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  • Kabīr: Oral to Manuscript Transitions
  • Peter Friedlander (bio)

Introduction: Oral and Textual Traditions and Kabīr

The continuous interplay between the oral and written traditions have been identified as a vital aspect of the transmission of the literatures of South Asia (Blackburn and Ramanujan 1986). Contemporary scholarship has drawn attention to the complex interplay between the oral and textual traditions of Kabīr songs. Henry (1995), Lorenzen (1996), and Singh (2002) demonstrated that contemporary oral traditions of Kabīr songs were completely different from those found in manuscript traditions. Linda Hess (2009:51–53) has also studied oral traditions of Kabīr songs in Madhya Pradesh and found a complex interplay between different contemporary oral traditions of Kabīr songs and printed texts of the songs. Indian oral and manuscript traditions show great resilience in their transmission of compositions, in terms of preserving the overall forms of texts through successive recopyings over time, but also normally contain characteristic variations that typify their method of transmission. Compositions transmitted within handwritten textual traditions show characteristic scribal copying errors, such as mistaking one letter for another or missing out or repeating lines. However, compositions transmitted in oral traditions show quite distinct forms of singer’s variations, such as inversion of half lines within a verse and the recasting of the dialect of a verse into a new form. The existence of these variations in how oral and manuscript textual traditions transmit their contents raises the possibility of investigating the relationship between oral and textual transmission of texts within traditions of Kabīr’s songs.

In this essay, rather than focusing directly on what contemporary oral traditions can tell us about Kabīr songs I will explore how different manuscript traditions from the last five centuries can inform our understandings of how oral traditions of the songs changed over time.

Encountering Kabīr in Varanasi in the 1980s

I first became aware of Kabīr while learning Hindi in the early 1980s in Varanasi. I often heard people quoting sayings of Kabīr when talking about religious matters. I would hear Kabīr songs performed in different contexts ranging from religious gatherings, radio performances, and by wandering singers in the street. You could tell they were by Kabīr as North Indian songs often contain a phrase telling you the author of the song, a kind of signature, such as “Kabīr says” in their last line, like English sayings such as “as one door closes another opens.” Kabīr’s couplets, short rhymed verses of two lines, called (dohā) or witness (sīkhī) form, part of a body of traditional sayings for Hindi speakers.

For instance, one day I was sitting with a group of people who included a school teacher, a shop keeper, and a retired businessman in a shelter on the shore of the Ganges. We were having a lively discussion about politics. To bring home the point that it would be a mistake to neglect even minor issues, somebody said: “Don’t ever just ignore even a tiny blade of grass, Kabīr says, if it gets into your eye, then the pain is great.”

Another time I was at a poetry function in a school hall, where people were reciting verses ranging from sections of medieval classics such as the sixteenth-century Hindi life of Rām, called the Rāmcāritmānas, through to verses of contemporary political satire. When called upon to speak I recited this Kabīr verse which was on the need to look for the divine within oneself: “Everyone knows there are drops in the ocean, but Kabīr says, few are they who realise that there are oceans in every drop.” The instant I started reciting I could sense that the entire audience, civil servants, business people, merchants, students, and teachers all knew the verse and they responded to it as an affirmation of something they all shared in common.

One of the most popular Kabīr songs I heard being performed in numerous contexts was about how the body is a cloth which has been woven finely and needs to be carefully looked after if its true value is to be...

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