It’s autumn — the most colourful, cheerful and vibrant season in Bengal. The rain has almost stopped and the sun is bright. The air is thick with the splendor of shuili and lotus. The crystal blue skies, the pleasant breeze, kaash phhol and the beats of dhak — the signs are clear that Maa Durga is arriving. And we are slowly sinking into a lazy holiday mood.
Durga is coming to meet her parents after a year and she is going to stay here for five days. Preparations for ushering in Maa are on at a brisk pace. The artisans and clay-modellers at Kumortuli are almost through with putting the last minute touches to their works of art. The sound of conch has already started resonating in our ears. It’s just a few days more. Maa has almost arrived and the celebrations have begun. The dhakis have started coming to the city from the outskirts, the pujo shankha songs are playing in every house, and the puja committees are busy making last minute preparations for the much-awaited para jalshas.
Puja, undoubtedly, is a lot about music — the beats of dhak, pujor gaan playing on loudspeakers, conch blowing, the agamani sangeet and the para jalsha. Music is synonymous with Durga puja celebrations much like new clothes, bhog and Ashtamir anjali. Music still is and will always a way of celebrating, only that it has changed over the years. And probably, it will change more in the days to come.
The festive mood starts building up with dhakis from the countryside arriving to the city with their feathered drums. The sound of the dhak is perhaps the first thing that makes us believe that puja is approaching. The mood builds up with its enchanting beats, more like an annual ritual. For the dhakis, it’s more than an annual ritual. It’s an annual earning, that earns them a substantial part of their livelihood. They are roped in right from the railways stations, as they set foor in the city. It’s a day they wait for every year. Today, the dhakis have shrunk in number. Most of them have turned to other forms of earning and many who turn up are mere novices. The beats of dhak will probably never detach itself from the puja but the sounds have definitely changed.
Over the last few years the puja committees have been gripped by the theme puja fever. Everything about puja has changed but probably nothing has changed more than the music itself. There was a time when dhakis attained almost celebrity status on the five days of puja. There would be competitions among organizing committees as who would hire the maximum number of dhakis. Dhak-playing competitions were an integral part of the puja. The devotees relished dancing to the dhak beats as much as the dhakis themselves did beating their drums. The roar of a lion, the trumpet of an elephant, the laughter of a child, a bomb explosion, were the sounds that a master dhaki would bring out from his drum. That would take years of practice for a dhaki. Playing the dhak was an art in itself and the dhakis were stars in their own rights, who would come to town from Purulia, Singhbhum and Manbhum only for the lure of a new pair of dhoti, banyan, gamcha and a small amount of money.
The days have changed long ago. The puja committees have becomes more professional, and the dhakis are mere novices. In the last 50 years, the hiring of dhakis has fallen from thousands to hundreds. Budgets have increased but the investment is more on pandals and idols.
But it isn’t just the sweet melody of the dhaks that is slowly fading. Agamani sangeet too has almost disappeared. Agamani means the coming of the goddess from the Himalaya, which starts with Mahalaya. Many of our poets were inspired to pen delightful pieces on this poignant theme — the homecoming of a loving daughter. This happiness around her homecoming coupled with the thought that she would return to her husband’s home after five days was poignantly reflected in these soulful renditions sung with utmost devotion by these set of Agamani singers. Till the early 1990s, these separate set of singers from Birbhum would come to town, sing special songs in front of the deities, and would become almost a part of the family for five days.
These songs were especially composed for the occasion. It was more like a tradition and an annual ritual of spreading the message of Durga Puja to the rural folk. This clan, which even inspired the revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam to write Agamani songs, disappeared in the 1990s. Agamani sangeet is played from the day of Mahalaya. It was a unique way of expressing their sheer joy on the eve of the festival. Today, one finds CDs of their music. Though the songs remain, the singers have changed. It is city-based singers who are now known for their Agamani albums.
For the present generation, Agamani songs are almost a thing of the past. No doubt, the society is changing but the mentality of the people is changing even faster. And with that probably the Agamani singers too are changing. The successors of Agamani singers and bauls are perhaps no more interested in carrying forward the legacy. The numbers of these singers have dwindled over the years and the newcomers are just not interested in venturing into the profession anymore.
