• Oral Traditions of Mystic Poetry

    Excerpts from One Palace, a Thousand Doorways

    Vipul Rikhi and Shabnam Varmani

    November 9, 2019

    A carefully curated selection of 140 timeless songs — by Bhakti, Sufi and Baul mystic poets of northern India — in lucid translation and transliteration, accompanied with insightful commentary, One Palace, a Thousand Doorways: Songs Through Bhakti, Sufi and Baul Oral Traditions is the result of Vipul Rikhi and Shabnam Virmani’s extensive research and travel across the subcontinent over two decades.

    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 go beyond narrow religiosity and open doorways to a unity of the self with the universe.

    The following are excerpts from the introduction to the book along with poems from chapters "A Savage Mockery" and "The Beloved's Country".

    Image courtesy Speaking Tiger Books

    For several centuries,in many parts of what are now India,Pakistan and Bangladesh, have thrived the oral traditions of several mystic poets.Who are the ‘mystic poets’ and what are these ‘oral traditions’? ‘Mystic poet’ is a term we employ for a range of poets from the Bhakti, Sufi and Baul traditions. The term more commonly used in Hindi and other Indian languages for Bhakti poets is ‘saint-poets’.Or, in a parallel tradition,the term ‘Sufi poet’is used.Such an epithet would be used for a practicing Sufi, or a ‘Sufi saint’. In the Baul tradition, people refer to ‘Baul seekers’ or ‘Baul masters’, who were primarily practitioners and additionally poets. So, in a sense, we can see that the term ‘mystic poet’refers to an umbrella of poets who are more than poets in a literary sense. It is not only that they speak about esoteric or mystical ideas. It is also that in popular understanding they are held to be ‘practitioners’ or ‘saints’ or ‘masters’, who wrote poetry to express an experienced truth. In other words, their being is commensurate with the truths they seek to express through poetry. It is not speculative knowledge of mysticism being put into verse. It is a poetic expression of a lived truth, or truths.

    Many of these poets only spoke or sang. They did not, in the proper sense, write. Kabir himself was unlettered; in typical, confrontational fashion, he celebrated that station. It was not a matter of embarrassment for him.

    Never touched ink or paper
    Never held a pen in hand
    The wisdom of all four ages
    Kabir spoke with his tongue

    We use the term ‘oral traditions’ to refer to methods and ways in which the poetry of Kabir and several other poets has survived, and indeed grown, through centuries, in a non-textual form.To put it simply, the poems have survived as songs or sayings / quotations, purely by force of being sung or repeated. They were possibly songs to begin with. Just as the term ‘mystic poet’ is not used to refer to a poet who merely writes about mysticism, but rather to a mystic who writes, so the songs of the mystics are not primarily written and read, but are sung, heard, repeated, and embodied.The tradition thrives and survives on the basis of oral transmission from one body to another.

    In many parts of north and central India, a tradition of singing Kabir and other Bhakti poets such as Gorakhnath, Dharamdas, Meera and others, thrives in the village setting. In the western parts,such as Rajasthan,Punjab and Gujarat (as also in Sindh),this intermixes with the songs of Sufi poets such as Bulleshah, Baba Farid, Shah Latif and others. And on the eastern side, in Bengal (and also in Bangladesh), there is a parallel tradition of singing mystic poets, the most prominent of whom is Lalon Fakir. This tradition is made up of ‘Bauls’ (the crazy ones), itinerant beggars, singers, dancers and practitioners, who practice a secret, esoteric spiritual tradition, held within the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) relationship.There are similar oral traditions in other parts of the country, such as in the Varkari tradition in Maharashtra or the Vachana tradition in Karnataka.

    The three traditions have points of similarity as well as difference. All of them stress on the importance of a realized teacher (guru, murshid) and of a direct, unmediated learning experience in the body / self. In all of them, poetry and song become an intense medium of expression, communication and communion.

    The tradition perpetuates itself in the form of a gathering: a ‘satsang’ (literally, gathering in and for truth), a ‘jaagran’ (all-night vigil), a Sufi ‘sama’ (musical gathering) or ‘majlis’ (assembly), or a Baul ‘mela’ (festival). People come together to sing and to listen, often at night, in the cool of the dark, free of other distractions, and also free of labour, as many of the people who participate work during the day at their trades, whether as artisans, farmers, cleaners, vendors or whatever else. The gathering may happen in the village square. It may happen in the courtyard of a temple or dargah. It may take place in a small room in someone’s house. Or it may be just one itinerant fakir who starts to sing somewhere, whom people gather around to listen to.

