Durga Puja is not complete without the beat of the dhak. Meet the dhakis, traditional drummers from Kolkata, who come to the city to liven up the festivities
They aren't your average DJs. They've been around for ages, even before disc jockeys gained popularity. A far cry from the snazzy men who spin vinyl, yet they manage to make people dance to their acoustic tunes. These are the dhakis, the traditional drummers from Bengal, who play the dhak during pujas. No festival, especially Durga Puja, is complete without the booming yet soothing sound of the dhak. In fact, most of the festivals of Bengal are synonymous with the sound of this percussion instrument.
To understand the full impact, ask a Bengali what the sound of a dhak means to him. He will sit you down and give you an elaborate explanation, if not write a poem on it. It also holds great nostalgic value for the numerous Bengalis who convene at the Bengali associations, away from their homes, in Chennai. And that's why the dhakis who come here from Kolkata every Navaratri feel special about being able to add that touch and feel of the eastern state for every homesick Bengali here.
Jagadish Das (47) and Adir Das (44) have been coming to Chennai for the last 12 years. They are a permanent fixture at the festivities at The Bengal Association in T. Nagar. “We will be playing for five days. That means by the time we go home the pujo will be over. But that's ok because we know people at this association really look forward to us,” says Jagadish. The duo plays in the morning between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. and in the evenings between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. “We like it here. The food is good, the hospitality is good, everything is good here,” agree the cheerful twosome.
However, Gopal Das (28), making his third appearance at South Madras Cultural Association, Besant Nagar, seems a little apprehensive. He has quite a task filling in his father's shoes. His father late Narayan Chandra Das performed here for 34 years and became an integral part of the annual proceedings. And, therefore, it was only natural for his son to take over. Gopal picked up the nitty-gritty of playing the instrument from Das senior. Since playing the instrument alone wouldn't help him run his family he took up a job. “I work at a shop in Kolkata as a cashier. But for the last couple of years, I have been taking leave from work and coming here to perform,” says Gopal. Not just Chennai he has also been invited to play in Nepal and Bhopal. But no matter where he goes he feels the festive spirit of the City of Joy is hard to find elsewhere. He often phones his friends to find out what's happening or watches television to see the pujo pandals of Kolkata. But all his apprehensions are put to rest once he sees people enjoying his music. “I get a good feeling. Especially on bijoyadoshomi when hundreds of people dance to the beat of my dhak, it gives me a sense of peace and I like being in the centre of things,” he grins as he straps his dhak around his shoulder and hits it with two sticks. Almost instantly people gather around him swaying, swinging and clapping. The boy is now transformed into a rock star, all ready for a long night.
Meanwhile at Dakshini, in Anna Nagar, Bishwanath and Shambhu Sinha are now taking a break after an hour of non-stop jamming. They gingerly place their instruments decorated with white feathers on a chair and bow in front of their audience. The two are here for the first time. It is a hereditary profession and they are the third generation of dhak players in their family. These men hail from Chandannagar and usually perform at the puja pandals there. This year, they have only been booked for the Jagatddhatri pujo next month and undertook this expedition to Chennai to make a little extra money. “Khoob bhaalo (very good),” they reply when asked about their experience here. They seem quite impressed with the arrangements and marvel at how disciplined and well-managed everything is here. “We play up to four hours in a day and there are different taals for different stages. For example, the arti and dhunuchi will have one beat, the bishorjon (immersion) another and sandhi pujo another,” explains Shambhu.
Bishwanath and Shambhu are now looking forward to the DJ night that Dakshini Society organises. They will get around half-an-hour to enthral the devotees with their music before the DJ starts spinning out his tracks. Sourabh Banerjee (22), Secretary of the Youth Committee, Dakshini, says, “It's not very easy to get a dhaki from Kolkata during Durga Puja. It is much easier to get a DJ. But we insist on getting them because we want to be in touch with our roots. Moreover there is something about the beats the dhaki plays. It instils warmth in you and leaves you in a state of trance.”