The Distant Drummers of Durga Pooja
They don’t belong to a particular caste and are known entirely by their passion- playing Dhaks.
A small newspaper report this morning hidden in an inside page reported the accidental death of a drummer while trying to board a moving train when he slipped between the platform and the train and fell on the tracks. He died before they could take him to the hospital. But no one will organize any meeting to grieve over his death or come forward to pay compensation to his bereaved family. He is a drummer after all and who cares? These five to fifteen days are the only days that bring a small ray of sunshine to these very impoverished artists and craftsmen who create and craft the drums they make themselves. Some specialize in crafting the drums and also play while some devote their entire time to the making of drums.
Today, Kolkata celebrates around 4500 community Durga Poojas for five days during the festival month. The Pooja is a celebration of the triumph of Good over Evil, “good” represented by the Goddess Durga and “Evil” demonstrated in the form and style of Mahisasura. One of the ancillary associations with the festival is the presence of the dhakis or the drummers who come in from different parts of the State to play their drums and add to the glamour and the music of the festival for five days. They stay on after the Durga Pooja is over to cover the festivals that come later closing with Kali Pooja.
They do not belong to a particular caste or community and are known entirely by their passion- playing Dhaks or drums. The rhythmic sound of the drums early in the morning as they circle around small neighbourhoods to announce the beginning of a Pooja day works like a beautiful, musical alarm clock waking us and also reminding us that it is festival time. Many poor peasants, artisans, labourers flock to the city of joy, Kolkata during the Durga Puja.
Against the backdrop of Sealdah station in Kolkata, shimmering in the glow of small lights adorning the brick red-and-cream building as its way of celebrating the festive mood of Durga Pooja, a drummer on stilts is playing on his drum. A juggler juggles hats in front of the dhaki. They are giving an impromptu performance to the audience that has gathered around. It is Durga Pooja in Kolkata. These dhakis arrive at Sealdah station just before the Durga Pooja. With modernity and for lack of government assistance of any kind, their lives and their music stand threatened by extinction. This too, is portrayed in the film through an exploration of their sad lives behind and beyond the festival and the music
Their identity is synonymous with their craft. They bring along their 'Dhaks' or local drums and play at the puja pandals for a paltry sum of money. The rhythm pattern of this percussion instrument is as unique as the calypso beats are to the West Indies or the sounds of the Bagpipes are to Scotland. The maddening beat of the “Dhak” unfold memories soaked in nostalgia and instantly transports one to the lush green Bengal landscape. Then they go back, trying to eke out a bare livelihood as construction workers, brick layers, cobblers, repairers of umbrellas and rickshaw pullers. The playing on the drums or the dhak was an exclusively male domain. But a senior Dhaki some years ago created a group of 70 women dhakis who have joined this artistic occupation happily. This year, some select members of this woman’s group has been invited to London to play the dhak at some community Poojas and they are thrilled to fly away beyond Indian borders.
Divine Drums is perhaps the first attempt to document for posterity the life, lifestyle and struggles of the drummers of West Bengal on film. Viplab Majumder, an alumnus of FTII, Pune, has made this wonderful ethnological film that highlights a neglected and marginalised group of creative artists without whose presence and music no Bengali festival can either begin or end. Divine Drums’ is a humble exploration of this art form, on the verge of extinction, thereby exhibiting the plight of the dhakis who languish in absolute non recognition and receive no assistance whatsoever from any Government body to propagate this art form. The battle with destiny still ensues for the dhakis , the unsung heroes who usher a fountain of joy and festivity in our minds but are largely under feted for their humongous contribution.
Nikhil Rabi Das of Gulzarbag says, “I do not think our children will take up this instrument because there is no money in it.” The frame shows Nikhil mending a shoe with his dhak beside him and his cycle symbolising his nomadic lifestyle standing against a fence. He adds that they cannot give up playing the dhak because “it is part of a worship ritual and considered sacred. It is our tribute to the Mother.” A young man who trains with a group of six elaborates on the difference in rhythms and beats used for different rituals. We find the way drums are crafted out of the trunk of trees with goat leather used to make the two ends at Notun Colony in Murshidabad. While in Murshidabad, the drummers mainly play a complimentary role in festivals, in Birbhum among the Mirdhas, it is an independent performance.
Teenbandhu Das informs that the history of the drum goes back to Joy-Bijoy, two celestial brothers who are said to have descended from heaven and invented the drum. During the rule of kings, drummers wandered around the city as announcers and callers of attention to what the King wished to announce and pronounce. It is traced back to a regal past and also to the hunting tradition of kings. Teenbandhu of Pastubhi, Kandi in Murshidabad, learnt to play the dhak from his father who was a master craftsman in making dhaks. Das is in the business of manufacturing dhaks with his son helping him out. “There are twelve kinds of percussion instruments and I can play them all. The trunk of the mango tree is ideal for the body of the dhak. We also use the Babla, Shirish and Neem trunks but the quality differs. There is no scope for industrial manufacture as this is purely a handicraft to be created manually,” says Sunil Das. Bidhan Das who also crafts drums says that the neem is the best but it is very expensive. They carry on the trade mainly with loans from friends and relatives as they have no savings of their own. “We have no access to bank loans. Nor do we have government funding. We sometimes have either to mortgage our utensils with the buyer or sell them off to keep the business running,” says Bidhan Das.
Niranjan Das, a drummer, can beat out his sentences on his dhak. Most of the villagers are devoid of proper roads and electricity and the bicycle is the principal mode of transport. Boards in the backdrop show that there are anganwadis in some places but the children can only be educated till the primary level. The boys learn the trade from their father while the girls are married off young. He explains how the end-skins of the drums are crafted out of cow skin and goat skin.
Unfortunately, it is ascribed the status of a dying art form and rightly so. These impoverished set of artists receive permanent occupation only during the five days of the festival and indulge in menial jobs to eke a living for the greater half of the year. Survival is a perennial strife for them in a fast changing world that is apathetic to indigenous art forms. This has caused great erosion in an already dwindling population of the dhakis. A life of penury and abject hostility has prevented the seniors from grooming their posterity in this traditional art form. They are compelled to work as cobblers, or daily laborers, migrating to different cities and towns in search of sustenance. Several are also compromising with the sanctity of this art form in their bid to ensure commercial appraisal.
Survival is a perennial strife for them in a fast changing world that is apathetic to indigenous art forms. This has caused great erosion in an already dwindling population of the dhakis. A life of penury and abject hostility has prevented the seniors from grooming their posterity in this traditional art form. They are compelled to work as cobblers, or daily laborers, migrating to different cities and towns in search of sustenance. Several are also compromising with the sanctity of this art form in their bid to ensure commercial appraisal.