    There is singing—but not just songs. The singers are singing nothing less than truth itself. The listeners have a sense of participating in something important, which is not ‘entertainment’. Several saint-poets rub shoulders with each other, as one song follows another. It is understood that ‘all these people belong to the same tribe’ (a phrase I have heard from several folk singers and lovers of poetry during my travels in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat).There is joy in speaking the same truth in the voice of a Kabir followed by the voice of a Meera or a Bulleshah.The sense of self expands as you participate in song and the spirit of truth, transcending for those moments all social limitations, restrictions and oppressions.


    O Mullah, What Would You Know?

    O mullah, what would you know
    Of Muhammad’s glory?
    If you want to know
    Go ask Hussain or Uwais
    Or Bilal or Ali of Karbala
    Enough of your cheap tricks
    Your wanton ways
    What use are your endless prayers
    If your heart doesn’t bow
    In reverence?


    They do the namaaz
    Who are weak of heart
    They keep the ritual fast
    Who are stingy with bread
    They bellow the azaan loudest
    Whose hearts are the most corrupt
    They make the journey for Haj
    Whose crimes overflow at home
    Says Bulleshah, do you want to meet god?
    Then simply unlock
    The chamber of your heart!


    Reading book after book
    You’ve become a great scholar
    But you never learnt to read yourself
    You go rushing
    Into temples and mosques
    But never enter your own heart
    Every day you fight the devil
    But never wrestle
    With your own ego
    You chase after those in the sky
    But never look for
    The one sitting at home

    —Bulleshah; Rajasthan (set of couplets)


    You Didn’t Sing Govind’s Name

    You didn’t sing Govind’s name
    What did you earn, O foolish one?
    What did you really gain?
    You steal a slab of iron
    And give a needle in charity
    Then you climb the roof to see
    Why isn’t applause coming to me?
    You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

    A ‘Hindu’, yet you cut the peepal tree
    Live on your daughter’s pay
    A ‘Muslim’, yet you demand interest
    Your capital is frittered away
    You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

    You take dips in Ganga and Gomti
    And climb the holy Girnar
    Like the weary bullock of a gypsy
    Waste your life wandering around
    You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

    Sitting in a boat made of stone
    You set sail on the river
    Says Kabir, listen friends
    You’re sure to drown midway
    You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

    —Kabir; Rajasthan


    City of Mirrors

    A city of mirrors jostles my house
    My neighbour lives there
    I keep feeling: I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him
    But he’s not to be seen
    My neighbour lives there

    Fathomless water encircles the village
    On this bank, neither boat nor boatman
    How will you get across?
    I see fear in you
    My neighbour lives there

    What description do I give of this neighbour?
    Neither hands nor feet, neither head nor torso
    Sometimes dwelling in the void
    Sometimes floating on the water
    My neighbour lives there

    If that neighbour would touch me once
    The torments of hell would disappear
    That’s how Siraj and Lalon are together
    At a distance of a thousand miles
    My neighbour lives there

    —Lalon Fakir; Bengal

    Shabnam Virmani initiated the Kabir Project journeys in 2002 and has since been exploring the philosophy of Kabir and other mystics through a deep engagement with their oral folk traditions. Her inspiration and joy in this poetry and its wisdom has taken the shape of documentary films and a digital archive, singing and performing, translations and curations, urban festivals and rural yatras, and more recently, infecting students with the challenge and wonder of mystic poetry. She has also worked on gender issues through journalism, video and radio work in the community.
    Vipul Rikhi is a poet, fiction writer, translator and singer who has been immersed in the oral traditions of Kabir and other Bhakti and Sufi poets for over a decade. He is the author of a novel, 2012 Nights, a collection of poems, Bleed, and co-author of I Saw Myself: Journeys with Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai with Shabnam Virmani. His work with the Kabir Project involves writing, translations, research, curations and the creation of a vast digital archive called "Ajab Shahar".

    These are excerpts from One Palace, a Thousand Doorways: Songs Through Bhakti, Sufi and Baul Oral Traditions, written by Vipul Rikhi and Shabnam Virmani and published by Speaking Tiger. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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