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From Balia to Boston and from Salempur to San Francisco, Shekhar Sen's musical production Kabeer has had a long and interesting journey. The story of the mystic saint of the fifteenth century (1440-1518 ) who, it is believed, was found floating in a lake as an infant and brought up by Muslim weavers, has been brought alive on stage in a musical monoact play by Shekhar Sen.
Hailing from Raipur in Chhatisgarh, the 51-year-old singer who landed in Mumbai in 1979 hoping to compose for the film industry, soon realised he was a fish out of water. "The music those days was different, the beats were different - original compositions were no longer being appreciated, " says Sen who then sought refuge in his classical and semiclassical training. "I wanted to assert my own individuality and hence concentrated on the vast non-filmi repertoire that was waiting to be tapped by people like me. " He began to perform at concerts and compose for TV serials. It took a while before he found his true calling.
In 1997, when he attended the International Ramayana Conference in the US, translations of the Ram Charitra Manas in Chinese and Portuguese were released. "They had translated the couplets in the same rhythmic verse which was amazing. Imagine the years of dedicated study that must have gone into it, " says Sen. He returned home inspired and with a mission - "I wanted to do something that would be simple and yet bring out the best of our culture and saintpoets on stage, " he says. The result was Tulsi with 52 song sequences followed two years later by Kabeer.
Sen is one of the few musicians to focus on musical mono-act plays. "With music based on 43 different ragas, my two-hour long Kabeer has 38 characters in it. For each character I use a different voice because I did not want to make it a narrative but a drama, " smiles the guy who has no background in theatre. "My intense training and study in music - both my parents were musicologists - helped me a great deal. " While the musical track is recorded, the singing and dialogue are live.
In this staged version, Kabir uses a mix of Hindi and Bhojpuri to talk about his life. He sings his couplets and verses and refle-cts on social evils. "The idea was not to make a documentary, " says Sen. "The research wasn't easy because each region has its own Kabir tale. He had so many disciples who continued to write in his name, so even their poems were attributed to him, " says Sen whose play reflects the influence that the city of Kashi (Benaras) with its temples and mosques and saints like Guru Ramanand, Raidas, and Sheikh Fareed had on Kabir. The play is interwoven with scenes from the saint-poet's marriage and his meeting with Sikandar Shah Lodhi, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, among other incidents from his life.
"It's amazing how Kabir continues to be relevant and reaches out to people even today, " says Sen talking about a performance he gave in Nashville some years ago. "When I returned almost a year later, not to perform but to visit some friends, imagine my surprise when two American ladies came to visit me. They told me that after seeing my Kabeer, they had started learning Hindi just so that they could understand his teachings in their original language. "
'Kabeer' will be staged on July 2 at the Azad Bhawan Auditorium, Delhi
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