In what is stolen and

in what is found


Come into the palace, my brother, my sister, my beloved
For the king of formlessness, spread the form of a bed
God is in between yes and no, hβρ and
ρβ, says

Sultan Bahu

The emperor of words who has been the distance

Who has been to that place in between, says so

My dear ρβ-no, and brother hβρ-yes

When we do not know what limit we occupy

When we do not know how to harness the limit

Why look for that which is limitless?


Mann mast hua phir kya bole?

The heart is joyous, there’s nothing I can say

The heart is buoyant, what’s there to say?

When joy has run my heart over, what’s to say?

I’m drowning in myself, what am I to say?


You steal with the thief, and you catch with the police

You are in what is stolen and you are in what is found

You become a great giver among the wealthy

You become a beggar among the poor


The heart has now turned a mendicant:

A lute in my hands, a song on my lips

I wander ticketless everywhere

I rule in every direction I turn

I live in the city of love

The police is you, the thief too

Find me if you can and you’ll find nothing

Strut in pride all you want

The body will turn to dust

You will find god only in love

Sorry if I sound like a crazy cuckoo

Trilling the same thing, saying nothing new


You’re in the elephant, and in the ant too

Wherever we turn it’s you, it’s you


It’s you, only you, you, you, only you

Allah hϋ, Allah hϋ, Allah hϋ


Bless the mullah who cries Allah hϋ

Coming in love’s arms, he goes Allah hϋ


Allah hϋ, Allah hϋ, Allah hϋ

Hϋ hϋ hϋ, Allah hϋ hϋ hϋ


When you find a diamond, just wear it

Why stop to admire it every now and then?


The swan bathes only in the mind’s lake

It does not wash itself in the lake of every sense


I felt light when placed on the scale

When I was found immeasurable, what do I say?


Ride slowly, sister, ride slowly

Let people stop and see who drives by

Our cart is decked colourfully

Our wheels wear the reddest dye

THE Kabiri song, ‘Mann mast hua phir kya bole’, shines differently each time it is sung and heard. Behind these song fragments, behind these words whose wisdom shines more when embellished with music, is a story that contains many.

In October 2016, I heard Kaluram Bamaniya, a dalit singer of Kabir’s songs from Rajasthan, perform in the basement of a wealthy business family’s home in South Delhi. A friend’s friend’s friend had forwarded the message on WhatsApp, and I made my way there. At this private mehfil meant for the host family and their intimates, if someone sought my bona fides, I was prepared to say I had come for Kaluram Bamaniya’s Kabir. No one asked. If a mendicant singer of Kabir or had Kabir himself arrived here after a day’s labour on his loom or after a twelve-hour shift as a metal polish worker in the Okhla Industrial Estate, he’d have been turned back at the gate.

The chandelier was intricately cut, and the floor cushions were so spotlessly white. I wondered if I could sit without leaving a trace of myself behind. I sat up close to the troupe. There were not more than forty in the audience. Commodious chairs were lined along the walls for the hosts and the corpulent men and women to rest. Some wore the finest silks and exuded expensive perfumes. There was a velvet-cushioned throne placed at a higher ground at the far end of the hall. It was the gaddi. It was adorned by a presumably dead rich man’s ornately framed photograph. The finest of flowers were decked around it. Many walked up to bow before the gaddi that seemed unaware of its own importance. In the life-size picture, he wore the beatitude that comes easy to a man well-fed all his life. I slyly clicked pictures of the obsequiousness, the incongruities, (Kabir, here?), unaware then of the incongruity and irony of considering myself above what I was surveying.

Kaluram Bamaniya and his friends were likely going to get paid well. How does an artist make a living other than by trading his or her art? What is a good place to perform? Should one perform or exhibit? Can art exist only in and for itself? Then how will it reach me? Thought clouds gathered. Questions I reckon Kabir would have asked.

Would Kabir have ever sung for a well-clad gentry at a private mehfil, or performed at the Jaipur lit-fest or in Edinburgh, were his to-and-fro to be covered and a good fee paid? Or would he have been a struggling artist in Benares, someone whose childhood was spent stealing shrouds off just-lit pyres, now uploading his jams on YouTube hoping someone would discover him and regard him the new Marley? Would he have been lynched for presumably possessing contraband like beef or marijuana? Or would he be doing the rounds with his tanpura for a living, turning up as impeccably dressed as the teetotaller vegetarian Bamaniya, and if he did, would it also be an all-male troupe, or would Kabir be trans? Would Kabir have applied for a writer’s residency, thinking, oh, I’ll write well if I am fed and paid well and if I am in a place with no connectivity? Or would he still just weave for a living and sing to the rhythm of the loom, not thinking of who heard him or who didn’t?

