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How does one paint Kabir?

The ongoing Mahindra Kabira Festival shines the spotlight on artist Haku Shah’s depiction of Kabir. It also makes us wonder just how relevant are the 15th century poet’s ideas in today’s times

Detail from a Haku Shah work, which was displayed by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art between 2019-2020 as part of the exhibition, 'Iss Ghat Antar Baagh-Bageehce'. Courtesy: the KNMA
Detail from a Haku Shah work, which was displayed by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art between 2019-2020 as part of the exhibition, 'Iss Ghat Antar Baagh-Bageehce'. Courtesy: the KNMA

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As the boat languidly makes its way through the Ganga in Varanasi, you can't help but envision a time when on these very ghats, Kabir—the 15th-century mystic poet—, must have spread his message of equality and plurality. Over the years, from Company paintings to contemporary work, Kabir has been portrayed in art in a myriad ways. Some artists have done it literally, showing his journey as a weaver to a saint, while others have interpreted his message of looking inwards and questioning the need for religion and ritualistic practices. One stark example of this is Madhubani artist Santosh Kumar Das’s works based on the poetry of Kabir, which was shown at The Conference of Birds at the Ojas Art in 2021. In those paintings, Das shows the journey of Kabir’s consciousness as he attains supreme knowledge.

The other is the ‘Kahat Kabir’ series by Gulammohammed Sheikh. “Over the years Kabir kept returning to me in many ways, often through music. When Kumar Gandharva sings Kabir the words become molten. Time and again I heard Kumarji’s bhajans, and I began to think: if he can sing Kabir, can I not paint him? I have wanted to paint Kabir for a long time, but it is only in the last two years that I felt able to paint him. In painting him, I have engaged with the image of Kabir – based on the popular, conventional icon and also a wonderful late Mughal image that I came across,” he said in a conversation with art historian Kavita Singh.

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However, at the Mahindra Kabira Festival, being held in Varanasi, the afternoon session on 19 November focuses on the works of Haku Shah, an artist who has not just painted Kabir but also lived by his principles. Titled, ‘Imagining Kabir: Representation in Visual Art”, the event will see Anubhav Nath of Ojas Art enter into a conversation with Dr Roobina Karode from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Between 2019-2020, the KNMA, New Delhi, had shown a series of Shah’s works as part of the exhibition ‘Iss Ghat Antar Baagh-Bageeche’. It also featured the painter-photographer-craft archivist’s collaboration with musician and vocalist Shubha Mudgal, which had resulted in the exhibition ‘Haman hain Ishq’ (2002), and featured a lot of work about Kabir and his poetry. The show was a confluence of art, music and poetry, which reinterpreted the older values of religious pluralism in a contemporary way.

“Haku Shah lived by the principles of both Kabir and Gandhi, though they are both very different people,” says Nath. He believes that Kabir is more relevant than ever, especially in the divisive times that we are living in. “I wish there would be a conversation about Kabir in every corner of the country. You need this kind of positive reinforcement. He pre-dated Guru Nanak, and you will find that the Guru Granth Sahib quotes Kabir,” elaborates Nath. “We say that all religions are the same, with a common final aim. Kabir can be that unifying thread that takes you to that.”

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