Review: Bodies of Song

By Patton Burchett

Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India by Linda Hess, Oxford University Press, 2015

9780199374175At the beginning of her wonderful new book, Bodies of Song, Linda Hess asks the following question: “How would our understanding of text, author, and reception change if we took cognizance of the nature and history of oral transmission, its interactions with written and recorded forms, and the paramount importance of context in creating the words and meanings of texts? How far can we go in treating texts as embodied?” Focusing in upon oral-performative traditions of songs attributed to the famous fifteenth-century north Indian poet-saint Kabir, Hess demonstrates that when we embrace “the study of oral tradition, we enrich our understanding of text and transmission, history and society” and “also enrich our own ways of learning and knowing ourselves.”

Linda Hess is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University, where she specializes in and has published widely on Hindu religious traditions. The product of over a decade of research, Hess’s new book, Bodies of Song, delves into India’s “living” Kabir tradition in order to shed important light on a number of topics such as the relationship of textuality and orality, the question of “authenticity,” the experience of hearing a performed song versus reading a poem, the potential conflicts and negotiations between inner/spiritual and outer/social orientations and life pursuits. But what really makes the book stand out is the great intimacy, sincerity, and readability of its style. Hess has long been a preeminent scholar of Kabir, but her previous publications—unlike this one—were generally works grounded in manuscript research and careful text-critical scholarship.   Bodies of Song is the result of a more embodied study of “literature that lives in performance.” It is, on one hand, an immersion into the lives of singers and listeners of Kabir and, on the other hand, a reflection upon Hess’s own personal experience imbibing Kabir over many years in the context of “live performance[s] where physical bodies are interacting, and where sound is produced by singers and heard by listeners who are present in the same place at the same time.”

One beloved Kabir poem states:

Gāyā bin pāyā nahi, anagāvan se dūr / jin gāyā vishvās se, sahib hāl hazūr

You won’t reach it without singing / if you don’t sing, it’s far.

But when you sing with deep feeling, / God is right where you are!

Kabir’s songs focus on finding the Divine—through sound—in the body. As Hess puts it, “The fundamental reality you are looking for is within you, right in your own body.” In Kabir’s works, the body is continually “held up as the precious container of the most precious reality, the place where we experience freedom, joy, the end of fear,” the place through which the Divine sound reverberates. Linda Hess seems to have thoroughly absorbed this teaching and in this book she makes the very Kabirian argument that it is in the body, and especially through sound/listening, that one really experiences the message of Kabir. Hess argues that, “to know Kabir, you should know people, places, and times. You should use your ears, voice, nose, and skin as well as more cerebral capacities. You should appreciate the local in performance, starting with the first location: your own body.” She wants us to know how central embodied experience is to fully appreciating the meaning of the poems attributed to Kabir and also how central performance is to the Kabir tradition as a whole. These songs were never meant to be read from a page. This is certainly not to say that there is not great value—and even emotional experience—to be taken from reading Kabir poetry in print, but at the most basic level, these poems are meant to be heard, and are meant to be heard as song. If you does not understand this, says Hess, you are bound to miss out on so very much about the tradition and the meanings and experiences of the songs themselves.

Bodies of Song succeeds admirably in making the reader understand, as viscerally as possible, the great difference between reading a poem—of Kabir’s, yes, but really of anyone’s—and experiencing it in live performance, hearing it and feeling it with one’s body in a social setting. Hess is able to achieve this by taking us into the personal lives of her subjects with excerpts of interviews and personal conversations, while also revealing to us (in stories, vignettes, and selections from her field notes) her own thoughts and emotions, which we see are those not of a detached scholarly observer so much as a self-reflexive and critical, yet emotionally involved and invested, active participant. Throughout the book, Hess prefers to let the scholars, activists, and performers that she discusses speak through their own words.

Perhaps the central figure in the work is Prahlad Singh Tipanya, the most famous Kabir singer in India’s Malwa region (located mostly in western Madhya Pradesh but also extending into southeastern Rajasthan and Gujarat). In Hess’s interactions with Prahlad, and her following of his life’s story, many of the book’s central themes are explored. Born into a poor, rural Dalit family, Prahlad became attracted to the bhajans (songs) of Kabir, was transformed by Kabir’s message and the singing of his poems, and eventually became an incredibly popular performer of Kabir in Malwa and well beyond. Indeed, Hess—who became a close friend of Prahlad and his family through her research—has brought him to the United States for performance tours on two separate occasions (and is currently planning a third). Here is a video of one of his performances of Kabir songs at Syracuse University in 2003 (Prahlad sits front and center, singing and playing the five-stringed folk instrument known as the tambura):

As the song performed in this video shows, Kabir asked his listeners to look deep within themselves for the answers to life’s most difficult, but essential questions. In the song we also get a taste of Kabir’s characteristic critiques of the petty quarrels between Hindus and Muslims of his day and the hypocrisy, greed, abuse of power, and arrogance of religious elites. Hess, (particularly in Chapter Four of the book), guides us masterfully through Kabir’s teachings on these topics, as well as other common themes in his composition such as love, the body (its impermanence and fragility, as well as the truth within it), death, the guru, the joy and intoxication of the Divine, and the preciousness of this life and attention to the here and now.

