The Idea Of India Project Update: Project Readings: Kabir: An Irrelevant Voice?

A new set of translations of the works of the Indian poet Kabir are about to be published by The New York Review Of Books.

Nothing can hide the fact that Kabir is largely ignored in India, his words, ideals and spiritual thoughts unknown to almost all of South Asia’s modern citizens. Though there has been a growing focus on his work, with a number of organizations attempting to highlight this messages of inter-religious sharing and tolerance, its difficult to ignore the fact that the thrust of our modernity – with its focus on hard nationalism, intolerant sectarianism, obscurantist anti-intellectualism and fervid consumerism, stands against everything Kabir points us towards. The same of course stands true for other Indian voices like those of Mohandas Gandhi, Darak Shikoh and a number of others who have pretty much been relegated to the ‘has beens’ of our modernity, largely museum pieces to display to visitors and tourists, but not relevant to our day-to-day scramble for wealth and provincialism.

Kabir was a blasphemer, or that is at least how our modern-day mullahs and self-proclaimed protectors of the faith would describe him. And that is where his strength lay. He refused to accept the rituals and hierarchies of organized religion and encourage individuals to ignore the ignorant voices of the priesthood. In a piece I wrote earlier for the India project, called The Art Of Blasphemy: The Poetry Of Kabir I quote two works that underline his disdain and outright disgust of those who claim to know.

O Pande,
what foolishness of yours!
You don’t call on Ram
you, wretched one!

Carrying your Veda and Puranas, O Pande, you go along
like a donkey loaded with sandal wood
The secret of the Name of Ram, you’ve never known
and so you come to shame

You kill living beings and you call it ‘Piety’:
tell me, Brother, what then is impiety?
Among yourselves, you address each other as ‘Great Sage’:
whom then shall I call ‘Butcher’?

The latest issue of Poetry Magazine carries a few of his work, translated by the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. There is a lovely translation of a work that speaks out against Muslim practices:

If you say you’re a Brahmin
Born of a mother who’s a Brahmin,
Was there a special canal
Through which you were born?

And if you say you’re a Turk
And your mother’s a Turk,
Why weren’t you circumcised
Before birth?

In his explanation of the works, and the poet, Mehrotra write:

Kabir belonged to the popular devotional movement called bhakti, whose focus is on inward love for the One Deity, in opposition to religious orthodoxies and social hierarchies. Kabir called his god Rama or Hari, who is not to be confused with the Hindu god Rama of the Ramayana.

Many of the bhakti poets came from the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder. Among them you find a cobbler, a tailor, a barber, a boatman, a weaver. One, Janabai (see epigraph to “Chewing slowly”), was a maidservant. They wrote in the vernaculars (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati) rather than in Sanskrit, the language of the gods and the preserve of Brahmins. Occasionally, eschewing his abrupt debunking manner, Kabir speaks in riddles. These enigmatic poems (see “Brother I’ve seen some” and “How do you”) are called ulatbamsi or “poems in upside-down language,” in which the intention seems to be to force the reader (or listener) into new ways of thinking and seeing. They each end in a revelation, though exactly what has been revealed is open to question.

There is actually a community of people who follow the sayings and ideals of the poet. Referred to as the Kabirpanthis who follow the sayings of the poet and consider him a prophet. The singer Prahlad Tipaniya is a Kabirpanthi and frequently tours India and neighboring countries spreading the message of the poet.

Shabnam Virmani, a filmmaker, gave a TEDxTalk recently where she spoke about her quest for Kabir, and other folk poets, and her goal of bringing their message to India and others in the region.

In the talk she talked about the violence that had taken over Gujarat and the pogroms against the Muslims that took place in 2002. This event has scared Gujarat, if not the entire nation of India. It has moved many to speak out, to start to take responsibility of what kind of society that India aims to become. Her’s is a voice that is determined to make Kabir relevant to India’s modernity.

Its a tall task. Or perhaps, surrounded by the xenophobia of Gujarat I find my optimism of the will somewhat jaded. The sectarianized post-earthquake urban geography of cities like Bhuj (See Raju, Kumar, Corbridge’s Colonial & Post-Colonial Geographies Of India, Chapter 4 Simpson & Corbridge’s ‘Militant Cartographies & Traumatic Spaces: Ayodhya, Bhuj And The Contested Geographies of Hindutva’) , the blatant mocking of anyone recognized as Muslim, and the stark ghetoization that now marks the towns and cities of Gujarat leave me little hope that poetry has a role to play in overturning this modernity.

Or perhaps its just a bad day and tomorrow I will think differently and get back to work.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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