An uncertain future for dhakis of Durga Puja

Aditi Ray Chowdhury / IAT

Almost all festivals kept a subdued flavour this year, due to global health pandemic. For Bengalis also, this year’s Durga Puja celebrations, largely remained uneventful. However, one can still feel the deeply pristine sight of the wild sugarcane or the ‘Kans grass’ and the sound of the dhak (drum) beats that adds to the celebratory mood for the Durga Puja festivities. These ‘dhak’ players called as ‘dhakis’ have been integral to Durga Puja celebrations since ages. However, as a community they remain obscure and people don’t know much about them, even in Bengal.

‘Dhak’ is essentially a drum like instrument made from the wood of the mango tree, and is mostly played by men from the rural areas with the help of two wooden sticks also known as ‘kathis’. They are known among the people of Bengal for weaving magic with the help of their instruments amid the air of festivities without whom Durga Puja and many other festivals of joy in West Bengal remains incomplete. Every year, around 2000 puja pandals come up in various localities of Bengal and in each of them, one can hear the beats of the dhak signifying happiness and enjoyment. Largely, a male dominated profession, however, during the last few years women from Purulia have also started to play the dhak, thereby bringing about a major socio-cultural change in their community.

Tracing back their roots, one would find a rich cultural background. Back then, their ancestors, who started playing the dhaks years back in the pujas of their villages, were always viewed as artists, who like any other percussionists or musicians played their instrument after a considerable amount of training. Over the years, their legacy has passed to the next generation and for a long time they have been treated with a lot of regard and repute. However, with changing times, their importance has often been replaced with music cassettes and CDs, making this profession economically less viable for dhakis.

Raghunath Das, his brother Tapas Das and his 10-year-old nephew Arijit Das, represents a group of dhakis, who came to Kolkata from their village in Murshidabad during Durga Puja this year. They are mainly farmers back at their village and come to play in the city during the festival time because of their love for playing the instrument and also to earn a bit extra out of it. When asked about why they chose this over all other jobs as their secondary profession, Raghunath and his brother candidly confessed their love and ancestral tradition associated with this instrument. The earning however is not very high in this work and an average dhaki is paid around Rs 3000- Rs 4000 for playing at a pandal in Kolkata. A brief conversation with Raghunath and his brother gave an idea that despite of their own commitment and love for this profession, they are not very sure as to whether their next generation would be interested to carry forward this legacy. There are a number of villages in many districts of Bengal like Hooghly and North 24 Paragans where several families of the community of dhakis still live but due to a decline in their demand and lack of sufficient income many of them have been forced to give up their traditional profession and opt for other jobs, during the festival season.

Still, with Bengalis spread across the globe and Durga Puja becoming a widely celebrated festival, even outside India, dhakis might find put new avenues for survival. Nearly 100 dhakis travel to Delhi every year for the celebrations and few of them have also been taken to USA and UK to give a traditional look to Durga puja celebrations there.

Even though dhakis are an intrinsic part of these festivities, the art of playing dhak is gradually becoming more of a dying profession. Any form of art requires rigorous training and dedication and for a true artist their art form is very sacred but when the love for art comes in contention with their basic needs to fill their stomach and run their family, it indeed becomes a difficult choice to make for this culturally enriched community. How long they will be able to continue this tradition is quite uncertain, however, what we all know is that Durga Puja will remain incomplete without the reverberating sound of dhak.

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