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Dhakis (Indian Percussion artists): It’s survival of fittest.


The pulsating beats of the Dhak (Musical Instrument) mark the arrival of Durga with her progeny of Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Kartikeya. For Dhakis (Drummers), it’s a yearly service to Maa Durga for without the drums being beaten how can the pujas be complete? Yes, it is only around this time of the year that the dhaki, Bengal’s traditional drummer, can hope to be heard in the full glory of his art form. Mostly Dhakis perform in pandals of community pujas but are most prominent during Durga puja across India. The dhakis add to the grandeur of puja and they bring out the true essence.

Indeed, these dhakis are an integral part of the Durga Puja and kali puja festivities that hold the region in thrall, however, falls silent the rest of the year. Due to periodic demand and the meagre earnings often force the dhaki to work as farm labour, goldsmith, or even rickshaw puller to make ends meet. In fact, the importance of dhaki is such that the priest waits for the drum beats to cease before he begins his prayer ritual and after it is over, the girls take over the scene as they dance with dhunchis or incense containers in ecstasy, the drum beats egging them on to dance more vigorously.

Dilip Das, a traditional dhaki (drummer) from Bankura district of West Bengal invited to play dhakis at Barisha Sporting Club in Kolkata, said, the dhak is a barrel drum made from mango wood, and the drum membrane is made from buffalo hide and goatskin and is played using bamboo sticks. The tradition and nuances of playing the instrument are handed down from generation to generation, but the old rhythms are undergoing changes with faster beats. In the earlier part of the 70 and 80s, beats were used for specific aspects of Durga Puja, as for example Chokhhu daan ( Eye presentation), patha bali (goat sacrifice), Sandhya arati ( evening offerings), sandhya puja (worshiping at the conjunction of two phases) bisarjan ( immersion ceremony), and so on.

Explaining the intricacies of playing Dhak, Das said, to become a mature dhaki player, you need to take at least six months of training from a guru. So, many young dhakis nowadays are moving towards modern rhythms. It is sad but true that playing dhak is now being referred to as a dying profession. Nevertheless, those who retain old contacts are the lucky ones otherwise many are facing a decline and some are moving away from the traditional profession.

Dhakis (Indian Percussion artists)It’s survival of fittest. 1

Echoing similar views with a tinge of regret, Karthik Chandra, another dhaki from the Nottapara ( locality of dhakis) in the Ashoknagar Kalyangarh area of North 24 paraganas district of West Bengal, said, with change in times, the growing trend of using recorded music has added to their woes. In the past, we were treated like any other artist. Now we became just another component of the puja paraphernalia, who are supposed to perform on those days.”

The importance of dhakis has diminished and lost out to technology. Also, the lack of opportunities and remuneration has discouraged traditional players, especially the younger ones, from pursuing this art. Yet, he said, the roll of the drums always has a message conveyed by the dhakis. Also, when the puja is going on, the drums beat the welcoming tune of agman (arrival), interspersed with the plea that Durga would stay on longer. On Vijaya dashmi, after the women have finished with the revelry of sindur-khela or dabbing each other with vermilion as a farewell to the departing Goddess, (just like the teary-eyed daughter going back to her in-law’s place) the dhakis go with the procession for immersion to the river banks with beating the drums till the image sank in the water to cries of “Durga Mai Ki Jai.”

Once the bisarjan is over, they catch the train back to Kolkata and thence to their villages, where eager families await them. Whatever money earned in the festive period, dhakis take gifts for each family member, starting with the oldest to the youngest and a surprise one for the good wives who waited patiently for the return of their husbands, missing from home at festival time.

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