Kabir’s ghost is still alive in the lanes of Kashi, where pilgrims from all over swirl in, searching for moksha, freedom from all earthly ties. Swallowed up again and again by totalitarian regimes, Kashi still knows how to reflect upon the deeper ironies of the human situation.
The humble weaver Kabir’s cryptic, profound, but irreverent verses mirror Kashi’s soul as no historian can. With utter love and irreverence known only to those who fear none, Kabir sings of human love and the utter degradation of the system humans surround themselves with. No one knows who Kabir’s parents were. His freedom from the past and any known caste or religion make him a perfect fit for Kashi. “Jo Kabira Kashi marey, Ramhin kaun nihora?” (If Kabir will seek to die in Kashi, who’ll look after the true Lord?) he asks, tongue in cheek, of the rich and famous. His reasoning is strictly defined by the authoritarian and tyrannical situation a low-caste man like him finds himself in.
Kabir’s Kashi was anything but provincial. It had been the prosperous capital of Kosala, was still a rich international hub of trade linking the lands across the Khyber Pass to the rich eastern provinces of India and known for its fine silks and spun cotton. Kashi was also a cultured seat of learning and host to some of the best artists, artisans and musicians north of the Vindhyas. Even Kashi’s courtesans and thugs were considered some of the best in their respective professions.
On December 13, which was also the anniversary of an awful terrorist attack on independent India’s Parliament, a spectacular event was mounted in Kashi. Its main objective was to showcase the spruced-up version of the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple as a symbol of Hindus’ determination to crush memories of its repeated desecration by non-Hindu invaders. The televised speech by the prime minister reminded the audiences of the marauding armies of emperor Aurangzeb, his Hindu challenger Shivaji and its rebuilding, over a century later, by a Maratha queen. The speech seemed aimed almost at a reversal of time, harking back to the medieval ages.
Under the harsh, myriad-coloured light beams, chants and ringing of bells, Kashi seemed like some sort of a set for a Bollywood historical. It was hard to believe it was once a dramatic and vociferous seat of multiple languages, multiple faiths and great learning. Surrounded by men carrying outsize dumroos, loud slogans of “Har Har Mahadev” along with “Jai Shri Ram”, showering of petals and a great display of ritualistic worship, the old Kashi faded slowly. Kashi, the eternal host to higher learning and philosophical dissension, the seat of the Naga and Yaksha deities, coexisting peacefully with the Vedic and post-Vedic pantheon of gods, of great dissenters and heretics, Yogis, Nath, Siddha and Aghorpanthis, was being fitted, it appeared, into a new definition of politically honed, unsmiling and aggressive Hindutva.
Some four centuries after Kabir, Bhartendu Harishchandra, another poet from a rich family of silk traders of Kashi, continued to carry on the typical tradition of Kashi: A firm rejection of convention and a constant search for true change. His verses from a little-known play of his, Prem Jogini, swam into my mind while watching the grand spectacle at the Kashi Vishwanath Dham unfold on my TV screen: Dekhi tumhri Kashi logo, dekhi tumhri Kashi/ Jahan virajein Vishwanath Vishweshwar Avinashi/ Adhi Kashi randi, mundi, bhanderiya, bahman aur sanyasi… (Folks, I’ve seen your Kashi, where the Lord of the Universe resides/ However half your city is full of courtesans, tonsured holy men, clowns, and sanyasins).
Even as the British empire flourished all around, Kashi had kept celebrating its culture by injecting a notion of comedy to burst the ballooning egos of upper-caste, upper-class society, undermining the grand seriousness in which they wrapped themselves. “Kahin bainganwali miley toh bula dena…”, Bhartendu of Kashi sang famously, standing on a city bridge with a priceless heirloom pearl dangling from one ear and a long aubergine from the other. It was said that on the day of the poet’s last journey, courtesans in the city, who sang what he wrote, downed their shutters.
But it was also Bhartendu, who efficiently spruced up the version of official Hindi available in the Nagari script. He coined the term Nayi Hindi, and rooted for a multi-textured Hindi free of the Sanskritised Hindi of Varanasi Pandits and also the Khadi Boli into which four native colonial Bhakha Munshis (language clerics) had tied it up. It was he who allowed the common man’s Hindi to mingle, develop and run with Urdu and dialects like Braj Awadhi and Purabiya. From the speeches coming out of Kashi temple, it looked as though a century and a half later, political expediency and the advent of digital mass media is fast undoing the inclusive linguistic space Bhartendu had won for peoples’ Hindi. It figures. Language battles are now being fought not for literary reasons but to forge and feed a vast propaganda machine. This Hindi no longer needs actual lived human experience, but smart phrases like the ones Bollywood superheroes mouth and send the common folks into hysterical fits of clapping and yelling.
For one who really wishes to understand Kashi, writers and artists of Kashi still are the best bet. The kind of eccentric writers and artists who hung around the lanes and bylanes of Kashi since the last century: The bhang-loving writer of mystery novels, Devaki Nandan Khatri; the poet scion of a snuff trader’s family, Jaishankar Prasad; the sedate Urdu-Hindi writer Premchand, Pandit Lalmani Misra, Bismillah Khan, the tabla maestro Kishan Maharaj, the list is endless. This is a city that not only holds heated freewheeling discussions on subjects ranging from literature to food to types of intoxicants at local tea shops, but where, during the famous Budhwa Mangal, fair well-known courtesans once sang specially composed musical bandishes for their patrons in the police (like one Meer Rustam Ali or a bouncer named Data Ram Nagar). Frequent visitors like the aesthete Babu Bachchu Singh, by way of thanksgiving, created a whole garland of verses (Ashtottari Mala) naming all the major courtesans and female singers of Kashi. At heart, Kashi is an alchemical blending of dream and reality. An autonomous, often intoxicated, imagination creating a fakkad (free and autonomous) universe in which the real seems fantastic and the fantastic suddenly unmasks the real.
The age-old experience of Kashi, the scene of so many massacres, sectarian riots and colonial loot, has taught it not to worship at the temple of history or eulogise political leaders for long. It has a more clear-sighted picture of the future than the power seats in Delhi or Mumbai or Pune or Ahmedabad, intoxicated as they are with their own notions of India’s Hindu destiny. So far, Kashi’s cultural vitality has held out against all the marauding hordes of Delhi, bringing with them a loud cacophony of sounds and chants and sloganeering in the name of new gods. Let the hemp- and music-loving, free-roving ascetic Shiva help it survive the latest challenges to its soul.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 18, 2021 under the title ‘Dekhi tumhri Kashi logo, Dekhi tumhri Kashi’. The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati