Koffee with Kabir

Mumbai based band Kabir Café has been winning hearts with their soulful performances all over the country. Their songs Sunta Nahi Dhun Ki Khabar, Tu Ka Tu and Mat Kar Maaya ko Ahankar are favorites. This weekend they are performing at the Mahindra Kabira Festival in Varanasi, a fest quite apt given that the name of their band is also the festival name.

The five man army takes Kabir’s poetry and converts them into songs. They state that the songs that bring out Kabir's legacy are musically almost as old as the poetry itself.

“Kabir’s poetry has survived over the years through multitudes of folk lineages rendered in different ‘shailies’ (styles) Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Malwi, Rajasthani, Kutchi.

Our guru Padmashri Prahladji Tipanya is our foremost guidance and inspiration, so a lot of our songs have the ‘Malwi’ fabric, over which we weave different genres. Many ask us as to what genre we fit our music, it’s just Neo folk - Kabir Poetry,” states founder member Neeraj Arya, who is also the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist in the band.

The band also consists of Mukund Ramaswamy (violin), Raman Iyer (mandolin), Viren Solanki (percussion) and Poubuanpou Britto KC (bass guitar).

Arya was influenced by the philosophy of Sant Kabir and started performing verses of Kabir on the streets as a resident of NSPA (Natural Streets for Performing Arts). That’s where he met Mukund Ramaswamy. They jammed together and decided to take their music forward.

The band members left full time jobs to make music as their full time job. “That’s because we choose to connect with Kabir, more as a friend than putting him on a pedestal. We don’t refer to him as a ‘sant’, which connotes someone who needs to be revered and worshipped, but as a very much alive and thriving friend who is always open for dialogue,” says Arya, adding, “The word "cafe" is where the conversation is on an equal platform. So what we believe is we have a musical dialogue with Kabir, with each other, and of course with our audience. We don’t preach, we converse.”

All this conversation about Kabir leads to the formation of the band that goes back to when Arya first heard of Kabir when he was a part of a screening of the documentary on Kabir Folk Music ‘hadh anhadh’ by Shabnam Virmani (Kabir Project).

“It triggered something in me and the folk legends shown in the film, namely Padmashri Prahlad Singh Tipanya and Mir Mukhtiyar Ali inspired me to render Kabir poetry using the guitar. Performing in small circles in Delhi, I travelled to the Malwa Kabir Yatra, celebration of Kabir folk music in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, and met and spent time with Prahladji.

Much later, I came to Mumbai towards 2012 after returning from a filmmaking course in Madison, Wisconsin where I met the rest of the band, I told them about my passion for Kabir poetry. The rest of us instantly connected with the idea”.

“We think it’s more of a subconscious change in us, than consciously having to abide by Kabir at all times just because we sing his songs,” chips in Raman. “Kabir in some way has opened us up more towards people and has led us to look within before talking about the wrongs outside.

We all surely feel a change in us, which can’t entirely be described accurately. And there's music. The more time you spend with Kabir poetry and with music, one would surely have developed some kind of a positive change.”

Recently the band took on a new tangent. To commemorate six years of existence, the band interwove their set adding theatre to their music with a small skit Waiting for Kabir at a farm in Khopoli. The music was grander, had dancers, and also had band member Raman playing a role in the play.

So far the band has been blessed. They have performed close to 1000 shows across eight countries in the last four years, released two albums, done a bit of Bollywood, all this without the support of any record label.

“The audience considers us as messiahs who are keeping Kabir alive for today’s generation. But Kabir has survived for 700 years and survived well. He is the message, we are simply the medium,” concludes Arya.