my mind, I wander about like a crazed one!
The lock of many lifetimes has sprung open, a spark ignites, a light fills my body.)
As we got off the bus at a village in Khargone district, we were mobbed by several thousand people who had come for the night’s program on a desert plateau under the stars. As friends of Prahlad-ji, we were greeted with the utmost love. You could feel it in the tilak placed on your forehead. In the cities, Prahlad-ji had touched many souls. In the village, he is god. I asked a local if he Prahlad-ji visited Khargone often. “Maybe once a year” he said, “but that’s fine. I have his bhajans on my mobile phone. When I wake up, I listen to them and before I go to bed, I listen to them again. He is with us all the time.”
When I got off the bus for the last time, covered in dust and grime from all the travelling, I felt more cleansed than after my bath in the Narmada—cleansed from a week of sharing so much with fellow human beings who all accepted each other as their own. As I took leave of Ajay Tipanya, Prahlad-ji’s son, he summed up the spirit of the Kabir Yatra with this: “Yeh to bidaai nahin hain—ab ham sab to jud gaye hain” (This is not goodbye, now we are all one.)
Jayaram Kalpathy is a technologist from San Jose, CA. While he is not chasing bugs, he can be found searching for himself in his garden, on hikes in the woods, in music and on bumpy footpaths in India.