Neeraj Arya's Kabir Cafe on poet's relevance in times of political unrest and propagating the idea of 'oneness'

Neeraj Arya's Kabir Cafe on the contemporary relevance of Kabir's philosophy and making him accessible for a wide audience through building a energetic atmosphere at live performances.

Aarushi Agrawal February 08, 2020 11:14:01 IST
Neeraj Arya's Kabir Cafe on poet's relevance in times of political unrest and propagating the idea of 'oneness'
  • Mumbai-based rock band Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café considers Kabir their friend, guide, and the first member of their band.

  • Through shows, they are not just making Kabir’s words more accessible, but also explaining his ideology, essentially spreading his message of oneness.

Neeraj Arya, founder of the Mumbai-based rock band Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café, whose father is also a follower of the fifteenth century saint and poet, has been hearing Kabir’s words set to folk melodies since he was a child. Around 2005, he saw The Kabir Project documentary Had Anhad and grew interested in the ideas and philosophy of the poet. Curious to learn more about Kabir, and being a school drop-out, uninterested in doing so through books, Arya went to meet the great folk singers whom he thought embodied Kabir. There he met his, and later the bands’, guru, Prahlad Singh Tipaniya. “The kind of life he has and the person is. He’s Kabir for me,” says Arya.

Learning folk melodies from his guru, he then started playing them on his guitar, laced with Kabir’s dohas and sakhis, sowing the seeds of the rock-inclined sound the band has now grown into. In 2012, performing on the streets of Mumbai as part of the non-profit Natural Streets for Performing Arts (NSPA), Arya met violinist Mukund Ramaswamy, and the two started performing as a duo. “When you listen to artists performing Kabir, you’d either see them in the extremely folk format or the extremely classical format. What Neeraj was doing was trying to bridge the gap, unconsciously,” recalls Ramaswamy about the uniqueness of the sound that attracted him.

Slowly, each new member joined, as if by chance. The band, besides Arya as vocalist and guitarist and Ramaswamy as violinist, also comprises mandolin player Raman Iyer, bassist Britto KC, and percussionists Viren Solanki and Vicky Bramhankar, and considers Kabir their friend, guide, and the first member of their band. “We didn’t choose Kabir, Kabir chose us,” says Ramaswamy. Having left their day jobs, the members work as fulltime musicians, with an aim to make Kabir more accessible. “We’ve all left everything, even our families. There’s a lot of sacrifices and it’s taken a lot of effort and hard work to form this group,” says Arya about being an independent musician in India.

Neeraj Aryas Kabir Cafe on poets relevance in times of political unrest and propagating the idea of oneness

Neeraj Arya's Kabir Cafe. Photo credit: NCPA.

Over the years, the band has performed at a range of settings, from live shows and festivals to weddings, anniversaries, and funerals. “It’s universal and it fits everywhere,” says Arya. “More powerful than music is the words that touch people and reach their hearts.” For this reason, when composing their music, Arya maintains the primacy of Kabir’s words. “The music has to enhance the words. It should be so simple that anyone can hum it or sing it.”

This is also their starting point when structuring their songs. First, they aim to thoroughly understand the words. “And 90 percent of the time, I don’t understand the bhajan. So then I have to talk to my guruji. We call and ask about the meaning,” says Arya. Once the band has understood it, they each start providing musical inputs. While four members are trained, Arya and Britto are both untrained musicians, and together the sextet have an organic jam process. “Our sound is very different, because untrained and trained elements are meeting together. So lots of ideas. We have a lot of rawness,” says Arya. It’s also important that each member of the band is happy with the final outcome, or the song is shelved. “We need to connect to it, we need to enjoy what we’re performing,” says Ramaswamy.

While they’ve released two albums, their debut Panchrang in 2016 and their live album Kabir Café Live in 2018, the band is most interested in live performances. Having performed over 900 shows to date, it is through connecting with the music and each-other that the band has maintained the energetic and vibrant live atmosphere for which they are well recognised. “When you’re a band, there’s a lot of arguments, discussion, and debate. One simple philosophy we follow is ‘whatever problem I have, I have to solve it before we get on stage’,” explains Ramaswamy. The band ensures that the vibe on stage remains pure, because it’s only when one connects with their bandmates that they can give their hundred percent. “And only when that happens can I enjoy my performance. And when I enjoy my performance, the audience will enjoy our performance,” he adds.

To ensure a lively atmosphere, they are also mindful of audience response. While the band makes is a point to explain the meaning of the things they are singing, some audiences prefer more explanation and ask questions, others put forth different opinions, and some want only music. “In the first two songs you can gauge how the audience is. And the tweaks happen after that,” says Ramaswamy, about keeping the audience engaged. The opening of their set also consists of a high-energy numbers so audiences can connect easily. “I’m a road musician, I really like live [performances]. I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years. I feel you connect more to people, the atmosphere makes you,” says Arya. “You’ll see someone crying, someone laughing, someone dancing, it’s an atmosphere,” he adds. Added to this is the opportunity to interact with audiences at the end of a live show and see that their music has had an impact.

In performing live, Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café is not just making Kabir’s words more accessible, but also explaining and discussing his ideology, essentially spreading his message of oneness. “Whenever we’re doing concerts, I always explain that we are all one. I’m not saying religion is wrong. But don’t make religion an issue to spread divide amongst each-other. We are all one, we all have to live together,” explains Arya. This is primarily how he, and the band, interpret Kabir. “In Kabir’s time, a lot of Hindu-Muslim conflict was happening. So his stand was, ‘you are wrong Hindu brother, and you are also wrong Muslim brother,'” says Arya. “Kabir believes in the god that you carry inside you, your soul. One of the major things that Kabir said was, before any god, worship humanity,” says Ramaswamy.

This message of oneness over religion is something the band considers of prime importance in today’s climate of political unrest. “I feel if Kabir was here now he would say the same thing. We’re all together. Let’s erase hatred and spread love,” says Arya, also citing Kabir’s doha:

Bura jo dekhan main chala, buran a milia koi
Jo mann khoja apna, tho mujhse bura na koi

(I started searching for evil but couldn’t find anyone
When I look inside, found no one worse than myself)

Arya believes in the power of introspection, and that change starts at home. “There was a time in my childhood when my father would tell me not to go in Muslim areas. Out of fear. He had a mentality. It took time for him to change. And today it’s changed. So I believe that whatever is going on right now, we should look at our family and friends, how aware they are of this issue.” These are the things the band communicates at their concerts and for this reason, they want to perform as much as possible. “We [want to] perform more Kabir. Because we need Kabir now, it’s very relevant,” he adds.

Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café will perform at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) on Sunday, 9 February at 7 pm, as part of their Sufi music festival NCPA Sama’a: The Mystic Ecstasy. More information here.

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