A change is always welcome but probably things are changing a shade faster than one had expected. The charm about the puja still exists but the flavor has changed completely. The music exists but the rhythm has certainly changed. At one time the average Bengali used to look forward to albums launched during puja. Who can forget the serpentine queues in front of the music store Melody at Esplanade? The mad rush for the latest releases and the possibility that the store would run out of stocks was something that made music lovers quieue up from early morning to get hold Hemanta Mukherjee, Sandhya Mukherjee, Manabendra Mukhopadhyay’s puja shankhar gaan. Today, the queses are shorter, almost disappearing, and the albums aren’t targeted at Puja buyers.
Sharod Arghya, a handbook of the latest Puja releases published and released by the then HMV Gramaphone Company, was a must at almost every household till the late 1980s. Puja was that time of the year when maximum number of records was released. And much like new clothes and food, there was a budget allotted for buying puja shankhar album. There were two occasions when the artistes would try and come out with their best works. The first was Poila Boishakh and the other during puja. But certainly Durga Puja gave a bigger market to the artistes. Hemanta’s voice boosted the image of a pandal, Nirmala Mishra’s voice added colour to a family’s celebration and Manabendra’s voice emanated from loudspeakers.
In the era when cassettes didn’t exist and records were the only means of entertainment, puja witnessed the release of vinyl discs in three different phases. The first phase comprised releases by industry stars like Hemanta Mukherjee, Sandhya Mukherjee, Shyamal Mitra and Manabendra Mukhopadhyay among others. The next phase comprised the second rung of artistes who would work throughout the year to carve a niche during the pujas. The last phase comprised Bollywood Bengalis like Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, Sachin Dev Burman and Rahul Dev Burman, who would also save their best for the occasion.
Puja shankhar albums are now a thing of the past. Though a few music companies are once trying to revive things, it seems the void that was created a few years ago has slowed down the process. Today, singers like Shaan, Shreya Ghoshal, Lopamudra Mitra, Rupankar Bagchi and Nipabithi Ghosh are coming up with albums, ably supported by the respective music companies, but probably the interest level among the fans has declined.
It is perhaps because the music that is played at the pandals too has changed. Earlier, most albums would reflect the mood of Sarodutsav. Modern Bengali songs with a devotional touch were what music lovers desired. The voices of Hemanta, Manabendra, Shyamal and Sandhya with the lyrics of Pulak Bandopadhyay and music of Nachiketa Ghosh were favoured at pandals. The busiest singers made it a point to give their best during the puja.
But there has been a paradigm shift both in the quality and the number of songs. The devotion is missing in the lyrics as well as in the music. New-age music has taken over the typical puja gaan. The mindset of the singers too has changed a lot. CDs are released round the year and puja has become just another occasion, thus killing the exclusivity of puja albums. The songs no longer reflect the mood of the season or the occasion and the focus is lost. Anything that comes out of the recording studio is packaged as puja album.
To a great extent technology too has to share the blame. In the days of LPs, fewer songs could be recorded. With CDs, a minimum of eight tracks have to be recorded, which in a way puts more pressure on the singer, songwriter and the music composer, thus hampering the quality. And the audience loses the gems in the chaff.
That is perhaps one of the reasons the pandals too have decided to go back and follow the old habit. Perturbed with the new-age music, they have gone back to playing puja songs from the 1970s and early 80s. Hemanta and Manabendra are dead and long gone but their pujor gaan are still being played at pandals. The organizing committees are slowly realising that they must hold on to the tradition.
Star singers from Tollywood and Bollywood performing at para pandals have always been a major point of attraction during the pujas. Who can forget Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar performing live for an unknown club like Milan SDamity or United Club or Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and Sandhya Mukhopadhyay rendering songs in front of 2,000 people on an open field? This was what para jalsha meant till the early 1990s. The puja mad Bengalis would most of the time keep track of who was going to perform where.. It was almost like a status symbol for clubs roping in the biggest names. Para functions still exist. The Ashtami and nabami nights are equally big for the Puja committees but there has been a drastic change in the profile of the artistes. Big names are seldom heard performing live. Quite a few clubs have found replacements in Bengali bands. They are biggers draws and the audience like it that way.
No one is to be blamed. No one knows if the change is for good. But few things will always be missed, if not in totality, at least partially. Music will exist but the sounds will be different.