Mahalaya: The Bengali radio tradition


It was four in the morning when I was woken up with a phone call today. The screen said ‘Ma’, my mother.

“Shunchish toh?” (Are you listening?)

I tuned into All India Radio channel (Akashvani), and the familiar long-drawn sound of the sacred conch shell filled the apartment.

Ya devi sarvabhuteshu, shakti rupena sansthita।
Namastashyai Namastashyai Namastashyai namo namaha।।

Most Bengalis would know these lines by heart as they constitute our earliest recollections of Durga puja.

From bleary memories, these lines surface from the time of tape recorders and radios. Early morning would see most of us awake, strains of Mahisasura Mardini floating in from nearby apartments. So successful have been our mothers and grandmothers in inculcating this timeless tradition into our very Bengali souls, that even those staying away from their Kolkata hometown resort to searching out Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s rendering of Mahisasura Mardini on the internet and listening to it as the day’s wake-up call.

Earlier, the day called for night-long feasting ending with the pre-dawn radio programme. A lot of the excitement has dwindled over the ages, but hints of nostalgia continue to grip us.

Mahalaya marks the end of the Pitri Pakhha (a 15-day tradition in which people pay their offerings and respect for their ancestors in river banks, in a ritual called ‘tarpan’) and the beginning of the first day of the fortnight long Devi Paksha.

Traditionally, artisans designing the numerous Durga idols add the final touches to the Goddess on this day– her eyes. After her ‘Chakkhudaan’ (donation of the eyes), the devi is asked to awake: “Jaago! Tumi Jaago!” as goes one of the timeless pieces in the Mahisasura Mardini programme.

Bhadra’s reverberating chants serve to remind Bengalis world wide of their roots and no matter where they are located, Mahalaya brings into fore the excitement that pulses inside every Bengali before Durga Puja.

“Ma asche” (Mother is coming), everyone whispers excitedly, and starts the countdown to the major four days of festivity even though Durga Puja itself is broadly a 10-day festival.

Mahalaya was first broadcast in 1931 over the Akashvani (AIR) radio station. The enchanting hour-and-a-half audio programme is a spirited recitation of Vedic verses from the ‘Chandi Kavya’ interspersed with Bengali devotional songs and classical music. The Mahisasuramardini Strota was written by Guru Adi Sankaracharya.

Organised by Premankur Aatorthi, Birendra Krishna Bhadra, Nripendra Krishna Mukhopadhya and Raichand Boral, the program, tells the story of Devi Durga’s origin and descent on the earth and her eventual vanquishing of the demon king Mahisasura. It was broadcast live till 1958, after which, a pre-recorded version was played. The programme has also been translated into Hindi for the Indian Diaspora.

In 1976, Bengal superstar Uttam Kumar had once recited the Mahalaya under the music direction of Hemanta Kumar. However, it didn’t resonate with the masses the same way and Akashvani went back to Bhadra’s voice.

Bani Kumar wrote the script while the eternal Pankaj Kumar Mallik gave the music. Bengali music stalwarts such as Dijen Mukhopadhay, Sandhya Mukhopadhay, Arati Mukhopadhay and Shyamal Mitra have lent their melodious voices towards Mahisasura Mardini.

In recent times, Doordarshan along with several other TV channels broadcast a visual rendering of the Mahisashura Mardini myth, usually carried out through dance, drama and music.

The story of Mahisashura Mardini speaks of the tyranny of the demon king Mahisasura against the gods and men. Unable to take his atrocities, the gods prayed to Vishnu for salvation from this evil. The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (Shiva) use their powers to create a powerful female form- Durga, or ‘Mahamaya’– the source of universal power.

They bestow her with their blessings and the gods give her the weapons she holds in her ten arms. She rides into battle on the back of a lion and vanquishes Mahisasura, earning the name ‘Mahisasuramardini’– the destroyer of Mahisasura.

Mahisaura Mardini is now available in CDs and for download online.

You can listen to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s version here.