Be it the songs in praise of Goddess Durga or the beautiful poems and pre-recorded music, none can touch the strings of your heart as much as the sound of the beating Dhaak during Durga Pujo.
As you wake up to the sound of the rhythmic beats from your Para (neighbourhood) pandal, a sudden burst of energy unseen on other days overpower you, reminding you that the much awaited Durga Pujo celebrations have begun!
One of the most identifiable part of the Durga Puja festivities, the beating of the Dhaak, is mandatory during the worship of the Goddess, Dhunuchi Naach, Aarti in the mornings and evenings on every day of Durga Pujo. Shaped like a large barrel, the Dhaak is a wooden percussion instrument, popular mostly in South Asian countries. It functions like large double-sided drum which is played with sticks and is chiefly made from wood of mango trees, sized to be about 3 feet in length. The outer portion of the wood is shaved off and carved to form the barrel shaped instrument while the two ends (mouths) of the barrel are sealed with hide, whose stretching determines the quality of the sound produced. The two sticks used for playing each Dhaak are also carefully chiselled out from thin cane or bamboo.
Creating a Dhaak can take around two weeks, as the long process involves drying of the wood and intricate handiwork.
Dhaak is traditionally played by male drummers, called Dhaaki. This has mostly been a hitherto male preserve as the instrument (Dhaak) is heavy and has to be carried around while playing. Dhaaki usually learn about playing the drums hereditarily and carry it on like a legacy. Mostly belonging to rural areas, the drum players visit the city during the Durga Pujo festivities, stirring up the Pujo ardour with the intensity of their drumming. These days, however, some female Dhaaki are also found to take active interest in the art of Dhaak-playing, as they try reviving the art that had been losing focus with time.
To add to the rush of adrenaline that Dhaak beats can evoke, another popular tradition organised during the Durga Pujo is the ‘Dhaaker Lorai’ – literally translating to ‘a fight between Dhaak(s)’. It is said that the grandeur of Dhaak recitals comes out best when the Dhaakis play in groups, which is especially a favourite part of the Heritage Durga Pujas. The ‘Dhaaker Lorai’ involves the drum players competing against each other as a group and as they dance around playing the foot tapping beats, the music and the sight of the majestic feathered drums can be a fascinating experience for the audience.
The tradition of playing Dhaak during Durga Pujo in Bengal goes way back to the 17th Century. So popular were the presence of Dhaaki during Durga Pujo that many colonies began to develop in Bengal where the Dhaaki resided with their families. One such locality was Nattapara in the Hooghly district of West Bengal where close to 100 Dhaaki families live together. In earlier days when there were no loudspeakers, no catchy numbers like “Dhaaker Tale Komor Dole Khushite Nache Mon” or no Durga chant CDs, it was the music of the beating Dhaak that was the only sound that brought the festive mood alive.
The playing of Dhaak during Durga Pujo begins with the arrival of the idol of the Goddess at various pandals. The Dhaaki play on while the idol of the Goddess is placed inside the pandal. The Dhaaki wait for an entire year for the Pujo season to earn some extra cash amidst the festivities. While a few Dhaaki have specific pandals where they play each year, others flaunt their skills every year at certain locations in the city, like in front of train stations, with the hope to get the best bidders. The Maha Ashtami Sandhya Arati is in fact incomplete without the sound of the Dhaak filling the air of utmost celebrations accompanying the Dhunuchi Naach. During Bishorjon, once again the Dhaaki help to lift the air of gloom that prevails with the departure of Maa Durga by playing their Dhaak the loudest accompanying cheers of “Bolo Durga Mai Ki Jai! Ashche Bochor Abar Hobe.”
The first sounds of the Dhaak are heard from Viswakarma Puja. The Dhaaki or the drum players who are mostly engaged in other jobs and activities come to the city of joy during this period and return only after Kali Puja. With rising expenses, Dhaakis can no longer rely only on solely playing drums to make an earning. Most become agricultural labourers, craftsmen, drivers, goldsmiths, masons, electricians or cart pullers. With cost cutting becoming a prevalent trend in the recent years amongst all Durga Puja Committees, some are trying to cut down their costs by resorting to playing the beats of the Dhaak on CDs which are now readily available. This has further added to the sorrows of the Dhaaki who have been playing Dhaak down the generations and has become one of the major reasons for some of the present generation to avoid learning this beautiful art.
The future of the Dhaaki and their importance in Durga Pujo festivities lie completely in the hands of the big budget Pujo organizers now. The big Pujos are the only ones which can afford to keep a budget aside for the Dhaakis and lure them with enough remunerations to play their Dhaaks during the Pujos and keep this wonderful tradition going. Some of the Corporates as a part of their CSR Activities in the recent years have also tried to do their bit in bringing the Dhaakis to Kolkata during Durga Pujo. Some have organized competitions like Dhaaker Lorai to create an awareness on the importance of playing Dhaak during Durga Pujo and adding to the festive cheer and revelry.
Many celebrity musicians in the present times have also taken the noble initiative of training the Dhaakis of Bengal to perform at functions and occasions in India and across the globe, giving them another opportunity to consider this age old art a way of living. Another opportunity for the Dhaakis to earn is at weddings and store openings when they are usually called to add flavour to the celebrations. Many Puja Committees outside Bengal in the states of Mumbai and Delhi and even in the United States prefer to invite traditional Dhaakis from Bengal to their Durga Pujo pandals. Television Channels have also introduced many talent based competitions where the Dhaakis can exhibit their natural talent to a larger audience than those restricted to Pujo Pandals.
In recent times, as women want to be equal with men in all aspects, being a Dhaaki could not have been way behind. These days Women Dhaaki troupes have emerged to be one of the most sought after Dhaaki groups by Durga Pujo committees during the Pujas. One of the most famous of Dhaakis, Gokul Chandra Das of Maslandapur in West Bengal has infact trained his daughter to set up a 25 member Woman Dhaaki Troupe which attracts much attention and crowd at pandals they perform in during the Durga Pujos.
After the Goddess bids Goodbye, the Dhaakis generally stay on to perform at large scale Laxmi Pujas and Kali Pujas across the city. After Kali Puja, they bid farewell to the city and return to their homeland to pursue other occupations to make a livelihood. As they depart, you can see and hear them for a final time before they make a reappearance in the coming year, walking through the streets of the city beating their drums aloud. It is customary to give these amazing Dhaakis a fitting farewell with some money that would definitely bring a smile on their faces as they pass you or your locality, leaving you with a heavy heart.