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Beyond the Rituals : An anonymous Drummer

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: October 26, 2015, 9:52 AM IST
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Beyond the Rituals : An anonymous Drummer
It was the last day of the Durga Puja. The organisers were rushing with the rituals and arrangements as they were already quite delayed. The ladies who had been waiting since morning for the “Devi-baran” before the Goddess leaves earth once again for the heavens, were getting increasingly restless. This year autumn (if there is one in India) has been awful in Mumbai and the heat was getting unbearable with every passing moment. Many were committed to leave for work once they had applied the vermillion on the forehead of the Goddess and smeared each other post that with the same red. Time doesn’t come easy and when it gets wasted unfairly, it is difficult to keep calm. We had been repeatedly asking the organisers how long it would take to start the rituals, advising them endlessly to speed up the process and losing patience with each passing moment. An organiser finally requested us to touch the Devi’s feet with vermillion and leave if we were too much in a hurry, to which some went ahead and the others grimaced. And just then a voice spoke from behind. “One full year you waited for her. And now that she has to leave, you women can’t even wait to bid her a proper farewell. You treat her like a guest who walks in with gifts and goodies; and get restless when she over-stays even for a short while. Come behind the “dhaak” and play the “vidaai” music for the Goddess, and you will know how the heart pains when she is off-loaded from the pedestal for “bisarjan”.

We naturally turned; some ladies started reasoning that everyone feels sad on the Dashami day as the Pujas come to an end. But he wasn’t listening. His voice had choked and eyes swelled up, pointing out subtly the difference between what he said and what we heard. An old Dhaaki, must be some 60 years old, played endlessly all through the five days of a Bengali Durga puja, celebrating the presence of the divine mother around him. All through the year, we wait for our festival; luxuriously pampering ourselves with Puja planning and shopping and pandal hopping and “adda” (long chats) and food. The Dhaaki must have earned a few bucks during these days, playing his Dhaak for long hours and ushering in that quintessential Durga Puja ambiance for the attendees, the focus being his “Ma” standing gracefully in front as he danced with the beats of his drum!

There was a certain degree of blankness in his eyes. I stared at him for a while as a few others from his group joined in. They together played again with vigour but the enthusiasm couldn’t hide that melancholy of impending bisarjan. Yet, they played with their eyes closed, some looking at the idol, trying to hold back knowing very much in their hearts that the moment won’t last.

At the end of sindoor-daan and sindoor-khela, I turned to them and offered a sweet from my thali as Prasad. I told them that I wished to talk to them and know about their lives. Initially they were sceptical, but after a short conversation they asked me to come back in the afternoon.
When I went back, they were probably having their last meal before leaving for the station. I asked the old man his name, and looked up startled when he disclosed. It wasn’t a Hindu name. “Shocked, ma?” He asked, addressing me by the same word he used for the Goddess. “We come from Nadiya and Krishnanagar area of West Bengal. Our ancestors had been playing during the Puja and we never wanted to give up the art.” His eyes shone with pride and excitement, as he shared his story. “The zamindar in our village had started Durga Puja when a son was born after three daughters. But a day before the Puja, the dhaaki fell ill. Of course the zamindar can’t get up and do a dhaaki’s job; he was a big man. So my great grandfather offered himself. After the Pujas the zamindar had declared that since then he would play the dhaak for every upcoming Durga Puja that the family hosted. He also gave him monetary reward. This was when we were in Bikrampur district of Bangladesh. During partition the family ran away from there. My father did not wish to give up his art. He used to say that it’s better to die than sit idle, away from the dhaak, during Durga Puja!”

I looked at him from top to bottom. He was off the saffron kurta and white dhoti which was kind of a uniform during Puja hours; he sat in a simple shirt and white pajamas. His companions loitering around, made fun of him. He smiled affectionately. Then pointed at two young lads and introduced them to me as his grand-children. “One of my sons didn’t wish to remain a dhaaki. He has his own separate business. He calls me a loner and loser who has lost his mind because of old age! My two sons-in-law also agree to him. They want me to stop travelling to mandaps every year playing the instrument. But how can I give this up? This is my only identity.” He then looked at his grandsons and smiled mischievously. “But right from the childhood I brainwashed my grandchildren. They love playing the dhaak. They even experiment with new beats, learn some extra skills and teach them back to me.”

The old man told me that the nuances of playing the instrument and rhythms generated are undergoing a lot of changes. This generation appreciates speed; so the players have also learnt to adapt faster beats keeping the ritualistic fundamentals very much in touch with their traditional roots. He also demonstrated the different tunes used for specific moments of Durga Puja. The rhythm for chokhhu daan (installing the eyes of the Goddess – an important aspect while creating the idol), sandhya arati (evening offerings), sandhi-puja (worshiping at the twilight moments connecting two phases), bisarjan (immersion), etc. all have a distinctly different presentation.

