I was introduced in school to the prevailing image of Kabir as a poor, unlettered poet of fifteenth century Banaras who wrote dohas and songs criticizing Brahmin priests and Muslim mullahs and emphasizing our common humanity. We read the story of how Kabir tricked a Brahmin into accepting him as a disciple; if I remember right, he lay down on the steps of a ghat at Banares and was stepped on by the Brahmin who then exclaimed ‘Ram, Ram.’ Another story was about how when Kabir died Muslims and Hindus quarreled, the former demanding to cremate him while and the latter insisted on burying the body. Recently I have been reading Kabir’s poems in translation: Vinay Dharwadker’s Kabir: The Weaver’s Song (Penguin, 2003), and the more recent Songs of Kabir (New York Review of Books/Hachette India, 2011) by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Early in my reading I realized that my simplistic conceptions (or preconceptions) of the man and his work need revision.
I used to think that Kabir’s poetry was transmitted by oral traditions alone. But paper, pen and ink were brought to India in the twelfth and thirteen centuries by Muslim soldiers, administrators and Sufis coming from Central and West Asia and by Arab and Jewish traders. By the sixteenth century the practice of writing with pen and ink on paper was prevalent in most parts of India. Thus it is possible, writes Dharwadker, that ‘Kabir’s poems were written down towards the end of his lifetime, or in the years following his death, and that writing was involved in the transmission of his poetry from an early stage in its history.’
Dharwadker adds that Kabir’s poetry is multilingual. In fact, today we cannot even be sure in which language, Bhojpuri or Avadhi, Kabir composed his verses:
Once some or all of the poems composed by the historical Kabir had spread to such parts of the country as Punjab and Rajasthan, they could neither return to their place of origin nor sustain a living link to it. Thus, when the poems entered the written mode on a significant scale in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, they were already regionalized. The various Kabir manuscript-lines have retained that regionalism ever since, and their geographical distribution cannot be retroactively undone.
Because of Roland Barthes, who work I have taught, and book history, my current field of research, I have an interest in conceptions of authorship. (Mills and Boon fascinates me as an instance of collective authorship.) I was therefore struck by what Dharwadker has to say about group authorship vis-à-vis Kabir:
If we accept the empirical fact that the poetry attributed to this poet has been open to intercession for half a millennium, the concept of collective authorship implies that a large number of potential mediators have had the opportunity to compose, rewrite, revise and edit particular poems and groups of poems on his behalf. This means that, during the five and a half centuries since the historical author’s death, ‘Kabir’ has ceased to be a proper noun, and has turned into a common poetic pseudonym, a discursively constituted mask or an interchangeable public persona…
Metaphorically speaking, we still don’t know what to do with Kabir’s body. Dharwadker’s introduction points to how the reception of Kabir has been highly mediated. He notes that bhakti literature misleadingly represents the formation of texts and textual communities as ‘benign’ when in truth it was not without anxiety and conflict. ‘In historical actuality, freshly composed texts enter a world of discourse that is always already populated by other texts… in north Indian culture after the end of the classical period (around 1200), intermediaries of several sorts – individuals, groups, institutions – usually compete fiercely with each other for control over new texts in the public arena.’ Dharwadker discusses the canonization and ideological containment which Kabir’s poetry has been subjected to. Allegorization and mythologization remove the man and his work to a higher realm. Incidentally, Kabir seems to have been a family man; he had a son and daughter, perhaps two sons and two daughters. His hagiographers, writes Mehrotra, do not approve of his marriage; they would prefer him to be celibate.
Translation is of course another form of mediation. Kabir has been often translated; in modern times, Tagore, Czeslaw Milosz, and Robert Bly, among others, have given us their versions. Mehrotra’s translations of Kabir are striking for their deliberate, strategic use of anachronisms and American idiom. Some years ago Mehrotra wrote a wonderful piece called ‘What is an Indian Poem?’ demonstrating Arun Kolatkar’s culturally eclectic writing practice. In it he refers to ‘Main manager ko bola’, a poem (part of an untitled sequence of three poems) written in Bombay-Hindi by Kolatkar in 1960. Kolatkar later translated the sequence into American-English (giving it the title ‘Three Cups of Tea’): ‘‘cording to my rules/ listen baby / i get paid when i say so.’ Kolatkar seems to have been familiar with a little known book, The Roman Sonnets of G. G. Belli, translated by Harold Norse. Mehrotra quotes what William Carlos William (who wrote the preface to Harold Norse’s book) says about Norse’s translation: ‘These translations are not made into English but into the American idiom in which they appear in the same relationship facing English as the original Roman dialect [Romanesco] does to classic Italian.’
In translating Kabir, Mehrotra was clearly inspired by Kolatkar’s example:
Those who are not
Devotees of Rama
Should be in Sing Sing
Or have been stillborn
‘Me the chief’s son.
I make the rules here.’
It’s a load of crap.
Tumbling, they’re all,
Headed for Deathville.
To tonsured monks and deadlocked Rastas
To Vedic pundits and Faber poets,
The weaver Kabir sends one message:
Only Rama’s name can save you.
I suspect it is Mehrotra’s translations that will grow on me – once the initial feeling of strangeness is over – rather than Dharwadker’s. However, for anyone wanting to read Kabir, Dharwadker’s ninety-five page long introductory essay is a very good place to begin.