About Us

The Kabir Project consists of a series of ongoing journeys in quest of Kabir, the 15th century north Indian mystic poet as well as other Bhakti, Sufi and Baul poets in our contemporary worlds. These journeys inquire into the spiritual and socio-political resonances of mystic poetry through songs, images and conversations. We have been engaged for the last 17 years in curating and re-expressing the power of this poetry through documentary films, music CDs, books, urban festivals, rural yatras, workshops and courses in schools/colleges and a web archive called Ajab Shahar (www.ajabshahar.org).

The true spirit of the Kabir Project however lies in the taana-baana (warp & weft) of social networks and friendships built over these years between the singers, scholars, activists, artists, students, and the larger public through our work which continues to expand in new and surprising directions, such as teaching, exhibitions, workshops and curriculums and the joy of singing itself.

Initiated by filmmaker Shabnam Virmani in 2002 as an artist-in-residency at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology in Bangalore, India, the Kabir Project has been housed here ever since, with core contributions being provided by Smriti Chanchani (art & design), Vipul Rikhi (writing & translations), Prashant Parvatneni (project assistance) & Psalm Paul (technical & admin support).

The work of the Kabir Project was awarded the Sadbhavana Award by the Vishwagram Trust in Mahua, Gujarat in June 2017 for contributing to interfaith understanding in the country and the Chishti Harmony Award, New Delhi in December 2013.

Films, Music, Yatras & Archive

Film Travelogues

In the first stage of this project (2002-2009) we journeyed through a stunning diversity of social, religious and musical traditions which Kabir inhabits in the rural belts of Malwa and Rajasthan, urban metros and Pakistan, exploring how his poetry intersects with ideas of cultural identity, secularism, nationalism, religion, death, impermanence, folk and oral knowledge systems leading to the creation of 4 documentary films directed by Shabnam Virmani - ‘Had Anhad: Journeys with Ram & Kabir’, ‘Koi Sunta Hai: Journeys with Kumar & Kabir’, ‘Chalo Hamara Des: Journeys with Kabir & Friends’ & ‘Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein: Journeys with Sacred & Secular Kabir’, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 52nd National Film Awards in 2011.

We have also created films about two special journeys that we undertook with Kabir’s songs - one to north America in 2003 with Prahlad Singh Tipanya titled ‘Ajab Shahar: Kabir in America: Parts 1 & 2’, and another film ‘The Journey Home’ which captures glimpses of the first travelling Rajasthan Kabir Yatra.

Music CDs with Books

Simultaneously we curated 10 music CDs accompanied by 6 books of the song texts in translation. In central India we encounter Kabir in the folk music style of Malwa, Madhya Pradesh through the voices of folk singers Prahlad Singh Tipanya and Kaluram Bamaniya. In the desert stretches of western India, we discover him in Marwari folk songs of Mukhtiyar Ali of the Mirasi community and Mahesha Ram of the Meghval community. We cross the border over to Karachi and Sindh in Pakistan and find him in the robust Sufi folk and qawwali forms in the voices of Fariduddin Ayaz and Shafi Mohammad Faqir. In the Punjab Bhai Baldeep Singh sings Kabir for us in the dhrupad gurbani idiom and in urban cities in the classical dhrupad form by Gundecha Bandhu, classical bhajan by Shubha Mudgal and the semi-classical thumri by Vidya Rao.

Urban Festivals & Rural Yatras

To launch our films and music we innovated various public events for creative outreach and organised the very first urban Kabir Festival in Bangalore in 2009 which brought together 15 artists from India and Pakistan for a critical celebration of the voice of Kabir. We supported the organising of festivals in multiple other locations in the country and also conceived the first few rural Kabir Yatras in Malwa (in partnership with folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipanya) and in Rajasthan (with Gopal Chouhan of Lokayan) in the years 2010-2012. The concept caught fire and built its own steam, and now Kabir festivals and Yatras are being organised by diverse individuals and institutions across the country on a regular basis.

Since 2016 we partnered with the renowned writer Dhruv Bhatt and NGO Vishwagram for a Kabir yatra in villages and small towns of Gujarat, which is now poised to grow in scale. From time to time, we curate rural folk artists for urban audiences in diverse workshops and events, such as the Shabad Dhun Laagi in partnership with Bhoomija during the years 2016-18 in Bangalore.

Ajab Shahar Web Archive

In some ways the culmination of our work of the last 17 years, we have recently launched our brand-new web archive, Ajab Shahar (www.ajabshahar.org), which presents a curated collection of hundreds of songs, couplets, films, and ideas that connect Bhakti, Sufi, and Baul oral traditions, all of them carefully translated, annotated, subtitled and tagged for meaningful browsing. The work of updating and enriching the archive continues by excavating and sharing new gems from our extensive recorded content.

Curating Shah Latif

In 2009 our team encountered the powerful poetry of the Sindhi Sufi poet – Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai - whose oral traditions span both sides of the border between India and Pakistan. Shah’s poetry draws on the power and beauty of both Yogic and Sufi philosophy, melding the two streams into one poetic and spiritual vision.

