About Us

The Kabir project brings together the experiences of a series of ongoing journeys in quest of this 15th century north Indian mystic poet as well as other Bhakti and Sufi poets in our contemporary worlds. Started in 2003, these journeys inquire into the spiritual and socio-political resonances of Kabir’s poetry through songs, images and conversations.

We journey through a stunning diversity of social, religious and musical traditions which Kabir inhabits, exploring how his poetry intersects with ideas of cultural identity, secularism, nationalism, religion, death, impermanence, folk and oral knowledge systems. The core inspiration of the project is music, and Kabir comes alive in 4 documentary films, 10 audio CDs and poetry books through the power of song.

This is an initiative undertaken by filmmaker Shabnam Virmani as an artist-in-residency project at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, India. The project is being supported by the Ford Foundation, New Delhi and Wipro Applying Thought in Schools, Bangalore.

Apart from the films, CDs and books, the true spirit of the Kabir Project lies in the taana-baana (warp & weft) of social networks and friendships built over these years between the singers, scholars, activists, artists, illustrators, students, music lovers and lay persons who have been woven together through student labs, festivals, workshops and other exchanges. Folk singers Prahlad Tipanya, Mukhtiyar Ali and others have become deep friends, giving the project its soul force. Our advisors include scholars Linda Hess and Purushottam Agrawal, poet Ashok Vajpeyi, singer Vidya Rao, and ethnomusicologist Shubha Chaudhuri.

The project is currently journeying into these spaces –

Constructing Ajab Shahar

We are constructing a vast online bi-lingual (English and Hindi) repository of songs, poetry and ideas of Kabir and other mystic, Bhakti and Sufi poets of the Indian region and thereabouts. This is envisioned as an ajab duniya, at once a searchable repository as well as a magical space where one would encounter songs, poems, conversations, reflections and artworks that offer insights into the poetry.

The archive will offer a curated collection of songs and encounters all carefully researched, transcribed, translated and annotated. The text, audio and video clips would be navigable through the categories of Song, Person, Word, Region and Event. People featured would include singers, scholars, artists, but most importantly, the so-called “ordinary” men and women of the Indian streets and villages. We believe that such “street intellectuals” often have profound and intuitive insights that often escape learned scholarship.

We expect this to grow into a dynamic knowledge space on the web, with contributions and participation from urban, small town and rural communities of singers and listeners.

Curating Shah Latif

On the trail of Kabir we journeyed into Kutch, Gujarat in 2010 and had a powerful encounter with another poet whose voice we found in resonance with Kabir, a Sufi folk poet of the Sindh region – Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. A 17th century mystic poet, Shah’s poetry draws on the power and beauty of Vedanta and Islam, melding the two philosophies into one poetic and spiritual vision. His major work is the ‘Shah Jo Risalo’ and his poems thrive today as a vibrant oral tradition being widely sung, quoted and loved by both Hindu and Muslim communities in the Sindh region on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. He takes moments from the popular love legends of the region and speaks through the voices of different woman protagonists.

We are curating two distinct styles of music in which Shah’s poems find contemporary expression. The first is a deeply meditative musical form known as Waee created by Shah Latif himself. There is a thriving tradition of Waee singers in Pakistan, however as far as we know, it is now practiced by only two singers in Kutch, India. The second musical style is the Kaafi, sung by bhajan singers of the Meghval community of Kutch.

In November 2010 our immersion in the poetry and music of Shah Latif culminated in a day-long festival called ‘Seeking the Beloved’, co-organized with the Sindhi Culture Foundation in Bangalore. This brought together singers of these two musical styles and interwove their songs with story-telling of the love legends along with back-screen animations of translations and illustrations. This festival is currently being further researched and refined towards another round of presentations in the coming year.

Supporting Oral Traditions

We are supporting initiatives at the village level, which either directly enable folk singers themselves or strengthen and inject fresh energy into the oral traditions of the region in creative ways. Funds for this have been raised partly from the Ford Foundation and partly from the proceeds generated by sales of films and audio CD-books created in the first phase of the Kabir project.

