In life and in football, balance is everything. Shaikh Riyazoddin Abdul Gani would add a Maharashtrian folk art to this list. For years he has balanced a water-filled kalash on his head on stage. Gani would then sing soulful Meera bhajans and abhangs, while plucking a veena and joyfully twirling as if light as a feather. In this avatar, he is the famous ‘Rajubaba Kirtankar’, who won awards and has regaled the faithful at temples and prayer meets. He has also managed to rekindle faith and transform drunkards.
No, it is not the just the power of music that brings about transformations. “It is the bhagwan in us,” says the artiste in true Warkari tradition, all set for his Spic Macay performance at IIT-Bombay on Thursday.
Nothing about the soft spoken 73-year-old from Beed prepares for the emotive rendering of Wari kirtans, the ecstatic dancing or the fascination he holds for Hinduism. “The beard is a recent one as my boy isn’t getting a wife from the community,” says Rajubaba. Now, Rajubaba does namaaz five times a day. “I go to five different masjids so that everyone sees me like this,” he laughs. His childhood wasn’t easy. Young Gani used to sit outside temples to learn kirtans that attracted him so much. Eventually Hindus accepted Riyazoddin, by then shortened to an acceptable Raju. When he realized that people were falling asleep, he adopted the dancing-singing tradition, which was started by Namdev. Raju gave it a twist.
“While bringing water from the river, he used to sing. That gave him the idea of dancing with a pot on the head,” says Dr Prakash Khandge, head of Lok Kala Academy, Mumbai University. His family was far from pleased.
When they threatened to leave the village, he moved out. “I returned and got married only because of my amma’s mohabbat,” says Rajubaba. He says he could run his family and marry off four daughters as a kirtankar. People started giving tips, especially after his name became popular. Khandge says there is nobody in Maharashtra like Rajubaba now. There would be no one like him in the future as his children and kirtankar apprentices shy away from his act. “It is tough to get that balance,” says Omkar Jaunjal, who accompanies him. Rajubaba is resigned but the spark to reinvent seems alive. “I am stuck in this world of maya and family responsibilities. Maybe, I will check with the Guinness Book people as I have done something different,” he says. Six hundred years ago, an illiterate poet by the name of Kabir Das spoke his mind needling both Hindus and Muslims about their shortcomings. Today, Kabir is considered a saint and his pithy couplets are memorized by schoolchildren across India.
On the fourth day of the Spic Macay festival at IIT-Bombay, theatre actor and Padma Shri awardee, Shekhar Sen, enacted incidents from Kabir’s life stitched together from his painstaking research. This was Sen’s 368th performance of “Kabir”, a two-hour-long monologue punctuated by songs drawn from his poetry.
“The performance was simple yet profound,” said Prabodh Katti, an engineering graduate from Pune. He was particularly struck by an anecdote about Kabir’s young wife pining for her lover. “He was gracious enough to carry her to her lover’s home, which made her realize that he was the right person for her,” added Katti describing a scene from the play. Aaheli Bose, a Std XII student from Mumbai, said she was surprised to learn that Kabir was illiterate. “I was always told these dohas are written by Kabir,” said Bose. “But others, who heard the couplets wrote them down.”
The movement called Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth, better known as Spic Macay kicked off its 3rd International Convention at IIT-Bombay on Sunday, and will continue until Friday. On Wednesday, besides the Kabir performance, there was also a session with artist Akbar Padamsee. Considered one of the pioneers of modern Indian art, Padamsee’s work was introduced to the audience through a film tracing his life story and early influences. When a young girl asked him, who he learned art from, the octogenarian replied, “Nobody . I’ve been painting since I was four years old.”
Hira Tahir Mirza, a fine arts student from Lahore, was one of 50 participants from Pakistan to attend the convention. She found the Padamsee lecture particularly enlightening. “I’m a fan of his work,” said Mirza, who was struck by the artist’s humility and honest replies. Waheed Ali, a theatre artist from Karachi, was impressed with Sen’s depiction of Kabir describing it as “mind blowing”. All the participants from Pakistan had spent the week interacting with Indian students and debunking stereotypes.
(Originally published in The Times of India)