We discovered two distinct styles of Shah Jo Raag - kaafi & waee - in which his poems find contemporary musical expression in the Kutch region of Gujarat in western India. We have curated and presented a festival on Shah Latif in November 2010 in Bangalore and several times thereafter in other places featuring his poems through the Kutchi kaafis of Mooralala Marwada and the beyts & waees of the Jat singers of Kutch (Mitha Khan & Sumar Kadu Jat). These events are interwoven with story telling and interpretation of the love legends through which Latif expresses his poems.

Plumbing deeper into the tradition, we did more field and secondary research and brought out a book consolidating our experiences and insights titled “I Saw Myself: Journeys with Shah Latif in Kutch” co-authored by Shabnam Virmani & Vipul Rikhi, which was published by Penguin in July 2019.

Books & Publishing

I Saw Myself: Journeys with Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai
By Shabnam Virmani & Vipul Rikhi

Travelling into the stark deserts of Kutch, I Saw Myself explores the contemporary presence of epic love legends of the region, such as Sohini-Mehar and Sasui-Punhu, brought to throbbing verse by the powerful eighteenth-century Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. As the authors travel to villages to meet folk singers and lovers of Latif’s poetry, immersing in sessions that stretch into the night, they unearth a unique, thriving love-soaked ethos in which the call to oneness rings out like a defiant manifesto for our divisive times. Retelling epics along with other tales and historical events that created the field of experience from which Shah Latif’s poems sprang, I Saw Myself brings into English a selection of his finest poems.”
Published by Penguin, July 2019.

One Palace, a Thousand Doorways:
Songlines through Bhakti, Sufi & Baul Traditions
By Vipul Rikhi with Shabnam Virmani

A unique textual compilation for the modern seeker, this exceptional book brings together some of the greatest songs of Bhakti, Sufi and Baul mystic poets of northern India for the first time. Kabir, Nanak Das, Gorakhnath, Mira Bai, Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Bulleshah, Lalon Fakir, and Parvathy Baul, among others, illuminate the human condition with an enduring wisdom that resonates today as it did in centuries past. Variously acerbic or sensual, irreverent or devotional - and always incandescent and intimate - these songs explode beyond narrow religiosity and open doorways to the palace of true experience: ecstatic unity of the self with the universe.

This carefully curated selection of 140 timeless songs in lucid translation and transliteration, accompanied with insightful commentary, is the result of Rikhi and Virmani’s extensive research and travel across the sub-continent over two decades. Drawing upon the shared and many-splendoured spiritual heritage of the Indic civilisation, One Palace, a Thousand Doorways lights up a path to profound fulfilment and bliss amidst the frenetic demands of modern life.”
Published by Speaking Tiger, September, 2019

Burn Down Your House: Life Lessons from Kabir
By Shabnam Virmani

This book distills some of the core poetic and philosophic ideas of Kabir along with a translations of some of his most striking couplets and songs drawn from the oral traditions of Malwa, Rajasthan and Gujarat, as well textual references from ‘Sakhi’ by Drs. Jaydev Singh & Vasudev Singh.
Upcoming by Aleph Book Company

One Tree, One Parrot
Illustrated Book by Vishakha Chanchani & the children of HBP School
Translation and Design: Smriti Chanchani

This is a slim children’s book based on a Kabir song and Buddhist parable, which tells the story of a brave parrot who puts out a forest fire. It is the result of a rich 6-month exchange between artist and educator Vishakha Chanchani and the children of a government school in Bangalore, where they produced an original script, picture scroll and dance-drama inspired by this story. The script and children’s illustrations have been adapted to make this book, which is bilingual (Hindi + English).
 Upcoming

Experiments in Pedagogy

We have been exploring innovative ways to take the spirit, philosophy, texts and music of the oral traditions of mystic poetry to diverse classrooms.

Experiments with Mystic Poetry in Colleges
at Srishti & Christ University

Gaaye So Paaye:
There is no better way to gain insight into the songs of Kabir and other mystics, than to sing them. Mystics underline the importance of ‘sound’ and ‘word’ (Shabd) and also of experiencing and knowing through the body. In this course facilitated by Shabnam Virmani students learn and sing songs of the mystics in diverse idioms and languages and reflect upon that experience and the insights that emerge from this practice. This is an ongoing semester long engagement under the NAC (Non Academic Credits) held twice a week at Srishti.

Sufi, Bhakti, and Baul Poetry: Oral Traditions of Knowledge:
In this open elective course offered for 8 weeks at Christ University, facilitated by Prashant Parvataneni, students explored the question - What is Knowledge? The Bhakti, Sufi and Baul songs introduced in this course shift the emphasis of knowing from the mind to the body, from reason to emotion, from learning to unlearning and celebrate the wisdom and knowledge emerging from folk and artisanal practices. Through units dedicated to images and metaphors in these songs, students also explored themes of death, impermanence and love, along with political ideas of caste, nationalism, and gender. Our online archive, Ajab Shahar, was used as a learning resource in this course, as students listened to the songs of mystics in the classroom, as opposed to reading them to understand the orality of experience.

