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  • Singing Emptiness: Kumar Gandharva Performs the Poetry of Kabir by Linda Hess
  • Kathy Foley
Singing Emptiness: Kumar Gandharva Performs the Poetry of Kabir. By Linda Hess, with contributions from U. R. Ananthamurthy and Ashok Vajpeyi. London: Seagull, 2009. 156 pp. + CD. Cloth, $99.95; paper, $39.95.

Linda Hess extends her contributions to Indian performance studies by sharing this set of nirgun bhajans (devotional songs celebrating the “formless” divinity) from the repertoire of Kumar Ganharva (1924–1992), a classical singer from Karnataka who became internationally known for his interpretations of these songs that draw on Malwi folk music. The lyrics call for casting aside dogma and pretense, and point toward the realization of divinity inherent in each. A short introduction on the life of Kumar Ganharva details early illness (tuberculosis) that caused six years of forced silence, followed by his return to the stage, and the background of this bhajan repertoire is given. Many of the songs are attributed to Kabir, the fifteenth-century weaver saint of Varanasi whose songs have been passed through the oral tradition. Hess discusses Kumar Ganharva’s ideas on voice and performing this repertoire. Next, Hess translates and annotates thirty songs. Texts come from the singer’s program notes and a volume that became his original source: texts of Shilnath Yogi, a holy man of the beginning of the twentieth century who had a shrine at which Kumar Gandharva and others gathered to sing nath devotional songs. Naths are a religious group founded by Gorakhnath, who is said to have lived sometime between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Often wandering ascetics, naths practice yoga postures, pranayama (breathing exercises), and meditation [End Page 338] in search of enlightenment. The songs are singing meditations that Kumar Gandharva adapted to the concert stage.

The introduction is direct and gives the author’s personal reflections on the artist and encounters with his family, as well as background that can aid in understanding the song texts. For example, on page 21 (and later in n. 16 on p. 123 and n. 36 on p. 127), Hess gives a sense of the tantric ideas of the body that naths embrace and are referenced in the lyrics. The book of Shilnath Yogi’s bhajans, called Shri Shilnath Sabdamrit, became a source for Kumar Gandharva and hence Hess’s book (p. 20). Kumar as an important yet sometimes controversial singer brought the songs of the Kabir and the nath yogis to the stage in an unprecedented way.

The introduction is both personal and gives a sense of the singer. Then the songs (twenty-one attributed to Kabir and nine others) are given in Hindi and English. Hess’s notes give access to the ideas embedded in the imagery and show how tantric ideas of the body with three channels (ida, pin-gala, and sushumna), chakras, and so on are referenced in the songs that sound self-liberation.

Her notes are deft and willing to acknowledge puzzlements (perhaps too rarely admitted by academics). The translations benefit from Hess’s career spent probing the Indian tradition. In these seemingly simple “folk” songs, embodied practices of enlightenment are explored. Hess discusses some aspects of the singing that show how sounding is part of the singers’ practice, but her focus usually remains textual. The recording shares five bhajans from the study. This book makes material that might be difficult for Western readers accessible and gives an example from the Indian tradition of how art and gnosis link. It invites us into an Indian use of art in self-expansion:

Kabir says listen friend, seeker,This is the world beyond reach.Eyes wide open all dayHere’s the sign:No death, no decay.

(p. 99)

Hess helps translate the ineffable into English, a language perhaps resistant to such a barefaced encounter with the cosmic. Notes address points that help the reader—from gender implications of imagery to mythological references. The text is both simple and complex. It points to the entwinement of the subtle (perfectible) body and the everyday reality of being in the world. The divine is both infinitely far away and here, everywhere present at the same time. [End Page 339]

Kathy Foley...


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pp. 338-339
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