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Beats, violins and the couplets of Kabir

An Indian indie band combines an eclectic five-piece musical ensemble with the couplets of 15th century poet Kabir

Kabir Café is a five-member outfit.
Kabir Café is a five-member outfit.

Zara halke gaadi haakon, mere Ram gaadi vale,

Zara dheere dheere gaadi haakon, mere Ram gaadi vale

As founder and vocalist Neeraj Arya belts out one of Kabir Café’s most popular numbers, the band’s upbeat energy seems to travel from the stage and into the crowd. People start clapping and singing along, intermittently at first, but soon almost everyone is grooving to the beat. It’s August and we are at an auditorium in Mumbai for the Godrej Culture Lab’s Museum Of Memories: Remembering Partition series of events.

Kabir Café’s faster numbers are even more infectious. As soon as one audience member begins dancing, others are quick to join in. The electric energy of the band’s live performances is one of the reasons why it has such a committed following. Yet an equally important reason is the great 15th century saint-poet Kabir, who serves not only as the spiritual centre of the group, but also as its unwitting lyricist. The band weaves Kabir’s poetry into their uplifting, entertaining songs, creating a sound that is reminiscent of the best compositions of Pakistan’s Coke Studio.

Kabir Café is a five-member outfit (if you don’t count Kabir). It is an unusual grouping, with each member coming from a different background. There is Raman Iyer, a former advertising man who is trained in both classical Hindustani and classical Western music. Viren Solanki is a self-taught tabla player and percussionist with a family that follows Kabir’s teachings. A third member, Mukund Ramaswamy, is a mechanical engineer who has been obsessed with the violin since he was four years old, and is trained in Carnatic music. Pounuanpou Britto K.C., the band’s guitarist and a native of Shillong, comes from a respected musical family from Manipur. Leading the band, of course, is Arya, who handles vocals and writes lyrics. He studies Kabir’s works and draws upon these to create the band’s unique sound.

Fittingly, it is the former ad man who has the best one-liners. “The first member of our band is Kabir," Iyer says earnestly. “Kabir didn’t believe in boundaries, so why should we?" Iyer articulates one of the guiding principles of the band: Look past the notions of godliness, he urges, and consider the message Kabir was trying to promote. “Kabir was just a human being who had the guts to speak his mind," he says. So they use his words in the Malwi dialect (from Madhya Pradesh), accompanied by the band’s music, which blends Hamsadhwani and reggae, to create a vibe that makes the philosopher-poet’s medieval-era verse immediately accessible to diverse audiences, from business executives to schoolchildren.

It seems sometimes that Kabir’s influence extends beyond providing a theme for the band’s music, as if, to them, he has become a way of life. Six centuries later, his message continues to resonate.

A couple of years ago, the band was riding a wave of popularity thanks to their performances on MTV’s The Dewarists and at the NH7 Weekender festival. But they understand the music world is fickle, and remember well a time when they barely had enough money to ride auto-rickshaws to practice.

The band’s most endearing aspect might be that they refuse to take themselves too seriously. “When we were invited to perform for 3 minutes on India’s Got Talent (2016), we went, though we wondered who really paid attention to music on a show that also has razor-blade eaters and mimicry artists performing to wild applause," Iyer says. But the show brought a great deal of exposure, and invitations to perform outside India followed. Today, the band has taken Kabir’s poetry to audiences in Singapore, Thailand and Britain, and will soon be performing in Zimbabwe.

It’s important to them that their audiences understand the verses being performed, especially because most of them are written in a nearly forgotten dialect. So Arya, who spearheads the choice of poems the band performs, explains the meaning and significance of each verse before they actually perform it. The poet’s simple philosophy of equality, the impermanence of the physical body, the house of the divine spark—are running themes in their music. Their live performances, therefore, exude a mystic power, immersing the audience into a spiritual experience.

Britto, who understood little of the poet’s words, imbibed the spirit of the message to be able to sing. When he sings the words in his powerful voice, the conviction is undeniable. While the band already has an album titled Panchrang, so titled because it represented their diverse cultural colours, the members have decided to launch singles. And Britto, responding instinctively to Ghat Ghat Mein Panchi Bolta, one of the band’s earliest numbers, has chosen to launch it as his single, and the band’s next offering.

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