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Mesmeric Mahalaya on Air for 90 Years

Mesmeric Mahalaya on Air for 90 Years

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Mahalaya collage

An invariable part of the joyful advent of Durga Puja in Bengali homes is the sonorous voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the composition of Pankaj Mullick and others that still brings the unforgettable Mahisasura Mardni alive

Visualise this … Hemant Mukhopadhyay, Manna De, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Uttam Kumar and a host of other stalwarts coming together and lending their voices and musical skills to a single cause.

Add to that a guaranteed audience of an entire state, and many other places around the world, who would eagerly lose their sleep to hear what the maestros offer at a pre designated date and time … “A sure shot recipe for success!”

Yet tradition, culture and emotions have their own sways…But more on that later…

 Maha-Alaya (The Great Abode)

Mahalaya… the Day Goddess Durga descends every year on earth, her abode, is eagerly awaited by her devotees, and I am no exception.

At different stages of my life, Mahalaya assumed different meanings, but the common thread always remained the same, irrespective of the year, calendar month or the day it arrived.

The morning, rather early dawn, felt and smelled the same always: fragrant, with the first blossoms of the pristine white shiuli (Shefali) flower with its almost fluorescent orange stem; pious and soothing.

This invariably marked the advent and countdown to the most awaited festival of us… Durga Puja.

As a child, Mahalaya was more about being woken up before dawn, at times by parents, and at times by the radio playing.

The major excitement, however, was getting to be with my friends in the early morning outside the quarters, with grandmothers plucking flowers from each other’s gardens and sharing them, the radio in the background playing the same thing at the same time, giving a huge Dolby echo effect.

The shiuli flowers looked like a white carpet beneath the tree, and like a blanket upon it .The caterpillars have a special liking for this tree, waiting for their turn to metamorphose into another colourful gift of nature.

However, there was a manmade gift I used to look forward to on that day (Still do): ‘Jilipi ‘, or what north Indians call jalebi. And I always wondered… why can’t they make it like that any other time of the year? That taste always felt special and different, starting from Mahalaya up to Dashami… irrespective of the vendor!

Mahalaya also marks the end of Pitri Paksha, a day whose significance I understood after my Bapi(father) left for his heavenly abode.

On this day, I visit Sukreswar Ghat, thronged by many others, and offer my homage to my ancestors clad in a dhoti, going through the rituals …

Over the years, I began to comprehend the euphoria and connect, deriving a different meaning every time surrounding the programme that has been playing on the radio at pre-dawn, initially live and later pre-recorded on the occasion of Mahalaya since 1931.

There was an unprecedented backlash … that morning people across Bengal were in a rage. Uttam Kumar lost all the humungous love he had from his enormous fan club. And there were instances of people destroying their radio sets, vowing never again to listen to All India Radio, Calcutta

Change is The Only Constant!

Mahishasur Mardini, based on the scripture Chandi, invokes Goddess Durga and describes her mahima or immense powers and benevolence. The Chandi recital, by the one and only Birendra Krishna Bhadra, is interspersed with songs and a dramatic narrative of how Durga slays Demon King Mahisasura.

In 1976, a new director at All India Radio Calcutta, decided that the Mahayala radio programme needed to be reinvented and infused with a new life.

So most of the stalwarts of the era, as was mentioned at the beginning of the story, were brought together to contemporise and revamp the programme and give a new voice and composition to the broadcast that had been going on constantly for 55 years.

Instead of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, Uttam Kumar was to take the lead role as the narrator.

The followers of the broadcast were to wake up to a new dawn on the Mahalaya Day. And with the pedigree of talent and genius involved in the event, history was waiting to be created.

And history it did create!

There was an unprecedented backlash… people across Bengal were in a rage. Uttam Kumar lost the humungous love he had from his enormous fan club. And there were instances of people destroying their radio sets, vowing never again to listen to All India Radio Calcutta.

In fact, there is a film called Mahalaya, which shows all this in graphic detail.

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Such was the magnitude of the outrage that All India Radio had to issue a public apology and had to restore the earlier version, “Mahisasura Mardini”.

So back on the air waves, every Mahayala dawn is the 1931 version, with the mesmerizing Chandi narration by Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the deep, resonant voice of Dwijen Mukhopadhyay singing “Jago, Tumi Jago, Jago Durga, Jago Dashaprohorono Dharini…”Awake, Oh Mother Durga, The Saviour of the World”!

There are certain feelings and emotions in this world which cannot be put into words… this being one!

It is 90 years now… making it the longest running radio program anywhere in the world, the popularity of which surpasses the various other programes on Mahalaya that have of late been televised.

With the advent of technology, now it can also be heard at any time with the help of various devices and apps.

However, the rendition evokes the euphoria, like no other, only on the day of Mahalaya, not a day earlier, not a day later… in the wee hours of the morning.




P.S: On 2020, Mahalaya was celebrated on 17thSeptember, more than a month before the festivities of Durga Puja. Normally, Durga Puja celebration begins seven days after Mahalaya. But last year, however, this particular period was termed a malamash, a peculiar month in which there are two new moon events, making it inauspicious.

Also read: Lord Ganesh: The Unspoken Eastern Origin

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