Bengal dhakis beat back tough times

Shobha Roy | Updated on October 10, 2013

Rhythm divine: Dhakis interact with tabla maestro Subhen Chatterjee during a competition at a puja pandal in Kolkata

Haro Bayen

Toton Das

It is only around this time of the year that the dhaki, Bengal’s traditional drummer, can hope to be heard in the fully glory of his art form. An integral part of the Durga and Kali Puja festivities that hold the region in thrall during October and November, and the Vishwakarma Puja preceding them in September, the dakh, however, falls silent the rest of the year.

The seasonal demand and the limited earnings often force the dhaki to work as farm labour, goldsmith or even rickshaw puller to make ends meet.

So when 28-year-old dhaki Haro Bayen, from Birbhum district of West Bengal, got to perform with Kolkata-based tabla maestro Subhen Chatterjee’s fusion band, it was a unique and extra-special opportunity for this fourth-generation percussion artist.

“I have performed at many big puja pandals in Kolkata, but it was a totally different feeling to perform with Guruji (Subhen Chatterjee). I could have never in my dreams thought such a day would ever come in my life,” says an elated Bayen, as he prepares to perform live with the band during Durga Puja this year.

Toton Das, a 25-year-old dhaki from Murshidabad, has a similar story to share. A fifth-generation player in his dhaki family, Das is currently training under another leading Kolkata-based table maestro, Pandit Mallar Ghosh.

He and Bayen are among several dhakis selected by Mysore-based incense stick manufacturer Cycle Pure Agarbathies to train under leading percussionists.

Languishing Art

“Unlike in South India, where drummers and other traditional artists get ample opportunities throughout the year to perform in temples or other festivals, artists in the east do not have much scope and have to shift to other avenues to earn money once the Puja is over,” explains Subhen Chatterjee.

The growing trend of using recorded music has added to their woes. “Earlier, the dhak was compulsorily played even during Vishwakarma Puja and Kali Puja, apart from Durga Puja. However, now most pandals opt for recorded music for Vishwakarma and Kali pujas due to budgetary constraints. Durga Puja, which has been receiving steady corporate support, however manages to get dhakis,” says Goutam Mukherjee, an organising committee member of the Ekdalia Evergreen Club Durga Puja in South Kolkata.

The lack of opportunities and remuneration has discouraged traditional players, especially the younger ones, from pursuing this art.

“Young people are preferred for playing the dhak as it requires a lot of energy and also calls for a lot of movement and dancing. But there has been a shortage of young dhakis and those who are available charge exorbitant rates. This has discouraged some pandals from hiring them,” says Rajarshi Lahiri, an organising committee member of Keyatala Pally Samity.

Budgetary constraints had forced his organisation to settle for a taasa party or kurkure (smaller versions of dhak). “While a traditional dhaki would cost around Rs 20,000-25,000 for four days, the taasa party charges much less,” he says.

In an attempt to preserve and nurture this heritage art form, the State’s Backward Classes Welfare Department had in 2012 planned to rope in nearly 400 dhakis to announce government programmes through the beating of drums in Block/Municipal jurisdictions. It planned to pay Rs 2,000 for a ten-day assignment each month. However, nothing has been heard about this scheme since.

The dhakis’ hopes currently rest on the demand for big-budget themed pujas backed by corporate spending.

Dhakis add to the grandeur of a puja and they bring out the true essence. Corporate involvement by way of organising competitions and giving out prize money has gone a long way in encouraging dhakis to take up the art more seriously. The dhaki’s fee has been increasing by nearly 20 per cent a year in recent times,” says Amitava Ray, an organising committee member of Hatibagan Nabin Pally in North Kolkata.

Cycle Pure, through its sub-brand Rhythm, had conceptualised the ‘Rhythm Dhaker Ladai’ competition about nine years ago. “In our 10th year now, we have come out with a fusion music album of dhak and other percussion instruments titled Rhythm Dhaker Ladai — Shrestho Dhak Sankalan. It features performances by Mallar Ghosh and Subhen Chatterjee together with their Rhythm scholar dhakis Toton Das and Haro Bayen,” says Arjun Ranga, Managing Partner of Cycle Pure. These scholars and their teams are, in turn, training other dhakis in the State.

While Nokia organised a dhaki competition about three years ago, Aircel launched its ‘Limitless Dhaki with Celebrities’ programme in 2012 at which over 100 dhakis played together with celebrities at select pandals.

“The intention was to put people in touch with their roots again,” says Sanjeev Garg, Aircel Business Head – Kolkata and Rest of West Bengal.

Scaling up

According to Mallar Ghosh, the tonal quality of the dhak and its rhythmic patterns are very distinct from other percussion instruments.

“It enriches the overall experience of performance. My father, Gyanprakash Ghosh, had initiated a research involving dhakis about 20 years ago but it remained incomplete after his death. I wish to continue that effort with more dhakis in my band,” he says.

It is only when the dhak is recognised as a percussion instrument on par with the tabla or khol will its players get proper remuneration, he adds.

Cycle Pure now wants to work with schools to revive the art form. “We have roped in maestros like Mallar Ghosh and Ajoy Chakraborty to see how we can take this initiative to schools. To begin with we have identified 10 schools for weekly programmes or classes by celebrity percussionists to encourage fresh talent,” adds Ranga.

Published on October 10, 2013

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