Birendra Bhadra: The voice that heralds Durga Puja

When Mahalaya mornings dawned sharp and bright, there was no way one could escape the harbinger of the pujas, not if you lived in Kolkata at any rate. Across buildings and streets, the sonorous voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra intoning the story of Durga’s arrival on earth and her killing of the demon Mahishasura would float along on sunbeams and permeate homes and indeed our very bodies as we lay asleep.

So popular was Bhadra’s rendition that till today no other music heralds the launch of the lunar fortnight of Devi Paksha except his, broadcast faithfully by All India Radio each year and holding its listeners captive for the 90 minutes of its duration; now AIR’s oldest airing.

Of course, no longer is the transistor or radio the medium of the music; one has switched to pods and phones to air it, but it is still the original ‘Mahishasura Mardini’ programme created by AIR in 1931 that generates that indefinable air of the pujas having arrived. It’s as if the official bugle has been blown to begin celebrations, not that Indians need an excuse.

The metaphor of the bugle is actually rather literal — the broadcast begins with the long, plangent notes of the conch, the auspicious beginning for any event, followed by a few sweet, slow notes of Raag Malkauns, before Bhadra’s voice, with its famous tremolo, takes over. His narration is interspersed with the singing and chanting of various Devi songs and mantras by an accompanying team. First broadcast over Akashvani Calcutta, the programme was scripted by Bani Kumar or Baidyonath Bhattacharya, a long-standing playwright-composer for AIR; and its music composed by the famous composer-playback singer Pankaj Kumar Mallik.

Chanting the Chandipath

The radio programme, which has since been translated into Hindi for a pan-India audience, used to be transmitted live in the initial years. In 1966, a recorded version was created, and it is this that has been used since. On Mahalaya, almost all of Bengal wakes at 4 a.m. and tunes in. One remembers homes where the radio or transistor set was decorated with flowers and smeared with sindoor and a lamp lit at dawn to usher in the programme, as Durga was imagined entering homes borne gently on the sound waves.

On the street where we lived, named after Maharaja Nandakumar, a revenue officer who was hanged by the British in what was possibly India’s first ‘judicial murder’, the buildings were set close to each other, so close in fact that we could throw secret notes weighed with pebbles into the balcony of our friends next door. Each flat would vie to produce the most son et lumiere during festivals, but we were all beaten hollow by the sheer volume that emanated from the first-floor flat opposite us. We woke each morning to the loud notes of Rabindra Sangeet and each Mahalaya to Bhadra’s voice, radiating so crystal clear into our home that we had no need to switch our own radio on. Bhadra, playwright, actor and radio narrator, was blessed with a tremendous voice and his abiding legacy is this Mahalaya broadcast; he died in 1991 aged 86.

At the core of the programme is Bhadra’s recitation of the ‘Chandipath’, the Sanskrit verses written in praise of Durga in Chapter 5 of the text called Devi Mahatmyam, estimated to have been composed between the fourth and sixth centuries CE and incorporated within the Markandeya Purana. It is considered one of the most important texts associated with the worship of Devi or Shakti, and describes the fierce, angry, feminine aspect of the creator in some of the most exquisite Sanskrit poetry. In various iterations the Devi is invoked — ‘Ya devi sarvabhuteshu’ — and described as abiding in all beings as sentience, intellect, hunger, thirst and sleep, as energy, peace and faith, as courage and morality.

The programme includes ‘Aigiri Nandini’, the Durga verses popularly attributed to Adi Shankaracharya and an important part of Navaratri celebrations in the South.

The broadcast has seeped itself into public consciousness so deeply and is so closely identified with the pujas that none of its components can be altered. In 1976, AIR tried replacing Bhadra with the hugely popular Bengali filmstar, Uttam Kumar. As beloved as he was, audiences rejected him completely; Bhadra had to be brought back. And the Mahalaya tradition continued.

Full Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Present Imperfect We would like to show you notifications for the latest news and updates.
Dismiss
Allow Notifications