A welcome sight at Mumbai airport is the tiny figure of Kabir, poet saint and weaver which many may overlook.
Kabir enthralled people and inspired them with his devotional poems and songs of love and humanism. He wrote in vernacular Hindi, which was a mixture of Bhojpuri, Awadhi and Braj. His idiom was simple and colloquial.
He borrowed freely from Sanskrit and Persian vocabulary but his speech was direct and forthright. It came straight from the heart and appealed to everyone with its simple but insightful messages.
As a poet: As a poet, Kabir transcended many of the divisions that existed in India.
Kabir and the Kabir Panth are accepted as a part of Hinduism.
He is one of the Bhagats of the Sikhs and a large corpus of his poems is included in the Guru Granth Sahib.
His presence in Indian Islamic thought, Qawwali singing and architecture has also been well documented.
His indebtedness to Buddhist Siddhas has been a subject of scholarship in the last century.
Jain poets emulated his style, so much so that the 17th century Anandghan was dubbed as the “Jain Kabir”.
As far as Parsis are concerned, one of the earliest non-Hindi mentions of Kabir comes from the Dabistan-i Mazahib composed by a neo-Zoroastrian (around 1653).
Against discriminatory caste system: He can be celebrated as Dalit hero or as a Brahmin.
Architecture: His rauza in Maghar (Uttar Pradesh) is a part of the architectural heritage of the country.
Widespread regional presence: Kabir has also transcended space and time. In archives in north India, from Maharashtra to West Bengal, one can find his poems almost everywhere.
As a historical fact, we do not know whether Kabir did live till 1518 but having no better alternative, scholars tend to use this heuristic date.
Professor David N. Lorenzen’s research on Kabir has confirmed that most people whom legends associated with Kabir lived around this time.
The book, Images of Kabir (Monika Horstmann), is the result of an international symposium held in 1998 commemorating the 600th anniversary of Kabir’s supposed birth. Although it is far more likely that Kabir died around 1518 than us being certain that he was born in 1398, the lack of ambition in commemorating his anniversary is puzzling.
Contemporary research on Kabir:
By 2018, the range of scholarship on Kabir has grown exponentially, with scholars on four continents engaged with his study.
Images of Kabir for example presents different perceptions, reminding us of the richness and variety of meaning in his poetry.
Academic research in India:
There has been new analysis, by Czech scholar Jaroslav Strnad, of the language of his early poems recorded in Rajasthan.
Aspects of performed Kabir have been studied in detail by Kabir scholar Linda Hess.
Film-maker Shabnam Virmani’s “The Kabir Project” has mapped Kabir singers in India and Pakistan.
Writer and academic Purushottam Agrawal has presented Kabir in the light of indigenous modernity.
Researcher Peter Friedlander has shown how Tagore’s interest in Kabir was also influenced by Tagore’s colleague, Kshitimohan Sen.
Several articles by the academic Jack Hawley have been devoted to Kabir’s manuscripts and Vaishnava background while scholar Thomas de Bruijn has studied the shifting semantics in his poems.
There are also excellent new translations by Vinay Dharwadker and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. New verse translation appears in Chinese and Hungarian.
We must acknowledge that the pioneering works of Shyamsundar Das, Hazariprasad Dvivedi and Mataprasad Gupta in the middle of the 20th century are what prepared the ground for the rich global academic discourse on Kabir.
Academic research in the USA:
Several academic bodies abroad have expressed interest in paying tributes to Kabir. There is a discussion about a panel on Kabir at the Annual Conference on South Asia at Madison, U.S.
In the worlds of Rabindranath Tagore who has translated many of Kabir’s poems, “Kabir stood as one of the most appealing and inspiring symbols of India’s religious heritage.”