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2021 Mahalaya Live
Uttam Kumar replaces Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice in the highly popular programme ‘Mahisasuramardini’ as part of a historic decision taken by Akashvani radio in 1976.
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The Bengali identity is far more complicated than what meets the eye. Once you slowly peel off layers of intellectual snobbery, passionate gluttony, perseverance for procrastination and long afternoon naps, you reveal the inherent Bengali need for celebration and joy at all times.
This rings especially true in a common Bengali saying – “Bangalir baro mashe tero porbon” (Bengalis celebrate 13 festivals in 12 months!). From food, sleep, books, cinema, art, politics to mythical figures, everything is a metaphor for the joy they seek within and beyond.
That is why, ‘Durga Pujo’ is not another religious festival for them, but officially the biggest and grandest display of that emotion of joy, one which began just a few days ago, on September 17 with the much-anticipated Mahalaya.
A day celebrated to usher the Devi Paksha lunar phase of the Hindu calendar, it represents Agomoni (a warm welcome to the mother). According to folklore and mythology, this is when Goddess Durga and her children begin their journey from Mount Kailash to her maternal home on the plains, boarding a vehicle of her choice – the palanquin, boat, a horse or an elephant.
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On the eve of Mahalaya, almost every Bengali household makes preparations for the radio programme scheduled to start the next day in the chilly pre-dawn hours.
At the stroke of 4 am, the bellowing sound of a conch shell echoes from the radio. This marks the beginning of the popular ‘Chandipath‘ on All India Radio (AIR). It is then followed by the rising notes of a chorus chanting Sanskrit shlokas.
And then comes the treat, the striking baritone voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra piercing through the harmonies of classical singers to begin the recitation that describes the epic battle between Goddess Durga and the demon king Mahishasura.
The 89-minute long audio montage first started as a live-performance in 1931, with an orchestra and chorus clad in white dhotis and red-bordered white sarees. However, since 1966, AIR has been broadcasting the pre-recorded version of the show every year on Mahalaya.
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Scripted by Bani Kumar and with music composed by Pankaj Mullick, the programme is a combination of devotional songs, classical music, acoustic melodrama, traditional instrumentals and Sanskrit shlokas.
But, it is the sonorous narration by Bhadra that sets it apart from anything that came before or after. Even after 89 years, it is this version that has managed to singularly captivate the audience, both old and new, religious, spiritual or otherwise.
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An interesting testimony to this can be found the year 1976 when AIR decided to experiment and replace Bhadra’s version of ‘Chandipath‘ with the one narrated by a famous Bengali actor and icon, Uttam Kumar and called the show, ‘Durga Durgatiharini‘.
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According to AIR radio presenter Ratna Sen, in a 2008 report, this experiment caused a jolt among the Mahalaya patrons. As a result, Akashvani Bhavan faced a lot of flak and outrage, demanding the return of Bhadra’s show to the airways.
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On the day of Mahalaya, one narrates the tale of the victory of good over evil with Goddess Durga defeating the buffalo-headed demon king, Mahishasura. Although this strong message presented in the unique voice of Bhadra bagged much-deserved appreciation from the very beginning, the journey to this recognition was not devoid of challenges.