Malwa Field Support –

Our research and film shooting over the years has led to many strong bonds with the community of folk singers in Malwa, Madhya Pradesh. We’ve developed a partnership with Kaluram Bamaniya, Narayan Delmia and Ajay Tipanya to energize the oral traditions of Kabir in the region in new ways. This work involves teaching Kabir songs and music to the children of two government schools in Dewas district, encouraging the emergence of women’s mandlis, documenting the repertoires of the older folk singers in the community and the revival of the monthly satsang discussion manch. This field support program is being facilitated by Eklavya, an educational NGO which has been a critical support to the oral traditions of Kabir in Malwa since the 1990s.

In these schools, children are learning to sing songs of Kabir, play instruments and engage with the poetry in a non-pedantic and lively manner. In addition artist-educator Vishakha Chanchani held a workshop with the children exploring Kabir’s poems through clay-work.

Malwa Kabir Yatras 2010, 2011 –

In March 2010 the first Malwa Kabir Yatra took place over 9 days travelling from Luniyakhedi village, home of the renowned folk singer Prahlad Tipanya, across many other village locations and Ujjain and Indore cities – a critical celebration of the spirit of Kabir through film screenings and live music concerts. It brought together lovers and seekers of Kabir – folk singers, scholars, activists, artists, students from urban India together with mass rural audiences ranging from 1,000 to 13,000. The Yatra travelled through 8 districts over 9 days creating intense all-night communions with the spirit of Kabir – opportunities to reflect on the pluralistic, non-sectarian spiritual and political message inherent in Kabir but also so many other bhakti, Sant and Sufi poets. It brought together the diversities within the Kabir oral traditions, giving Malwi rural audiences a chance to appreciate for the first time the spirit of Kabir in Kutchi, Gujarati and Marwari folk music traditions through the voices of Mooralala Marwada, Hemant Chauhan and Mukhtiyar Ali. Urban singers such as the youngsters from Manzil Band from Delhi and Shabnam Virmani from Bangalore added their mix to the diversity of Kabirs being shared. The Yatra was a rousing success with thousands participating with so much enthusiasm, that it is no surprise that it seems to be taking the shape of an annual event, with another edition just having been completed in April 2011.

The Yatras have been principally organized through the efforts of Ajay and Prahlad Tipanya along with many individuals and village-based committees raising funds and doing the local organizing. The Kabir Project team from Bangalore supports this event through fund-raising as well as design and publicity inputs, curation of the program and some logistical support to the local Malwa team.

Bikaner Field Support –

Work has begun towards a pilot 6-month community archiving project centred around the area of Bikaner, Rajasthan in order to record and publish online the mystic, Sufi and bhakti song repertoires of local folk singers. The primary focus is on 5 women singers and one male singer. Inspired by the success of the Malwa Kabir Yatras, a Rajasthan Kabir Yatra is being planned as a culmination of this 6 month project which would bring together onto the stage these 6 local folk artists along with artists from regions such as Malwa, Kutch and Bengal. This project is being led by Gopal Singh Chouhan and facilitated by the Bikaner-based local NGO Lokayan.

Ideas for Educators

To bring alive the power of mystic poetry and music in the classroom, we have been interacting with students and teachers of schools and colleges in diverse ways – organizing live music concerts and interactions with folk singers, film screenings-discussions and workshops with students around the themes of cultural diversity and ecology.
With teachers and educators we have conducted a 4-day residential workshop called “Learning with Kabir” for 30-35 participants designed to give them a deep immersion in the poetry, politics, ideas and music of Kabir. This was conducted in Jan 2010 and May 2011.

We are supporting artist and educator Vishakha Chanchani to develop illustrated books which draw inspiration from the poetry of Kabir – more the spirit than the words. They would be written in a playful and poetic metre in Hindi & English creating evocative narratives around Kabirian themes and ideas, with a light reference to a Kabir couplet or a poem.

