The autumn celebration of Durga Puja in Eastern India specially Bengal is incomplete without the rhythm of the “Dhak” or the traditional Indian Drum. As a child, I would race to the neighbourhood pandal often barefoot at the the sound beat of the Dhak ushering in the festive spirit. Dhak is integral to Durga Puja or the worship of the mother goddess as the Dhaki conjures different beats during different aspects of the Puja (Arati, Sandhi Puja, Bisarjan). They arrive from the rural areas of Bengal in the central station compound (Sealdah) a day prior to the festival waiting to be requisitioned by puja organizers. Some of them are full of life, filling the waiting time with their art while some wait with worried faces wondering whether they will find work.
While I stood mesmerised watching Goddess Durga being worshiped with melodious chants, beautiful flowers and incense at the beat of the Dhak, the child in me wanted to break into an impromptu jig. I looked at the “Dhaki” or Drummer with gratitude for connecting me to the divine during the prayer. Without the Dhaki around the festive spirit would be bland and incomplete but they are often paid a paltry amount and rarely receive the honour that they deserve. Some organizers use recorded music to to avoid paying the Dhaki and reduce cost. In my opinion, a live performance of an art form to create an ambience to connect with the divine cannot be replaced with technology prowess.
What is a Dhak?
The Dhak is a percussion instrument whose barrel like body is made of mango wood and covered on two ends with cow hide or goat skin. Like the art of making a Dhak, the nuances of playing the “Dhak” is also transferred from one generation to another of the “Dhaki”. With changing times and preferences the rhythm of the Dhak is now fast paced which requires a lot of energy, movement and dancing. It is no mean task to hang that heavy drum around the neck and create that divine ambience and more often than not, I have found them in a trance, connected to the divine who plays out the beats through them. The innocent faces of the little ones who accompany a father, an uncle or an older brother tell a story, a desire to take up this art form accompanied with the fear of an uncertain future. The limited and seasonal demand for Dhakis, forces them to work as farm labour or engage in other menial work during other times.
Save the Dhaki
The government and a few corporate houses (Cycle Pure) and music maestros like Bikram Ghosh and Subhen Chatterjee are trying to work out schemes to keep this art form alive by supporting some of the drummers to hone their skills, train others, spread awareness but a lot remains to be done. Actually, in a country like India rooted in tradition, age old art forms that have been passed on through generations are on the border of vanishing into history due to paucity of funds and uncertain future. There is much to be done and preserved and any step in that direction is more than welcome.
If you would like to know about their life – check out the documentary “Divine Drums” and to hear them play check out the You Tube Video