WILLIAMSTOWN — People sing late into the night. In small towns in the warm air, they improvise. They all know the songs, and they move from one to another as the feeling takes them, plucking strings and beating percussion. It's like an open mic at a coffee shop that runs until dawn. They are working men, farmers and men who use their hands.
And they are singing the words of a 15th century poet.
The poet is Kabir, a poor man who became a leader and a saint when India held the second largest city in the world (Vijaynagara) and struggled between Hindu empires and the Islamic Mughal empire.
His words are living and relevant today, said Murad Mumtaz, professor of art history and studio art at Williams College. Kabir has inspired a folk music tradition for 600 years in the Malwa region in Madhya Pradesh, in central India. And on Wednesday evening, Prahlad Singh Tipanya, a musician known and loved across India, will bring it to Williams College's Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall.
Tipanya has come a long way with his music. His family is of the untouchable caste. In India, they are the lowest of low class — "the ones who are not supposed to touch your food or be in the same room with you," Mumtaz said.
His father was a laborer. His family was poor and had little chance at education.
Tipanya became a school teacher. And then he discovered Kabir. He learned the music at all-night bhajans, music jams. People come to dance, Mumtaz said, and sing the words of a poet who told untouchables that they have a light of God in them.
Tipanya learned the songs. Singers will draw freely on hundreds of verses, Mumtaz said, and sing what comes. When Tipanya performs, he doesn't plan the evening beforehand.
"He has a repertoire like an ocean."
He learned the music, and he made himself a Timbura (a five-stringed instrument like a guitar).
"Through the words of Kabir, he found a purpose," Mumtaz said, "and he became a revolutionary figure. He has transformed the lives of thousands of people."
He travels to sing these songs, as musicians have traveled for 600 years, and thousands of people come to his concerts in rural communities.
"Malwi music reminds you of the desert," Mumtaz said. "It is soulful and extremely visceral. It takes your whole body to perform it. Literally. And anyone can pick it up and sing it. Indian classical music is more refined, and you have to start at a young age. This, you or I could pick up an instrument and start singing."
Tipanya has revived the music and spread it, Mumtaz said. In this poor and rural place, people are often ashamed — he has given people pride in being who they are.
Today he tours the world. He has a band now of singers and musicians, his son and his nephew among them. The musicians in the Malwi tradition are largely men, Mumtaz said.
But for him the music reaches across boundaries.
"One of the messages of his singing," he said — "he says a beautiful thing. We have all of these boundaries — religious boundaries, caste, restrictions, and we should not necessarily break them, but we should climb on top of them and talk to each other."
Kabir himself is relevant today in the same way, Mumtaz said, because he reached across boundaries 600 years ago.
He represents a kind of spiritual thought and devotion that holds elements of Islamic or Hindu faith, but becomes its own way of seeing the world, Mumtaz said. "And for someone attached to a religion or spiritual path, they can still find a path, through his poetry."
Kabir drew ideas from Islamic and Hindu mysticism and formed his own tradition. He believed in an absolute God beyond any description or form, Mumtaz said, and he saw God in every living thing.
He stood against superficial rituals and the caste system — why go out to pray in front of a stone sculpture when you yourself are an image of God?
Mumtaz recalled a story about Kabir. He had come to the river Ganges, the most sacred river in India, and he met a group of Brahmins there. They were the highest caste of priests and scholars. He was sitting by the steps, and they were purifying themselves and singing the praises of he purifying qualities of the water. One of them asked for water, and Kabir filled a pitcher and held it out to him. Kabir was low-caste, and the Brahmin drew back in distaste. And Kabir asked him, why are you praising the river, if it can't even purify this pitcher when I am holding it?
"He saw a divine spark in everyone," Mumtaz said
And he fed the flame.
"Prahlad often quotes Kabir — why do you worry about this person or that person — clean the temple of your own body. Get rid of the trash in yourself, throw away all that junk, and then you can talk about others."
Tipanya devotes his career to healing social and political ills.
"He is so popular in India," Mumtaz said, "he is a role model for children, boys who would otherwise get into drugs and alcohol, because they are rejected by society. They find a purpose through this spiritual possibility. The idea that God is in you is revolutionary."
People come from across India to hear him. Mumtaz and his wife first heard his music when they were living and working in Benares, the sacred center for Hindus in India.
Tipanya came on tour to the U.S., Mumtaz said, and they traveled to hear him. Since then they have gotten to know him, and two years ago Mumtaz was teaching at the University of Virginia and invited him to perform there. He stayed with them and their (then) two-week-old daughter. And now Mumtaz has invited him to the Berkshires.
His message feels urgent to Mumtaz, here today.
"In this fraught moment in America," he said, "we have so few options, especially on the political front. We have only right or left. He offers a third option. We have to look at ourselves and acknowledge the divine spark in everyone."