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Mahalaya, ‘Mahishasur Mardini’ and the Inexplicable Charm of Waking Up at 4 am

At the outset, it may seem odd. A two-hour-long radio programme, in the wee hours of morning, that unites Bengalis all over the world. Yet, that has been a tradition for over 85 years now.

AT THE outset, it may seem odd. A two-hour-long radio programme, in the wee hours of morning, that unites Bengalis all over the world. Yet, that has been a tradition for over 85 years now. It signals the beginning of the biggest cultural carnival, which sees streets, buildings and people deck up in their festive best — Durga Puja. It’s the signal for homecoming, and a city coming to life. 

At 4 am in the morning of Mahalaya, it’s customary to hear Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice wafting out of homes and filling the air with the festive spirit. 

Having been born in a time where the internet hadn’t made so much inroads, my childhood still saw the black radios being an integral part of daily life. On the morning of Mahalaya, I’d be woken up, and with sleepy eyes, I’d listen to sanskrit verses that made very little sense to me as a child. But, I liked the breakfast that would follow, so would stay up nonetheless. As the years passed by, dad explained what the verses meant. 

The programme, interspersed with songs, is dedicated to the glory of Goddess Durga. It tells her story, her coming to life, her fight with the demons and the victory over Mahishasur. 

The programme, Mahishasur Mardini, started on Akashvani in 1932. It was originally a show that was a live performance till 1966. 

Talking about the soul-stirring impact of the radio show, Shikha Mukherjee writes in The Wire, “Those who helped to produce it retain the fondest memories of waking up soon after midnight, getting dressed in dhotis and white saris with red borders, being picked up and then plunging into a performance that stirred them and the soul of Bengal…There was only one year when it was not broadcast live during the first three decades; that was in 1946, when Kolkata was made unsafe by the unprecedented scale of communal violence. After 1966, it is a recorded programme that goes on air and galvanises the Bengali into celebration.”

The artists in front of Akashbani’s office. (Photo: Facebook/pinakpanib)

There was an attempt to recreate it, but that didn’t go down too well. Once AIR decided to experiment and replace Bhadra’s version of ‘Chandipath‘ with one narrated by a famous Bengali actor, Uttam Kumar.

According to AIR radio presenter Ratna Sen, in a 2008 report, this experiment caused quite a stir among the Mahalaya patrons. As a result, Akashvani Bhavan faced a lot of flak, demanding the return of Bhadra’s show.

After Akashvani sold the copyrights to the show, Mahishashur Mardini, it can now be found on Youtube, on CDs and on Spotify. 

Now, at 26, it’s been four years since I moved out of home. The radio has been replaced by Youtube, Dad’s wake up call with my own Alexa-controlled alarm, but pujo feels incomplete without hearing the “ashiner sharot praate” recited by Bhadra.

I’ve often tried to decode its charm, but failed. 

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Is it the earnestness of the singers and the recitation of the original show? There is a part my father would always point out to me, where Bhadra breaks down mid-recitation. The songs, which blare loudly from speakers in pandals everywhere, still have their own earnestness in simplicity. 

Pujo feels incomplete without hearing the “ashiner sharot praate” recited by Bhadra. 

Does the charm lie in holding on tight to traditions, relishing the moments where I can successfully recreate home in a foreign land?

Or is it just the countdown to an excuse to let loose for four days. 

I’d never be able to pick. 

The show is the harbinger of the Pujo. The start to the best week of the year. The time to go back home. 

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