The ‘Word within the Word’ that filmmaker Rajula Shah is looking for is no ordinary one, but embedded in those of Kabir, the 15th century mystic poet whose beguilingly simple songs of devotion, of bhakti, have been remembered and invoked across the Indian sub-continent for hundreds of years, speaking in many dialects and accents, and ranging over most of what is north India and Pakistan. Kabir’s words have the ability to combine the ecstatic address to a nirgun (formless) God with a simple, direct and accessible path to everyday wisdom. That’s what makes his simple yet profound words seem deceptively commonplace.
With its quietly meditative opening, in the apparently banal anonymity of an urban setting, the film signals its commitment to the reflective contemplation of the everyday and ordinary. It’s the onset of a monsoon squall—always ordinary, but ever exceptional—that finally carries us off, on the wings of Kumar Gandharva’s haunting voice, and his unsettling rendition of Kabir’s verse, speaking to the farmer—and simultaneously to the self:
Avadhuta gagan ghata geharai re/ paschim disa se ulti badal, rum jhum barse meha/ Utho gyani khet sambharo, behe nisrega pani… (Hark! O sage, the sky darkens/ clouds burst in the west, raindrops fall to a rhythm/ Awaken, O Wise One, go tend your fields before the water ebbs away)
Pt. Kumar Gandharva, one of India’s greatest vocalists, spent the best part of his life immersed in the music of the Malwa plateau in central India, and in the words of Kabir, so it is his rendition that bears us off, to Dewas town and the countryside surrounding it. This is no ordinary place—its immersion in the words and wisdom of Kabir is complete, as even Kumarji was to discover.
This is where we are finally brought to the encounter at the heart of the film: between the words of Kabir and the ordinary people who are the most passionate guardians of his wisdom. Even as they simultaneously change, adapt and proprietorially protect his words! There is the farmer who scratches out an existence from a small plot of land, the maker of sugary jalebis in the shabby little market, the ageing woman hawker of fruits, and the shopkeeper who sells sweets and gutka. The ‘wretched of the earth’, if you like, all of them struggling to earn a day’s living. Yet they not only sing Kabir, but live him, arguing over his often elliptical meanings, and his playful teasing of the deepest philosophical truths.
The film resolutely stays away from the performative—after the opening we never return to the mesmeric beauty of Kumar Gandharva—engaging instead with the relentless materiality of the everyday existence of ordinary people. “Now I’ll have to set out, go on my daily rounds, that’ll fetch me supper”, says the old woman hawker of fruits ending one conversation with the camera. Then adds: “Wandering you eat, tethered you starve, says He”. We know she speaks several meanings at once, as Kabir did.
Kabir’s words, or what is remembered as his words, playfully reject all forms of received, canonised wisdom; his distrust of organised religions and scriptures was deep. So when Kabir speaks of Ram, the maker of sweetmeats reminds us, this is not the Ram of Hindu belief, the Ram written up by Tulsidas. (That one was only Raja Dasharath’s son, he says, almost dismissively). Kabir’s Ram is the one that lives within each one of us. The balladeer may yell from the treetops, the old woman hawker says, maybe he’s heard in the heavens above. But does He only hear the din, she asks? Does the anklet on the ant’s feet go unheard? There is no god in the temple, she reminds us, only stone. So rich and renewing is this encounter with the gravelly voices and gnarled faces of Rajula Shah’s film that when you see a close-up of an exquisitely calligraphed manuscript of Kabir’s poems, you almost recoil in alarm.
If you have looked around you in India, and confronted the deep—and structured—distress that constitutes everyday life for the vast majority of its people, and then wondered what it is that keeps human beings going, then Sabad Nirantar is a film that you may want to watch. Delicately poised, the poetic structure of the film, and its gentle but luminous image-making, achieve a grand ambition. It takes us to the open fields of the countryside, where lie scattered the splendid accretion of ancient words. Not the entombed wisdom of our books and religions and knowledge systems, but the ‘sabad nirantar’ that flags the attempts by the most ordinary to “seize eternity from a world that has already marked them for annihilation”.
CAMERA: Rajula Shah, Gurvinder Singh | EDITING: Arghya Basu, Rajula Shah | PRODUCTION: Jyotsna Milan
© Rajula Shah