India, today, is in a strange place. While it is possibly the most natural thing for conflict to arise in a country that's as diverse as ours, somewhere we seem to have lost the key to resolution.
Constantly pointing fingers, letting hate brew, India is increasingly getting communal, divisive, and markedly less tolerant. In such times, Kabir Cafe, a Mumbai-based band relays the teachings of Sant Kabir, possibly one of the most secular figures in history, and their 'rockstar', through contemporary tunes.
Calling the spread of Kabir's message their 'mission', the band tends to explain his teachings extensively while performing.
In this interview to Catch, shortly after their last performance at Udaipur World Music Festival, Raman Iyer who plays the mandolin, and percussionist Viren Solanki spoke about the Sant, his relevance, and what makes them create music for him today.
“Technology is supposed to unite people, but you're actually using the same technology to create a divisive culture,” rues Iyer, adding, “[Through technology] you start hating people you don't know, people you've never met. Kabir has always advocated direct experience.
“Kabir's politics is very very clear – 'Kabira khada bazaar mein, mange sabki khair/Na kahun usse dosti, na kahun usse bair'. So, he says I'm going to stay here, and speak what comes to my mind, doesn't mean you have to agree or disagree with me.”
This sort of an acceptability of multiple narratives, the room for dissent, is missing today.
“What's happening today is more and more people are voicing their opinion, which is a good thing, but on the flipside, there's absolutely no concern for the other people. This hate causes a lot of trauma to people,” says Iyer.
“Where there are like 20,000 tweets being hurled against you... This is online, but the same thing is getting translated offline.”
Which is why, he says, Kabir needs to be heard today. You can call it “Kabir 2.0”, says the band.
On being asked if their message is being heard, Iyer is worried that often people just hear, and don't listen.
“This one time we were playing... a 2 hour concert,” he recounts. “Somebody comes up to me and says 'Bohot badiya tha, sir. Toh aap Iyer ho?' I asked why it mattered. 'Aur woh violin, woh Ramaswamy hai? Woh bhi brahmin hai? Aap log Arya ke saath kyun gate ho?'
“So, they liked our performance, our music, they got pictures clicked with us... But... So sometimes we feel have we failed in our mission?”
While that's a question central to their being, Kabir Cafe is nowhere close to giving up just yet. Having released a new album – Pancharang – the band is now looking to incorporate the Sant's dohas.