Believe it or not, some five thousand books have already been written, trying to prove, without success, that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were not written by him. It is the optimum of inconsequential incoherence. The problem which riles the doubters is a simple one: How could a not very literate person, who also acted in some plays, managed a theatre in London, went back to the small place he came from and died without being taken much notice of, write plays, many of which have not been equalled by anyone in English literature and are rightly regarded internationally as masterpieces?
So there are a lot of people, including professors, critics, academicians and eccentrics, who earnestly think that Shakespeare couldn’t have done it. If so, who, in fact, wrote so many splendid plays? Here the detractors have allowed their imagination to run wild. Nearly fifty names have been suggested as the real authors. For instance, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, who was the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Walsingham, Mary Sidney, a syndicate of outstanding talents (fancy that! A syndicate writing masterpieces) and even Queen Elizabeth.
It is a lot of nonsense. The plays are there for all to read. Nothing else matters. Let us pretend to put an end to this fatuity that the plays were authored by Mephistopheles himself to kick up a rumpus. Alas, we are face to face with a very dismal feature here. How can so many well-read people, some themselves authors, be so unclear about or unaware of the nature of creative process?
No one seemed concerned at all, for nearly two hundred years following Shakespeare’s death, to quibble over a matter of no consequence. It all began, perhaps, with the rise of universities, academic excellence, critics, magazines and newspapers. Learning was placed on a high pedestal. Nearly everyone assumed that in order to write well you have to be a learned person. Therefore, Shakespeare who was not a scholar in any sense of the word must be replaced by someone possessing both eminence and erudition.
We have to counter all this by admitting, right at the beginning, that some people are extraordinarily gifted. We don’t know why; no explanation is satisfactory. You may be rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, frustrated or satisfied, imagine any state or condition, the sources of inspiration remain murky, at times unobliging even to the creative person. Let the muses favour who they will. Their favour is a great riddle.
Before I look at the work of one of the greatest poets of the subcontinent, let me quote a bit from Orpingalik, an illiterate Eskimo poet. Nothing remotely learned about him. But he knew about the creative process and said: “We get a new song when the words we want to use shoot up of themselves” or “it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves.”
Kabir (1440-1518) was an unlettered weaver who spent most of his life in Banaras. By all accounts he was a poor and humble person, very diligent, who used to peddle his wares to earn a living. How did he manage to write poetry of the highest order remains a mystery? Although there are some Persian and Arabic words on and off in his verses, he never had, as he himself admitted, any schooling.
The most likely explanation is that, being naturally inclined to matters of mystical character, he may have frequented, in public or private, the company of Muslim or Hindu adepts at spiritual concerns. A born poet, he readily assimilated what he heard and saw into his down-to-earth, precise and dynamic poetry. He wrote in Uvadhi which can be regarded if one doesn’t indulge in prevarication, as proto-Urdu. Read a little carefully everything that he has to offer and, though it may seem odd to someone unfamiliar, it becomes clear and captivating. After all, how many people in England and America can read or understand Chaucer or ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in the original? Age often renders what was once conventional very disconcerting in the course of time.
Kabir’s work can be seen as a continuation of the Bhakti movement. His poetry is a celebration of transcendence in which all those issues that disunite, put unfair emphasis on differences of belief, paving the way for fanaticism, bigotry, tyranny and war, all empty preachings and practices, hypocrisy, mendacity and crass ignorance vanish completely into thin air. Once the cacophony of mundane bluster is silenced and the warring multitudes on earth are at peace, then and only then the cosmic drama, full of contentment, music, dance, everlasting mercy and eternal delight unfolds in each heart — the only place where the supreme creator abides, unseen. And we and our desires and dreams are His supreme fiction.
No one else has said all this in a language comprehensible to everyone in Kabir’s homeland with such passion and persuasive integrity. Kabir, as a poet is simply magnificent or magnificently simple. By this, I don’t wish to imply that he is plain. He is not. His poetry has a multiplicity of meaning and some of it accessible even to a simple man or woman. Praise the Lord, Kabir says, and you will be blessed. As Rilke wrote in one of his poems:
But, poet how can you repeat the phrase
That names the nameless and unknown? I praise.
What right have you to utter truth that stays
True in each disguise and mask? I praise.
These lines may well have been written by Kabir. “Written” is a wrong word in the context. Kabir only sang and recited. Others wrote down what he said. I have before me a selection of Kabir’s poetry, fully annotated, made by Sardar Jafri. No better introduction is needed.
For the doubters, the puzzles remain. If Shakespeare couldn’t write his plays who on earth wrote Kabir’s poetry? If there are people who prefer to stay bogged down in such inanities, let them be.
By the way, historians of Urdu literature, for reasons never properly spelled out, refuse to accept Kabir or Meerabai as part of their canon. Even ‘Chandayan’, a long narrative poem written in 1377 is treated with disdain. Why Deccani Urdu literature, no less archaic idiomatically, is acceptable but Kabir is not doesn’t make sense.
Kabir’s selection has been published by Aaj ki kitabain, Karachi.