Singer Shruthi Vishwanath is reviving the works of less-known poets and mystics of the warkari movement lest they are forgotten forever.
How essential is music and poetry to the wari tradition?
Let me go back in time to explain this. Around the 13th and 14th centuries, a consciousness was rising across India about reclaiming spiritual wisdom and the scriptures, which, until then, were mostly restricted to people of a certain caste and gender. The Bhakti movement, which developed across India, took the form of the warkari tradition in Maharashtra. Vitthal was the main deity invoked as a part of this movement, but what this movement also did was challenge traditional notions of caste and gender, and say that we are one. This message was given in Marathi in the form of songs. Some prominent names are Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Namdev and Eknath. Think about it — the warkari tradition is about sung poetry that started 700 years ago to spread spiritual wisdom in the language of the people.
What did you find during your research into the music of the wari?
I found that there were many mystic poets who wrote about Vitthal, humanity and humankind’s search for something greater than itself. There are thousands of abhangs by more than 50 poets but people, today, sing only at least 100 of these by five or six poets. I began to see that there was a pattern to that. Women, for instance, were ignored. There is a host of poems by women that nobody sings. Prominent women poets are Janabai and Muktabai. Typically, the caste hierarchies show up in the abhangs that we have chosen to remember and to forget. Chokhamela and his wife Soyarabai were poets from a lower caste. Lots of people from across caste and gender have written songs that were a part of the living tradition, which was at its peak between the 13th and 17th centuries.
In what ways is the music of the wari still relevant today?
Right now, we are a divided country but we have had poets like Eknath and Tukaram, who wrote after the Mughal invasion of India and some of the abhangs actually address Allah in Hindi. On the other hand, poet Sheikh Mohammed of the 16th century has written about Vitthal. My whole point is to introduce people to the diversity in abhangs. People know the popular abhangs that have been sung but very few people know that it cuts across caste and gender. One has to acknowledge that abhangs exist that question or make us uncomfortable.
What kind of concerns do we see in the abhangs of the women mystics?
One of my favourite poets is Janabai, who was a servant at Namdev’s house. She has written in a diverse range of voice. In one, she says, ‘The ghunghat has slipped on to my shoulder. I don’t give a damn I will go to the bazaar. Who dares stop me now? I have become your whore Keshava, I am coming to wreck your home’. Just the way she defies what her caste and gender dictate is what I found absolutely amazing. There is one by Soyarabai, who has a very logical idea of what is pure and impure. In one abhang, she says, ‘My body is impure, everybody says that, and the soul is supposed to be clean. But, tell me, which ritual can make me pure because purity is accorded only by others’ gaze on the body. Therefore, nobody can be pure’. There is a beautiful one by Muktabai, where she says, ‘The ant flew to the sky and she swallowed the sun’. At one level, it is an ulat baazi, such as the nonsensical rhymes that Kabir has. Actually, Muktabai wrote them 200 years before Kabir was born. I don’t know if the form existed before her but I like her completely whacked-out way of looking at the universe. The voices of women are incredible. The feminism that comes through from the time, the idea of defying norms, questioning notions of purity and impurity. There is some very tender poetry by Janabai, where she talks about love. Sometimes, it is an erotic call to Vitthal.
What is your process of reviving the abhangs of the women poets?
Three years ago, I embarked on the journey to find the poetry of the women saints to see what it does. I had found a bunch of translations by a British researcher, Jaqui Daukis, and that led me to a lot of abhangs. I have been exploring the voices of the women and got a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts in Bengaluru to do this. I use Shri Sakal Sant Gatha, a compilation of thousands of warkari songs. How do I come up with tunes? This was a challenge for me. I chose to work at a very visceral or gut-feel level. There are some poems I have sat on for almost two years and then the tune has come to me. I have composed all the tunes of the works by the women poets that I perform. Some tunes came naturally and easily. Some tunes are in the style of the abhang music, as we understand it today, and there are times when a tune has gone outside the boundaries of what we consider the musical style of abhang. Some of the tunes are folk music of Maharashtra and some have come from the British influence. I have embraced all influences, just as India always has.
Why have most abhangs been left behind though the wari tradition has continued?
I find that people’s understanding of the wari and the warkari tradition is very linear, if it exists at all. The warkaris come mostly from rural areas and smaller towns. Pune welcomes the palki and the wari as it comes through but we seem to have forgotten what the essence of music or poetry is about. We have to remember that the wari represents a very diverse culture and embraces everybody. Recently, I found that the poems on Tukaram and Eknath are naturally taking the form of a qawwali.
Can you tell us an example of a song you composed?
There is a song called Fugdi, which is a game people play where they hold hands and twirl around. It is a big phenomenon in the warkari movement. There are lots of fugdi-related games and these songs have an element of playfulness. One of the fugdi songs I created is in the musical idiom of a lavani. It was not planned. I just go with the mood of the song.
How did you start singing abhangs?
There are warkaris or abhang mandalis across Maharashtra and people gather in temples to sing these songs. My introduction happened when I was seven years old and would accompany my mother to an abhang mandali. I used to sing these songs, without knowing what they meant. I always had a fondness for music.
How do you share your knowledge of these revived poems with the established warkari tradition?
I am not a Marathi speaker by birth. I have a south Indian name. But I was born and brought up in Pune and it is my home. I want the lost abhangs to reach this land.