Which one story or all of these will serve my purpose?

Kabir says with a light head what needs to be said

Only the rare coxswain can sing life as a song

The untold telling of the good of all beings

My song jives to the boat, my boat to the song

You can’t tell the boat from the song

You see, I’m just coasting along.

The most secular of art must and does negotiate the sacred. But how does it negotiate the might of the market and the state? How does it greedily receive and on the rare occasion righteously return awards, expecting applause for both? How does it even begin to resist the lure of what’s respectably called patronage? Say sponsorship by Reliance Foundation or the CSR arm of the Adani group? Or a wealthy family in South Delhi that pays the artist in hard, unaccounted-for cash.

As Bamaniya and his all-male troupe, dressed impeccably in white kurtas, black vests and colouful turbans, set their instruments up, the thought clouds drifted away. I would not be denied an evening like this by my awareness of history, politics, and my complicity in a network of privileges and entitlements. As a man of small pleasures, I shall look between yes and no. I shall seek beyond my limitations, if not my limits. Enlightenment has to be here and now, within limits, through a raga on the lips. When we do not know how to harness the limit, why look for that which is limitless?

The flippant opulence of the house and the people was offset not just by Kaluram but by the bareness and austerity of the Kabir he sang for a little over an hour. Other poets and artists were remembered, their phrases and verses woven into the words of Kabir, who was already speaking in a translation, in Kaluram’s Rajasthani, a Kabir who teaches us how to say nothing, a Kabir who proffers us words that help us pretend we’re erudite. Quickly overcoming my estrangement, I came under the spell of words charged with music, and scribbled notes on the back of papers that bore the report of the annual general meeting (importantly called ‘AGM’) of the Seabrooke Apartments Owners’ Association, a report I had never read of a meeting I had never attended. As Kaluram and his ensemble made things up about Kabir who made things up about the words that make us what we are, I part translated, part made up lines in English. Kaluram did not bring in Allah hϋ. Nusrat came between us. I jazzed it up.

I left wordlessly after the performance.

I booked an Uber and explained to the driver where exactly I was standing in the C Block of New Friends Colony. It would take five minutes. Did Mann mast hua phir kya bole? indeed stick mostly to the scale of what has come to be raga Bhoop or Bhoopali, found in the Carnatic system as Mohanam, the omnipresent scale obtained almost all over the Asian continent in forms that are folk and yet at once classical, from the Far East to the Middle East? How much has what’s come to be ‘classical Bhoop’, from Kabul to Dharwad, stolen from the tradition Bamaniya comes from, and how much of Bamaniya is found in the Bhoop I know? Where does one begin, where does the other end? Is it possible to inhabit a raga between what is stolen and what is found?

As I quietly contemplated the prospect of listening again to the phone recordings I had made of the songs that were still buzzing inside me, two helmeted men on a bike snatched the phone from my hands and sped away. I panicked. I shrieked and ran after the bikers. Some two hundred metres later, pacified by concerned onlookers, I took an auto-rickshaw and rushed to the nearest police station, some minutes away, to lodge a complaint about the faceless thieves. There I found similar petitioners, saying they’d also been relieved of their cellphones. Mine was expensive. Our descriptions of the thieves matched. We commiserated with each other. For the police, it was all routine. We were told registering a case would be a waste of everyone’s time. And time must not be wasted. The phone did not come back. Another replaced it.

I had tried to capture Kabir in my phone, and he stole my phone.

The loss almost completely erased the experience of that evening of Kaluram and Kabir, the rich man’s framed photo, the fancy chandelier over which rose words threaded with music – all embers of a forgotten fire now. The police is you, the thief too.

Almost a year later, rummaging my laptop bag while at a residency in Ranikhet to work on a manuscript on raga music, where my phone luckily doesn’t work so that I may in relative peace and quiet write about what was stolen and what was found and of that space in between, I found these notes folded and crumpled at the bottom of the bag, and it all came back. Some of the handwriting was unclear, but I tried to make sense of how poorly I had understood Kabir despite all the fuss.