“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” said Mark Twain of the ancient Indian city of Benares, also known as Varanasi, or Kashi, which is situated on the banks of the river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh.

The city holds an important place in Hinduism and Jainism and is known to have played a pivotal role in the development of Buddhism. Tulsidas wrote the Ram Charit Manas as well as Vinaya Patrika in Varanasi. Various important figures of the Bhakti movement, including Kabir and Ravidas, were born here. Also, Guru Nanak, the first of the ten Sikh Gurus, made an important visit to Varanasi in the early 16th century. “Lots of Hindus from across the country travel to Varansi to spend their final days in the holy city.

But what really makes the city so special is the river Ganga, among other things. And the unique feature about Ganga in Benares is that it flows in the wrong direction. The river here is flowing towards the north, which is very rarely seen. But it’s just an optical illusion as the river cannot flow towards its source without any external force,” explained Devesh Agarwal, a tour guide and storyteller, who conducted special heritage walks through the ancient alleys of Varanasi, for the delegates attending the 2019 Mahindra Kabira Festival, held from 22-24 November 2019 at Guleria and Shivala Ghats in Varansi.

The early morning sessions that begin at the break of dawn are among the major highlights of the Mahindra Kabira Festival. The splendid venue of Guleria Ghat becomes a sight to behold as the first rays of the sun fall on the magical waters of the Ganges. This year, Neeraj Mishra, a renowned sitar player from the Benares Gharana, delighted the audiences with his mystical melodies.

“I am deeply inspired by Pandit Ravi Shankar. It’s a great honour for me to have performed Raga Parameshwari, one of the ragas created by him, in front of everyone this morning,” said Mishra.

Another early morning session was conducted by flautist Rakesh Kumar and violinist Sarada Prasan Das. “I have been fortunate enough to have learnt from my father Pt. Jawahar Lal, who is a genius of the shahnai and the flute. Raga Nat Bhairav is a morning raga and so it was most appropriate to the occasion. It has a very light mood and is traditionally performed at sunrise,” explained Kumar, who also teaches music at the Banaras Hindu University.

The other morning performances came from the Hindustani classical vocalist Ujwal Nagar and the Bengaluru-based artist Shabnam Virmani, who performed with Swagath Sivakumar, her young apprentice at the Kabir Project.

The afternoon sessions at the festival were dedicated to storytelling and literature. Jashn-E-Qalam, a Mumbai-based collective of professional actors dedicated to the celebration of Hindustani literature through solo performances of classic works, brought alive two stories of Vijaydan Detha celebrating the life and teachings of Kabir. While Vicky Ahuja enacted “Fitrati Chor”, K.C. Shankar enacted “Dujo Kabir”.

There was also a session by the noted writer Purushottam Agarwal, whose book Akath Kahani Prem Ki: Kabir Ki Kavita Aur Unka Samay is widely considered a path-breaking study of Kabir and his work. His session revolved around the subject of rational spirituality and Kabir.

The literary sessions on Kabir were a big draw for the audiences. “There are so many intellectuals and writers on Kabir, such as Purushottam Agrawal. But the idea of a festival on Kabir is really fantastic. That’s why we are here. We published a book on the poems of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore, before we even knew about this festival,” said Peter Bundalo, founder of Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize.

The evening sessions, which took place at the Shivala Ghat, witnessed memorable performances by noted artistes like Ustad Kamal Sabri, Pt. Ajay Prasanna, Omprakash Nayak and Mooralala Marwada. “Tonight’s team comprised vocalist Vidhi Sharma, drummer Manish with Anil Chawla on keyboard and Lalit Ji on tabla. I chose Raga Yaman because it has a strong element of meditation in it. Then we performed ‘Moko Kahan Dhunde…’ to evoke Kabir. People look for god in temples and mosques when the divine really resides in us all. Kabir has expressed this beautifully… Mahindra Kabira Festival offers the perfect view, venue and audiences with the Holy Ganga at the backdrop. Today the festival is drawing music enthusiasts from around the globe. As a performer, one can’t really ask for more,” said Pandit Ajay Prasanna.

The evening sessions also featured performances by Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café, a neo-folk fusion band; Unity Earth, a global ensemble featuring reggae artists Pato Banton and Antoinette Rootsdawtah; and singer-songwriter Kristin Hoffmann.

The Mahindra Kabira Festival, which has completed four editions this year, is an initiative of the Mahindra Group that endeavours to celebrate Kabir’s philosophy. The festival is produced by Teamwork Arts. “Whenever something is going good there is always a dilemma whether to make any changes going forth or not. Now, the festival that you have seen this year is not the festival you would have seen in the first year. It has evolved in a way that has made sure that the whole experience is a little more personal. Initially we didn’t have a delegate programme, for example. The idea of the festival is to make Kabir into a movement and not keep it limited to just something that’s there in the text book. How do we make Kabir more accessible? And this thought then was translated into having collaborations between musicians and getting classical singers to specifically create sense for us that’s true to the spirit of Kabir,” said Jay Shah, vice president, head, Cultural Outreach, Mahindra Group.

“The amazing thing is that for fifteen years we have been working with Mahindra Group. It’s not just Mahindra Kabira but Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) also. We all have a great understanding as we don’t look at it as a standalone festival but look at it as building communities wherever we go. That’s the primary focus and the rest of it follows. The great thing about Mahindra Group is that they are very happy to move with organic growth in any festival,” summed up Sanjoy K. Roy, managing director, Teamwork Arts.

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