Why Bengal tunes in to the radio at the ‘godly’ hour of 4 am on Mahalaya
Millions in Bengal will set an alarm for 4 am on Mahalaya tomorrow to listen to a radio programme for the umpteenth time in their lives | Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Why Bengal tunes in to the radio at the ‘godly’ hour of 4 am on Mahalaya

Tomorrow, October 14, is Mahalaya, and millions in Bengal will switch on the radio at 4am to welcome Ma Durga with a programme that has been aired for 90+ years

Ya Chandi, Madhu-Kaitabhaadi Daitya Dalani….

If you are a Bengali or have lived in Bengal for years, chances are that you did not simply read those words but hummed along, a smile crossing your lips at their mere mention. For others, well, that is the starting line of the first song of a radio programme that has practically ushered in Durga Puja for millions of Bengalis for more than 90 years now.

It would be naïve to call Mahishasuramardini merely a radio programme now. It has achieved what can be called “cult status”. It has become iconic for Bengal, in the process immortalising the artistes associated with it. In these 90 years, it has defeated casteism, stood for religious pluralism, and beaten the only attempt at “commercialisation” of the Mahalaya programme ever made by All India Radio (AIR), which ended in disastrous consequences for it.

The beginning

AIR first broadcasted this 90-minute programme — scripted by Baidyanath Bhattacharya aka Bani Kumar and composed by Pankaj Mullick — at 4 am on Mahalaya in 1931. Mahalaya marks the last day of Pitri Paksha, the lunar fortnight preceding Devi Paksha, the sixth day (Maha Shasthi) of which marks the beginning of Durga Puja for all practical purposes, though the main rituals start from Maha Saptami the next day.

Mahalaya, as such, is meant for the Hindu ritual of offering water to the forefathers. Therefore, AIR’s choice of day and hour was reportedly met with some opposition from orthodox Hindus, who felt it ought to be aired only after Devi Paksha began. However, AIR stuck to its schedule and continues with it to date, resulting in Mahalaya acquiring a different kind of significance for Bengal — one that marks the arrival of the Goddess.

And until 1966, when the commonly-played version was recorded, that is how the artistes would treat their performance too — as a holy ritual. Until then, Mahishasuramardini would be a live programme, and the artistes would reach the radio station by 4 am, bathed and decked up in new clothes, many of the singers have reminisced laterin different media interviews. The AIR studio would also be decked up with flowers and incense sticks and, following the Hindu ritual for auspiciousness, conch shells would be blown thrice before the beginning of the performance.

The famed Chandi paath

And with that, the studio — and homes across Bengal — would reverberate with devotional songs dedicated to Goddess Durga and Sanskrit shlokas recited from the Chandi in the inimitable baritone of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, a man who has become just as iconic as Mahishasuramardini itself. For Bengalis, it is painful to even imagine anyone else on the Chandi paath (recitation) for the Mahalaya programme. And yet, just like the hour of the programme, he too faced objections from orthodox Brahmins because of his caste.

The story goes that when Bhadra was chosen for the Chandi paath, a Brahmin senior at AIR had sniggered how a non-Brahmin could be allowed to recite from the holy Chandi. However, the objection was not met with any favours from other employees. Even greater “trouble” was that the best musicians of AIR were found to be Muslims. However, none of these came in the way of the recording of Mahishasuramardini, and most of Bengal openly embraced what was essentially a Hindu devotional programme, recorded with Muslim musicians, and the Chandi recital done by a non-Brahmin.

And AIR had nothing to regret its decision. Bhadra’s emotional recitation of the Chandi, the trademark quiver in his voice, struck such a chord with the Bengali audience that soon they could not imagine anyone taking his place. However, in 1976, that “audacity” is exactly what AIR attempted when they replaced Mahishasuramardini with Devi Durgatiharinim. AIR had simply failed to feel the people’s pulse.

A disaster

None other than the legendary Hemanta Mukhopadhyay composed the new programme. Celebrated names of the Indian film industry, such as Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Manna Dey, and Hemanta Mukhopadhyay himself, lent their voices to the songs. More importantly, Uttam Kumar, arguably the biggest star the Bengali film industry has ever seen, did the Chandi paath. Uttam Kumar was at the peak of his popularity then. The best singers of the Indian film industry had taken charge. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately for AIR, a lot did. Bengal was furious — so much so that LK Advani, the then Central Information Minister, had to issue a public retraction. The Mahanayak (superstar) that Uttam Kumar was, he summed up the situation with his trademark sense of humour, famously saying, “This is what happens when you turn the puja room into the drawing room.” As for AIR, bombarded with caustic calls, it specially broadcasted Mahishasuramardini on Maha Shasthi that year and has never since dared to mess with the schedule or experiment with the programme.

An immortal piece

AIR has since sold the copyright of the show to Saregama (HMV) and the programme is available on several YouTube channels, including Saregama Bengali. Television is replete with similar devotional programmes on Mahalaya as well. And yet, millions of Bengalis still set an alarm for 4 am on Mahalaya, now on their smart phones, to listen to a radio programme for the umpteenth time in their lives. And they will do so tomorrow (October 14) as well.

So, what makes Mahishasuramardini tick even to this day, cutting across generations? Is it Bhadra’s divine Chandi paath? Is it the beautiful classical compositions by Pankaj Mullick? Is it the superlative performances by the best of Bengal’s singers of the time, such as Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Pratima Bandyopadhyay, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, Shyamal Mitra, among others?

It is a combination of all of those factors and much more. For Bengal, Mahishasuramardini can perhaps be best described as an emotion that sets the mood for Durga Puja every year. For many, listening to it at 4 am on Mahalaya is a ritual as sacrosanct as the Durga Puja rituals themselves. Because, it rings in the divine hour of the Goddess like none other can.

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