Interestingly, the songs that Hess analyzes in order to give us an understanding of Kabir are part of the living tradition of Kabir compositions that popularly performed in India today, but can not be found in any of the oldest manuscripts, if in any of the manuscripts containing Kabir’s poetry at all. Can we consider these compositions authentic? As Hess explains, in the living oral-performative tradition, the test of authenticity for singers and listeners is whether or not a song expresses Kabir’s “voice,” a certain content, language, and style that conveys his truth as opposed to his literal words. Hess shows great sympathy for this position, but is also unwilling to marginalize the real importance of historical, text-critical scholarship. For her, the study of Kabir must combine and juxtapose a variety of different approaches.

A major theme in Bodies of Song is the recurring motif of a polarity between the inward (religious-spiritual) and outward (social-political) dimensions of Kabir. Hess profiles a variety of Kabir singers, political activists, and NGO workers in order to show the perspective of (a) those interested in Kabir as social critic and ally in political struggle (ignoring or criticizing his spiritual teachings), (b) those who marginalize secular and social-activist readings of Kabir and place him at the center of institutional religiosity, and (c) those who see the ‘spiritual’ and ‘political’ Kabir as inseparable. This issue (addressed in Chapters Six and Eight) is clearly a very personal one for Hess. Do the demands of an authentic spiritual life necessitate, to at least some degree, a turning away from the social problems of the world? Does a life dedicated to transforming society—to alleviating poverty, oppression, and injustice—require a rejection of religion? We will probably want to quickly answer “No,” but Hess shows us how complicated the question is and how often, throughout history, dedication to one (the social/political or the religious/spiritual) often has meant the marginalization or alienation of the other. The book’s discussion of this tension is not dry and academic; Hess brings the issue to life by showing how it has played out in the lives of real people such as Prahlad Singh Tipanya, among others.

In addition to Prahlad, another key figure in Bodies of Song is Shabnam Virmani, a filmmaker, singer, and media artist from Bangalore who became Hess’s close friend and collaborator in her research on Kabir. Virmani heads The Kabir Project, which completed four feature length documentaries (that have been widely shown in India), and a rich collection of audio CDs of Kabir singers in different regions (accompanied by bi-lingual books with the original songs, and English translation and annotations) that inquire into the spiritual and socio-political resonances of Kabir’s poetry. (More information can be found here: These four films, referenced numerous times by Hess, serve as ideal companion pieces to her book.

Throughout her book, Hess reminds us repeatedly that throughout most of South Asian history Kabir’s compositions have not been read so much as heard—participated in—in live performance. One of the questions driving the book is this: “What is the difference in our experience when we receive or perform Kabir orally, as compared to when we read Kabir or receive the poetry through other media? How are we alive in different ways?” (203). In order to explain how very different the experience of a written text is from that of a musical text that is sung live in performance, Hess (particularly in Chapter Five) leads the reader in a fascinating discussion of the biological particularity of hearing, the neurological power of music, the social nature of live performance events, and the quality of embodied physical presence.

Every year I teach courses introducing undergraduate students to the religious life and history of South Asia and I always dedicate at least one class to Kabir. Students love to read his poetry, which is quite modern in many respects and resonates with many of their own sensibilities. After we have discussed Kabir and his poetry in class, I ask students to write their own poems “in the style and spirit of Kabir” and the results are always wonderful. (Here is a link to some of the Kabir-inspired poems students have written.) Despite the success of this assignment, for a while I struggled with how to give students a real sense of the performative nature of the Kabir tradition (and of Hindu devotional poetry more generally), how his compositions are meant to be sung and heard. I have found that by discussing key ideas from Hess’s book, and combining them with a showing of Shabnam Virmani’s film “Had-Anhad,” I have been able to largely solve this problem. Here is a clip from this fantastic film, which is full of live performances by Kabir singers in both India and Pakistan:

All in all, Bodies of Song is a special book; it is engaging, thought-provoking, insightful, and—at times—even emotionally moving. Those interested in Kabir and South Asian religious and cultural life will no doubt enjoy it, but it is also highly recommended for anyone interested in the embodied experience of oral-performative traditions and the tensions between “outer” socio-political struggles and “inner” spiritual pursuits.


Patton E. Burchett is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at The College of William & Mary, where he teaches courses in South Asian religions. He completed his PhD at Columbia University. His research focuses on early modern devotional (bhakti) and tantric/yogic religiosity in north India and the interrelations of magic, science, and religion in the rise of Indian and Western modernities. He is currently at work on his first book, tentatively entitled Bhakti “Religion” and Tantric “Magic”: Yogis, Poets, Sufis, and Kings in Early Modern North India.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *