This morning, I chanced to stumble upon a gorgeous article by Tanya Basu among the dregs of social media updates and shares about Mahalaya, the auspicious day that marks the exordium of the Durga pujo season. The reading of the same got me thinking about Mahalaya and I couldn’t but post a blog on the topic. (Here's the link to Tanya Basu's article in the Atlantic: An 83-Year-Old Song Dominates India's Airwaves Every Year)
Mahisasur Mardini: The Full Radio Program
For many of us Bengalis, Mahalaya unequivocally starts with the All India Radio program Mahisasur Mardini. From childhood upwards, we have been getting up with the pigeons on the morning of Mahalaya to sit before our radio sets and listen to the mesmerizing baritone of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The aforementioned AIR program is for us the official herald of the festive season, the sonorous clarion call of happiness that resounds in our ears the prospect of glorious days to come. The velutinous morning air is penetrated by the canorous notes of the radio-piece which incorporates both chants in high-Sanskrit and religious songs dedicated to maa Durga, the fiery-eyed, demon-slaying, evil destroying mother goddess.
Mahalaya is that time of the year when you may behold in all Bengalis a feeling of nostalgic stillness, when, thanks to this old radio program recorded in 1931, we lose, albeit momentarily, ourselves in the spell of music and let a sense of unmistakable, and absolute peace fall over us in the early hours of dawn like a sheer silk curtain impleached with golden threadwork. Year after year, the tradition of listening to the inimitable voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra continues without a speck of rusting in the machinery.
What is it, I wonder, in that eighty-minute program that stirs us to the very depths of our souls? Why, as we listen to the Sanskit slokas, our eyes well up and we feel a distinct lump in our throat when in the climactic moment of the tale the oratorio’s voice trembles with emotion? The thought leads me to the power of music. Since a time out of mind, music has been granted one of the highest seats of creative art form that moves you like nothing else. Be it the tribal song and dance rituals performed in the open, or a classical music performance unleashed in an auditorium, the power of music is potent everywhere.
On Mahalaya mornings, we Bengalis form a music-loving claque of our own as each of us, even those of us who live in distant lands, unite with the other under the canopy of music for over an hour and become a microcosm of the humanity at large. Every year, an invisible alarm-clock announces the hour of partaking of the musical ceremony when for a stipulated time we bid adieu to the changes of society, to our medical marvels, scientific spectacles, and social flux to engage in a changeless limbo of our own in a harmonious ritual when Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice booming with life presents before us the saga of the our beloved maa Durga.
In the early hours of this day of Aswin (the sixth month of the Bengali calendar), like the tintinnabulation of a pair of anklets, we hear the sound of the advent of the mother goddess, says Birendra Krishna Bhadra in the opening of the program. This line laden with poetry is for me one of the most favorite literary lines I have ever come across. In our society where women are shamed, raped, killed, abused and destroyed every day, the recitation invokes the spirit of the goddess in us. Although maa Durga, like Eve created out of Adam’s rib, was born out of the united strength of the great Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar, she single handedly slew the demon Mahisasura, a Satan like character who was granted the boon of immortality by Brahma, without the aid of the patriarchs (the male gods). The section in the radio program where Birendra Krishna Bhadra narrates the battle between maa Durga and Mahisasur is breathtaking. When the former vehemently cries out that she would destroy the demon, we see Durga, not as a matron, but as an all-powerful woman. We need to draw inspiration from this holy feminist who teaches us the need to take a stand for ourselves, to be ambitious, and not to be restricted within the boundaries of traditional domestic roles.
This year, like all the previous years, when I finished listening to the radio program yesterday, I found myself brimming with new life. I felt rejuvenated by the antiquated musical program which gave me a new perspective on my life. It is possibly because of our need to jolt our somniferous muses out of their torpor in the subconscious strata of our minds that we cluster around our radio sets and listen to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s invocation of the mother goddess. May be it is our identification that transports us to our childhood when we listened to it with our parents and grandparents on similar Mahalaya mornings. Whatever the reason is, the octogenarian radio-piece is a quintessential part of our Bengaliana, and in this era of westernized Indian culture, it is indeed refreshing to see this rite continue and thrive in our cultural crucible.