Few poets in the country have been as influential as the 15th-century mystic Kabir. His poetry, written in vernacular Hindi, borrowed elements from various dialects like Avadhi, Braj and Bhojpuri and focussed on spiritual themes.
And it is inspiring to see that even in today’s modern, technology-driven society, his legacy is far from forgotten. Mumbai-based band Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café has been playing a unique form of contemporary folk-fusion to bring the poet-saint’s work to the masses.
The band’s frontman, Neeraj Arya, has been researching and performing Kabir’s poetry since the past eight years and says the research is not based on “bookish knowledge”.
“It is from going to a tiny village called Malwa in Madhya Pradhesh and participating in the annual Malwa Kabir Yatra — a musical festival that celebrates the works of Kabir. It is a gathering of artists, fans and followers of poet Kabir from different parts of the world,” Arya told IANS.
The congregation of artists around the world also allowed the band an opportunity to play alongside violinist Jimmy Porter and singer and beatbox artist Luke Nephew from New York, who sang the songs of Kabir in Malwi (the dialect of Malwa).
Influenced by several folk Kabir artists (“Kabir panthi”) like Prahlad Tipanya and Mukhtiyar Ali, Neeraj wanted to explore the work of Kabir in the contemporary space through the band and make it “palatable to our generation”.
“Kabir has been extensively explored in the musical form, but only in the folk and classical space. There is very little done in the contemporary urban space. For events like the HARMAN Palm Live Arena in Mumbai (where the band recently performed) it is important to package our music in a fashion that would match the audience’s contemporary mindset,” Arya said.
Besides Arya, the band features Raman Iyer (mandolin), Viren Solanki (drums, percussion) and Mukund Ramaswamy (violin), Poubuanpou Britto KC (bass).
“I met Raman Iyer, Viren Solanki and Mukund Ramaswamy two years ago in Mumbai. They listened to my music and we discussed about honesty, integrity and Kabir. We gradually started appreciating each other’s music talent and performing together,” he said.
Although their musical sensibilities are different, Arya feels they are “magical” when they come together.
“Mukund Ramaswamy has been playing the Carnatic violin on stage for the last 20 years. He began his musical journey with western scales and notation, and then moved on to Hindustani and Carnatic styles. Poubuanpou Britto KC, who plays the bass guitar, comes from a classic rock background. Our drummer, Viren was a disciple of Ustad Zakir Hussain. Each of us add a different sound form to the plate, and add more depth to Kabir’s soulful music,” he said.
Arya “endeavours” to bring the elements of Kabir’s teachings juxtaposed with pop music, rock and fusion.
“We endeavour to bring to our audience the elements of Kabir’s teachings combined with pop music, rock and fusion,” he added, while recognising legendary Jamaican musician Bob Marley’s inspiration on the band.
“We feel Bob Marley was very much like Kabir — both of them were the voices of social angst,” Arya said.
He said that the band’s songs are “lyrical in nature, and the poetry comes before music” for them.
The band is currently recording its debut album at Gray Spark Studio in Pune, which is tentatively slated for a mid-August release.