Back in Kolkata, I have seen Dhaaki’s crowding around in Sealdah and Howrah stations before the Durga Pujas, playing their instruments loud trying to attract hirers with such free and open display of their skills. Some do get hired; others return empty-handed. I asked the old man how he and his team managed to come to Mumbai! He frowned at me. “You ask too many questions, ma. I thought you would ask me to play the dhaak once again before we leave. But here you sit asking endless nonsense. No work at home?” Someone from his team tried to intervene and explain to him that asking those questions were my “work” and that I am trying to write something about their art. He listened with a resigned look and turned to me. “You really believe we are artists? Usually they don’t. Are you sure you don’t feel that we are as good as those utensils and bamboo sticks used for setting up the Puja?” The other guy from his team interrupted again, asking him to control his cynical dominance and apologising to me for his rantings. I dismissed his embarrassments and asked if he is family to the old man. He said that everyone in their team reside a few villages away from each other but stay connected throughout the year. They arrange meetings to share knowhow of new Pujas coming up or the leads and calls that some of them might individually or collectively receive.

The old man spoke again. “These days we have also become clever, ma! We operate as a team and are trying to form a union to bring down harassments and cheatings. Initially we travelled alone to the big city of Kolkata; some of us who were more ambitious impractically boarded a train to Delhi and Bangalore without a single lead. Even after checking us thoroughly, the police often would not allow us to go. They demanded money and didn’t care whether we were hired yet. And if at all we found work, they would make our return even more painful. They would put their hands inside our pockets to “check”, pull out the money we earned, return a portion and keep the rest! Now that we operate in a group, we enjoy the benefits of collective strength to battle against such extortions.”

The journey from that remote village in Nadiya to Mumbai is strangely fascinating. The contracts of playing the dhaak are often sourced from the contacts who pass a word of mouth and introduce the Dhaaki’s with the Puja committees. While most of the old Pujas and family Pujas have their own players who are repeated year after year, the other not-so-well-connected dhaaki’s need to stay aware of any new puja that is coming up and keep their rates a little less than reasonable. Sitting in a village at some remote corner of the state makes it difficult to reach out to the new Pujas in big cities, given that these days some well-to-do dhaaki’s have settled themselves in Kolkata! Frequent trips to stay in touch is too taxing for their pockets. With such limitations their bargaining power often hits a bare minimum, which is unreasonable and unfair.

“Some of us walked for hours on some days to reach the ISCON temple in Mayapur, or the Rajbari in Krishnanagar, or the Hazarduari Palace in Murshidabad, etc. depending on our residential locations. All these places are tourist destinations where we tried to reach out to the ladies from rich families.” He paused and bent forward, suddenly lowering his voice. “Women in families can be very influential, if they know the right tricks to control situations. That’s why I told you, ma, spend more time at home. But you silk-clad silly modern women won’t take me seriously!” This time I couldn’t hold the indifference any further and the smile on my face only irritated him more. Nevertheless, he continued, “I carried small items from my son’s thermocol business to exhibit as samples and sell them to the tourists. When I found a lady kind enough or talkative or friendly, I requested her to get me a contract during Durga Puja. It is the benevolence of one such lady that today I am sitting here in Mumbai. We have been paid reasonably well, all arrangements have been made flawlessly, and they have taken care of all our needs. This has been a good year.” He smiled finally.

But why only this year? I couldn’t help asking. Won’t the organisers repeat the contract next year? His smile faded. “Budgets change every year. And when there is a monetary constraint, we have to bear the heat. The organisers are too proud to tell us that they’ll not be able to pay us the same amount; they’d rather find someone else at lesser cost. If we still try to touch base, they’d tell us that some committee member has brought her contact, to which they couldn’t say a no and hang up on us with assurances for next year. It has happened many times before.”

I wish well to the old man and his team, and thank them for sparing a while talking to me. Just as I prepare to leave, the old man calls back. He requests me not to disclose his name in my write-up. “Many Muslims play dhaak during the Durga Puja. We do it out of an ancestral habit and because of some kind of untamed love that we have for the instrument, the mandap, the ambiance we manage to create, the idol that we too look forward to welcome all through the year. Our hands are conditioned for the dhaak and we are born to play it. It is a part of my self-liberation as much as reading the Namaz is a part of my worship. We have never experienced any differential treatment from our Hindu team-mates or from the organisers who hire us. But we do receive threats from local fundamentalists who believe that a Muslim playing dhaak is inauspicious for a Hindu festival. We also face subsequent rebukes and pressures from our families and communities, for the emotion we nurture in our hearts as artists. They say the dhaak is a Hindu instrument. By taking my name, please don’t make it worse for us!”

I assured him that I won’t.

As I conclude this, I can’t help feeling a bitter taste about his last bit of insecurity. So collective is the vision to divide; so isolated is an attempt to still stay united! And art is such a personal pursuit, disconnected from the selfishness of the world and yet a non-negotiable priority protected only by the relentless, ever-optimist artist.
First Published: October 26, 2015, 9:50 AM IST

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