Kabir Café has been winning hearts all over the country with their soulful performances. Their songs Sunta Nahi Dhun Ki Khabar, Tu Ka Tu and Mat Kar Maaya ko Ahankar are favourites. The five-piece band is comprised of Neeraj Arya (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Mukund Ramaswamy (violin), Raman Iyer (mandolin), Viren Solanki (percussion) and Poubuanpou Britto KC (bass guitar). The band devotes their music to the 15th century Indian mystic poet and saint Kabir. Their album Panchrang (2016) went on to win the Radio City Freedom Awards Critics’ Choice.
Weeks before they could take the stage at the Mahindra Kabira Festival in November 2019, VERUS FERREIRA met with the band to find out how they take Kabir’s poetry and turn them into songs, and what got them to leave regular jobs (Neeraj was employed full time with the NSPA, Mukund was a mechanical engineer, Raman was an advertising professional, Viren was pursuing a commerce degree, and Britto was a music teacher) to make music their full-time job.
Why the addition of ‘Café’ to your band name when you are dealing with Sant Kabir?
Neeraj Arya: That’s because we choose to connect with Kabir more as a friend than putting him on a pedestal. We don’t refer to him as a “sant”, which connotes to someone who simply needs to be revered and worshipped, but as a very much alive and thriving friend who is always open for dialogue. And that’s why ‘Café’, where the conversation is on an equal platform. So what we believe is we have a musical dialogue with Kabir, with each other, and of course with our audience. We don’t preach, we converse.
How did you decide to perform songs based on Kabir’s poetry?
NA: It’s sheer destiny. I was in Delhi working with an NGO, Manzil, around 2009 when I was a part of a screening of the documentary on Kabir folk music, Hadh Anhadh, by Shabnam Virmani (Kabir Project). It triggered something in me, and the folk legends in the film, namely Padmashri Prahlad Singh Tipanya and Mir Mukhtiyar Ali, inspired me to render Kabir poetry using the guitar. Performing them in small circles in Delhi, I travelled to the Malwa Kabir Yatra, a celebration of Kabir folk music in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, and met and spent time with Prahladji. Much later, I came to Mumbai around 2012 after returning from a film-making course in Madison, Wisconsin, where I met the rest of the band, and told them about my passion for Kabir poetry.
How did you meet the other members of the band?
NA: So when I came to Mumbai in 2012, I joined Natural Streets for Performing Arts (NSPA) as a resident artist and video editor. Mukund Ramaswamy, our violinist, was also an artist with the NSPA and we connected really well. I did vocals, and with Mukund, we made a beautiful combination to render Kabir. While we played as a duo and sometimes collaborating with fellow NSPA artists, we were joined by Raman Iyer on the mandolin. We became thick friends, meeting every weekend which spilled over into the weeknights as well.