Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bengali beats

Two drummers from West Bengal played the traditional dhak during the Durga Puja celebrations in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

“This is the third time we are coming to Kochi,” says Manu Ruhi Das, 38, the drummer of the dhak. He is smoking a beedi and sitting on a red plastic chair in the Rabindra Bhavan hall in Gandhi Nagar. “I enjoy coming to Kerala. It is more beautiful than West Bengal. There are so many hills and paddy fields.” Das says he likes the Malayalis because they behave politely and dress well.

Das is part of a two-member team of drummers, called dhaakis in Bengali, who had come to provide music for the Durga Puja celebrations of the Keral Banga Samskriti Sangha. When they play on the dhak, it has a hypnotic effect, akin to listening to your heart-beat: thud, thud, thud, the beat goes. Das uses two bamboo sticks, one thin and one thick, and usually hits the bottom of the drum. In front of Puja pandals in West Bengal, the dhak is usually played in synchronisation with the kanshor gonta (a metallic bell).

The dhak has a long history in West Bengal. “Before the advent of newspapers, television and the radio, messengers of the rulers would bring people to the village square through the beating of the dhak,” says teacher Mahasweta Purkayastha. “When people heard the dhak, they knew that news of some kind was about to be announced.”

Today, the dhak plays a vital role during the Puja celebrations, especially that of Durga Puja. “Just like the kottu music in temples in Kerala, our Puja is incomplete without the sound of the dhak,” says Mahasweta.

Das lives in a village near the town of Uluberia in West Bengal. His family has been drummers for generations. “I have been playing for the past 25 years,” he says. “Both my grandfather and father have been drummers. In our family, only I have the talent. The rest have gone into other professions.”

Das, who is married, has a four-year-old son, Jayanto. So, will he encourage his son to play the dhak? “If Jayanto has an in-born skill, I will encourage him, otherwise no,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Back home, Das survives through a freelance career. People hire him for marriages, pujas and club functions. Usually, Das plays in the nearby towns of Fuleswar, Chengal, Bauria, Bagnan and Bauria. “We get paid between Rs 400 to Rs 700 a day,” he says. “My monthly income is about Rs 4000 a month.” To supplement his income, he grows paddy on a small patch of land near his home.

“For the assignment in Kochi, the drummers were paid Rs 7000, while the expenses for train fare, food and accommodation were borne by the Keral Banga Samskriti Sangh,” says Ajoy Sen, general secretary. And in a sweet touch, Mahesweta had provided the drummers with the mundu, to wear for the celebrations.

So, does Das rue the missed chance of enjoying the pujas in West Bengal? “Not at all,” he says. “This is our work. If we take it easy during the Pujas, then we cannot survive in this profession.” Although there are thousands of dhak bands in West Bengal, the number of pujas have increased so much that there is now a shortage of drummers. “There is no shortage of work,” says Das. “I am working 200 days a year. And I love it. After all, not many people in India can earn their living by playing music.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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