Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café brings the timeless philosophies of the weaver poet Kabir to contemporary space through the idiom of poetry, music and powerful rhythms. Premjit Mohapatra unravels their story.
In times when there is a deluge of Bollywood, Remix and Indipop numbers of assorted genres, when some of the lyrics make you cringe or assault your musical sensibilities, Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café is creating ripples by taking Kabir’s verses to the masses and helping them rediscover his spontaneous expressions.
Kabir Café is result of coming together of five immensely talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. The Mumbai-based neo fusion rock band has Neeraj Arya as the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Mukund Ramaswamy, a Carnatic violinist, Raman Iyer, a self-taught mandolin player, Viren Solanki on the percussions and drums and Poubuanpou Britto KC, bassist and backing vocals.
“A café is a place where anybody and everybody is welcome to come sit, relax and have a good conversation, while dissolving their differences and losing themselves to the moment. Kabir’s philosophy was about inclusiveness and true acceptance. Kabir Café’s music embodies that spirit,” maintain the band members. Kabir Café is dedicated to celebrating the mystic and lives and breathes his contemplative poetry.
This medley of passionate artistes creates a heady concoction of music infused with elements of folk, reggae, pop, rock, fusion and suffused with Kabir’s soul stirring verses.
His pithy poetry, laced with metaphors, when set to contemporary genres, tempos and tunes is the quickest route to the soul,” remarks Britto, who wasn’t aware of Kabir’s verses before joining the band. Kabir Café holds Padmashree and Malwi folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipanya as their Guru and inspiration along with Bob Marley and Shabnam Virmani. “Prahalad Tipanyaji deconstructs Kabir for us and provides meaningful insights into our songs, which helps us connect and discover ourselves,” remarks Neeraj.
If Kabir is the soul of the band, then Neeraj is the backbone. Talking of his journey, he says, “I had been involved in social activism, playing protest songs in front of Jantar Mantar, mostly tracks from Indian Ocean. Then I met my mentor Ravi Gulati, of the NGO Manzil. He invited me to the screening of movie “Had-Anhad” (Bounded-Boundless) by Shabnam Virmani. The movie had a Kabir doha by Mir Mukhtiar Ali “Pothi Padh Padh Kar Jag Mua, Pandit Bhayo Na Koye Dhai Aakhar Prem Ke, Jo Padhe so Pandit Hoye.” (‘Reading books everyone died, none became wise, One who reads the word of Love only becomes wise.”) This doha (couplet) stirred something deep in me and set me on the path of exploring Kabir. Ravi Bhai, Shabnam Didi and Prahalad Tipaniya Ji guided me in this path and brought me closer to Kabir.”
The turning point came in 2009 when he went to Madhya Pradesh to perform for a day at the Kabir Project, but ended up performing for nine days! Kabir’s message, he believes, remains critical in a society plagued by conflicts and differences.
PANCHRANG : DEBUT ALBUM
Recently, Kabir Café launched their debut album PANCHRANG. The album consists of 12 songs, 11 vocals of old and new songs and one instrumental piece based on raga Thillhana. “We have experimented and improvised with an ensemble of instruments to come up with new sounds for the album. The track “Tu Ka Tu” from the album, earlier sung by Tipanya, was played in a slow tempo by Britto for more impact, reveals Viren.
The song “Sunta Nahin Dhun Ki Khabar”, a Reggae track, is an ode to Bob Marley.
“We recorded the album in 22 days flat because we didn’t want to break the flow and lose the feel of the songs. Not a single musical instrument was touched or moved, not even the mike cause if anything were slightly out of place we would have had a hard time recreating that feel. The core of the album is drums, ‘Dafli’, Congo, Timbale, Djembe and what have you, Viren has experimented with it all,” Britto tell us. The band usually performs in the Malwa folk style, which is explained in Hindi and English to the audience to make the experience more engaging. Kabir Café, which thrives on live performances, is on a tour to promote their album, which has drawn enthusiastic crowds.
THE COMING TOGETHER OF THE BAND
“It was lucky coincidence and destiny brought us together” is how the band would like to put it. “To be honest, it wasn’t by any design; the whole thing happened organically,” recalls Neeraj. “I was performing at Bandra station as a resident of NSPA (Natural Streets for Performing Arts) when I met Mukund. We decided to jam together and hit it off instantly.” Adds Raman, “I had seen a couple of Neeraj’s videos and wanted to meet him. And as luck would have it, I was shooting a video in Borivali at the Kabir Festival and Neeraj was playing there. I walked up to him and we jammed together. He found the mandolin interesting and the next day I was performing with Neeraj and Mukund at the festival.” Viren joined after seeing the trio perform at the Carter Road promenade, Bandra. Viren, from a family of Kabirpanthis, is a student of Zakir Hussain and Taufik Qureshi and has played the tabla since he was eight-years-old. About their relationship, Mukund, an accomplished violin player and trained in Carnatic vocals, says “It wasn’t the music per se, but the way we connected as individuals that forms the backbone of our relationship.”
Once they got the vibe going, Raman mooted the idea of forming a band and insisted it be named “Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café’, since it was Neeraj who pioneered the Kabir rock genre in his NSPA days.
Raman points out, “Our band would be incomplete without our sound engineer Johnston D’Souza, Sujeet Ramanna, our manager and Rajat Dawla, who handles our logistics and stage sound. With them we form the perfect Gestalt.” In fact, it was Johnston who roped in Britto when our on-hire bassist backed out. Recalls Neeraj, “He turned out to be a natural! The way he performed Ekla Mat Chhodjo Banjara Re on his bass guitar with his eyes shut, I knew he was our man.”
AND THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
The band which holds “Moh Ko Kahan Dhunde Re Bande” as their favourite Kabir song wishes to stay together and continue the journey of spreading Kabir’s message. On the anvil are more albums and collaborations. They are looking at increasing their presence on the digital space through more videos so that they can reach out and connect with more people.
Watch: Moh Ko Kahan Dhunde by Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Cafe