Poetry as Performance:
In this 5-week course, facilitated by Prashant Parvataneni, students explored the aesthetics and poetics of songs from the Bhakti, Sufi, and Baul traditions. This opened up an exploration into the performative aspects of poetry and how words or lyrics transform when rendered in song. Songs sung in various musical styles, archived in Ajab Shahar were introduced to the students, and their effects discussed and analysed. Throughout this course, students were also engaged in writing, composing and performing original poetry inspired by these songs. This culminated in an audio-podcast of poems and songs on the theme of home and belonging.

Experiments with Mystic Poetry in Schools
at HBP Government School, Kasturba Shaala, and Valley School

During 2010-12, we supported artist and educator Vishakha Chanchani to devise a series of pedagogic experiments to bring the spirit of mystic poetry into classrooms in creative ways.

One of the experiments involved working with the girls of Kasturba Shaala hostel in Tonk Khurd, Madhya Pradesh to deepen their relationship with the natural environment through storytelling, songs, and hands on experience of pottery. Kabir’s dohas and songs on pots, the soil and the philosophy of natural elements acted as inspirations for this process. Local potters became guest-lecturers, and the collaborators included folk singers of Kabir, activists, and NGOs.

At HPB Government school in Bangalore, Vishakha transformed the ‘art class’ - where children follow instructions to draw and paint on paper - into a space of open play by adding explorations of natural forms out in the open, storytelling, singing, and drama into the process. At the end of this process, children made a painted picture scroll to go with their musical narration of a story which appears in a Kabir song. This performance was presented to an audience of parents, teachers and other children from the school and neighbourhood.

In 2012, Vishakha Chanchani and a group of inspired school teachers from Valley School in Bangalore created a charming Hindi adaptation of Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton Hatches an Egg’, stitched together with songs of Kabir. This play was devised as part of a series of classroom exercises to infect children with the upside-down world of Kabir’s ulat bansi poems.

Learning with Kabir’ workshops

These were four-day residential workshops for educators held twice in the years 2010 and 2011, offering a lyrical and critical immersion in the poetry, songs and ideas of Kabir. Through structured group exercises and personal reflections, educators from a variety of learning contexts- schools, colleges, universities, non-formal education and children’s publishing - shared and generated ideas on creative ways of sharing the philosophy and poetry of Kabir with children and bringing them into diverse kinds of classrooms.

Short Stories for Children

On our web-archive, you’ll find three short stories for children (and adults) written by Vipul Rikhi and illustrated by Anjora Noronha inspired by the spirit, philosophy, and poetic images of Kabir which could spark some ideas among educators on the ways to interpret Kabir for children.

People behind the Kabir Project

Core Team

    Conception, Filmmaking & Project Direction:
  • Shabnam Virmani

    Design, Photography & Art Direction:

  • Smriti Chanchani

    Writing, Translations & Research:

  • Vipul Rikhi

    Project Assistance & Teaching:

  • Prashant Parvatneni

    Technical & Administrative Manager:

  • Psalm Paul

    Poetry & Philosophy Insights:

    • Prahlad Tipanya (Malwa)
    • Abdullah Hussain Turk (Kutch)
    • Parvathy Baul (Bengal) and scores of other
      oral scholars & village practitioners

      Camera & Photography

      • Smriti Chanchani
      • Aarthi Parthasarathy
      • Shabnam Virmani

        Video Editing

        • Rikhav Desai
        • Shabnam Virmani
        • Aarthi Parthasarathy
        • Radha Mahendru
        • Sharanya Gautam
        • Piyush Kumar Kashyap
        • Shruti Kulkarni

          Sound

          • P M Satheesh & team, Fireflys Post-Sound

            Design & Illustrations

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

              Project Assistance

              • Namrata Kartik
              • Nandini Nayar
              • Rumah Rasaque

                Research & Writing

                • Vipul Rikhi
                • Shabnam Virmani
                • Prashant Parvatneni

                  English Translation

                  • Vipul Rikhi
                  • Linda Hess
                  • Shabnam Virmani
                  • Homayra Ziad
                  • Vidya Rao & others

                    Hindi Translation

                    • Prashant Parvatneni
                    • Divya Jain
                    • Maitreyee Chakravarty
                    • Mukesh Kulariya
                    • Vipul Rikhi
                    • Shabnam Virmani & others

                      Ajab Shahar Web Design

                      • Smriti Chanchani

                        Ajab Shahar Web Development

                        • ThoughtWorks
                        • Langoor Digital
                        • Hrishikesh Jha

                          Kabir Project Website Design

                          • roy + arati design
                          • Palash M
                          • Dipti Sonawane

                            Web Design Support

                            • Medha Sutwala

                              Experiments in Education

                              • Vishakha Chanchani
                              • Namrata Ratnam
                              • Chintan Girish Modi

                                Rajasthan Archiving & Field Support

                                • Gopal Singh Chouhan

                                Project Advisors

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

                                Legal Advisors

                                • Lawrence Liang
                                • Jawahar Raja
                                • Priyale Prasad

                                Financial Support

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

                                Seed & Institutional Support

                                • Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology