Even after the death of its narrator, a popular religious radio production continues to be aired in Bengali households.
The breaking of dawn with an oration of ‘Chandipath’ by Birendra Krishna Bhadra on the day of Mahalaya, marks the commencement of Durga Puja in Bengali households. Mahisashur Mardini, a 90-minute All India Radio (AIR) production has been on air for more than seventy years with devoted listeners across three generations. The popularity of the programme lies in a well-researched script with a combination of folk, classical and contemporary music and the voice of Bhadra.
The same AIR production, today, is played by private FM stations at 4 am on Mahalaya, even after Bhadra’s demise. “Since we have a tie up with HMV-Saregama we broadcast Mahishasura Mardini on the dawn of Mahalaya,” says Debolina Ray of Red FM.
The script was first compiled in 1932 by Baidyanath Bhattacharya (popularly called Bani Kumar) at the age of 25 for AIR to be aired on the occasion of ‘Basanta’ or the spring session with excerpts from Markandya Purana coupled with classical music. Following the success of the show, the producers prepared a similar script to be aired on the morning of ‘Mahashashti’ or the second day of Durga Puja. After an overwhelming response from the listeners, the team came up with a script in sync with the music, to be aired on the day of Mahalaya, five days before Durga Puja — the day the goddess is believed to start her homeward journey to her parental earthly abode.
The show was first aired in 1937, with Pankaj Kumar Mullick on the music and Bhadra as the narrator. “It was an instant hit with numerous letters, phone calls from the public, some personally came down to the AIR office to congratulate the team,” says Pradip Kumar Mitra, station director, AIR Kolkata. The team of 50 artists and musicians constituted several stalwarts like Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Arati Mukhapadhay, Supriti Ghosh and Sandhya Mukhapadhyay.
“One of the unique features of the show was that the singers amd musicians came from different religions. The shehnai players were Urdu speaking Muslim ustads,” adds Mitra.
The language barrier also resulted in the accidental enrichment of the production. Mitra recalls, “the Muslim shehnai players were instructed to play the instrument with the songs right after Bhadra finished his recital but by mistake they started playing it with Bhadra’s recital ... yet it created a unique blend and enhanced the mood.” Bhadra and his team were perfectionists — he got 200 conch shells and tested each one personally for the perfect sound.
Certain sections of the brahmins objected to Bhadra’s recital of Chandi shlokas as he belonged to the ‘Shudra’ caste. Bhadra’s voice was the only response to controversy. “Bani Kumar stood by his colleague and threatened to call off the production if Bhadra was removed on the basis of caste prejudices,” adds Mitra. In 1976, the AIR produced another version of the show with Bengali actor Uttam Kumar’s recital of the Chandi shlokas but it was not well-received. The authorities were forced back to play the original Bhadra recital.
The AIR sold the marketing rights to HMV in 1970s. “In every form, Mahishasura Mardini is the highest selling Bengali number,” claims S F Karim, business head, HMV Saregama.
Old habits die hard, especially one that marks the beginning of the grand festival of West Bengal.