We are also working towards creating a vibrant online resource for educators interested in working with mystic poetry and music, where engaging and sensitive documentation of classroom experiments would be shared.

Reaching Out with Festivals

After the release of the Kabir documentary films in early 2009, we have been overwhelmed by responses from diverse cultural foundations, universities, NGOs, community-based institutions and also highly motivated and spirited individuals. They have taken the initiative to organize festivals that include film screenings, live music concerts, interactions and discussions with folk singers, scholars, artists and students.

This has led to the emergence of the Kabir Festival, almost as an institution in itself, which has already travelled in varying shapes and hues to Mussoorie, Chennai, Auroville, Karachi, Bangalore, Canada, USA, Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune, Kathmandu, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Mumbai and the villages of Malwa. In some places it has acquired the nature of an annual event, such as the Mumbai Festival of Kabir and the Malwa Kabir Yatra (see section on Strengthening Oral Traditions for description).

In each venue, we have been inspired to feature diverse traditions within Kabir that cut across religious and linguistic barriers, as well as feature other mystic poets Kabir is in resonance with such as Guru Nanak, Sachal Sarmast, Rumi, Basavannah, Shishunaal Sharief and others. We have pro-actively involved colleges and schools as venues and co-organizers in these events.

Project Director

  • Shabnam Virmani

Project Advisors

  • Linda Hess
  • Ashok Vajpeyi
  • Vidya Rao
  • Purushottam Aggrawal
  • Shubha Chaudhuri

Project Team:

  • Aarthi Parthasarathy
  • Smriti Chanchani
  • Vishakha Chanchani
  • Psalm Paul
  • Gopal Singh Chouhan
  • Vipul Rikhi
  • Nandini Nayar
  • Sharanya Gautam

Web Archive Design Team

  • Smriti Chanchani
  • Aditya Dipankar
  • Inkoniq, Bangalore
  • Shiva & Medha Sutwala, Apparatus Media

Legal Advisors

  • Lawrence Liang
  • Jawahar Raja

Financial Support

  • Ford Foundation, New Delhi
  • Wipro-Applying Thought in Schools

Seed & Institutional Support

  • Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology

International Sales Support

  • Sarah Caldwell
  • Ajai Narendran
  • Singh Foundation

Design Support for Shah Latif project

  • Shilo Suleman

Project Team for the 1st Phase
(Films, Audio CD-books & Website)

Film Research, Camera & Direction

  • Shabnam Virmani

Film Editors

  • Shabnam Virmani
  • Rikhav Desai
  • Arati Parthasarathy
  • Vasanth D. Kummy
  • Paramesh K.
  • Waseem Shaikh
  • Rumah Rasaque

Research & Advisory Support

  • Tara Kini

Film Animation

  • Orijit Sen
  • M M Pradeep

Film Direction Support

  • Rumah Rasaque
  • Smriti Chanchani

Sound Recording & Mastering
(Films & Music CDs)

  • P M Satheesh
  • Shajith Koyeri
  • Amrit Pritam
  • Sreejesh K Nair
  • Fireflys Post-Sound Team, Mumbai

Additional Sound Recordings

  • Rhzude David, Bangalore
  • G M Chand, Karachi, Pakistan

Designers & Illustrators

  • Smriti Chanchani
  • Vishakha Chanchani
  • roy+arati design
  • Kena Design
  • Arvind Lodaya

Calligraphy for Films & Books

  • Dharmesh Jadeja

Poetry Translations

  • Linda Hess
  • Shabnam Virmani
  • Homayra Ziad
  • Vidya Rao

Editing (Poetry Books)

  • Shabnam Virmani

Hindi Translation (Poetry Books)

  • Divya Jain

Project Web Design Team

  • roy + arati design
  • Palash M
  • Dipti Sonawane
  • Ajai Narendran
  • Samuel Rajkumar

Seed Support

  • Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology
  • Wanaparthy Educational Trust