Even after growing up in an urban Probashi Bengali culture, I remember each year in the autumn month of Ashwin (September-October) I have woken up to Birendra Krishsna Bhadra’s Mahalaya (মহালয়া) symphony, the prelude to Bengal’s 10-day puja fiesta. The days followed were engulfed with the rhythmic sound of the dhak welcoming Goddess Durga, till the last day of immersion.
The dhak is one of the oldest percussion instruments of Bengal, and has a 500 year old tradition. It finds its place even in various Bengali works of literature, and has been an integral part of various cultural and social occasions. The change of times saw a steady decline of the instrument and further got pushed to infrequent occasions in rural areas; to major Bengali Pooja festivals, predominantly Durga Pooja.
For centuries playing the dhak has been a long drawn traditional preserve of men. The age old art is a lineage-based-male-dominated profession due to the heavy weight of the dhaks. In 2010, a group of women from Machlandapur in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal stepped up to break the glass ceiling and gave the dhak a new life by picking up the ‘male’ bastion lead by one of the leading dhakis of West Bengal, Shri Gokul Chandra Das; and then began a trailblazing journey. The women artists proved themselves to be no less than their male counterparts, and took equal responsibility to revive the musical art.
The dhak playing tradition dates back to the 17th century, when the barrel shaped instruments were used by dhakis during festivals, processions, etc. The dhakis usually hail from the outskirts of Bengal, are predominantly farmers, masons, who play the percussion instrument wearing dhotis and the traditional phatua (short kurta) to earn surplus money. Since the dhak is an age old percussion instrument, its sound of the dhak relies a lot on its shape; the outer portion of the wood is shaved off and carved to create the barrel shaped instrument, while the inner side is hollow. The stretching and lacing are important factors in the kind of sound will produced. The more the strings on the side of the dhak are pulled the higher the pitch of the dhak gets. Similar to drums, dhak also use two sticks which are used to beat it; which are chiseled from the thin cane or bamboo. Hence, it requires at least a month to perfect the making of the percussion instrument.
The dhakis create a spectacular transformation for five days and fill the air with the ambience of celebration and adulation of worship. The public realm seems personal with communities coming together and enjoying with the rhythm and frenzied beats of Dhak embellished with white or multi-coloured feathers or the tradition Kas phool (grass).
“The Dhak is made from the trunk of a mango tree, with big wooden shells and two parchment heads tightened by leather strap. It’s predominantly played by male drummers (called Dhaakis) with two wooden sticks beating one side, by either resting the drum on the ground on the other head, or by hanging it from the shoulder with a strap.” (Nanda & Sil, Joy Dhak: An Ecstasy with Dhak; 2019)
A famous dhak maker of Bengal Shri Satish Chandra Das says that a good quality and sounding dhak can only be made through manual process and human imaginations, not through technological developments:
The Drummer Girls: Breaking Stereotypes
One of the girls said, “People in our society who look at us and say, “How will you play the dhak? Who will look after the household/children if you also move out?” But we had a passion to play the dhak, and contribute to our family financially as well. Once we picked up the percussion instrument and began our journey, there has been only praises and accolades, and no looking back from thereon.”
The beats of the dhak have been visually masculine for most Bengalis; but in 2010 Uma Das and her troupe of five women moved to the dais hanging the jute strap of the hefty dhak around their neck. The pioneering change was guided by Shri Gokul Chandra Das, one of the most prominent dhakis of Bengal, hailing from a family of Dhakis from a small village of Bidhanpally in Maslandapur, West Bengal; playing the percussion instrument for generations. Shri Gokul Chandra Das, with his unique touch of creativity has been able to bring forth the treasured art to the world, and has received the most prominent international recognition when he performed at the famous Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in 2009 as the first Dhaki in history, as part of the Ravi Shankar Centre Ensemble.
Shri Gokul Chandra has performed around the world, but doesn’t mince to bring to light the dark fables of caste-ism and authority that are used to shun the dhakis away as they aren’t treated at par with other music practitioners (the latter usually come from elite backgrounds).
Das says that artists have one caste, and i.e., art, further debunking all other divisions of the society. He further went on to debunk another societal categorization of the dhak being a male pursuit. He was inspired from his journey to a Puja pandal in the United States of America, which led him to embark on a journey of an all-woman dhaki troupe; with the light of change and hope starting from his own home.
The boisterous spirit and deafening sound of the dhak tends to bring diverse communities together. But the year 2020 created a void for them – socially and financially. The lineage based art is on its edge, especially due to the grave times of Covid-19, with the passing on of uncertainty, economic crisis, and a pandemic.
Centre for Social Research, Kaahon and Bhairavi Sabhaa with Ketto as our fundraising partner organised a 2-day virtual fundraising event, “Sharod Shomman” during the Durga Pooja of 2020. It was our collective effort to support the girls who picked up the bastion and smashed patriarchy and the pandemic with their music.
Hope is arguably the most powerful, and the drummer girls are proof. Their trailblazing spirit enables them to fighting all odds of society, and to keep alive the musical lineage as well as their passion.
Watch the whole virtual event: