Shortly after midnight every first new moon night of autumn in the early 1930s, a bevy of cars would disperse across the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, scurrying through its gas-lit roads before disappearing into the depths of darkness.
One of them would turn up in a by-lane in north Kolkata’s Shyampukur neighbourhood and patiently await its guest.
A clerk in the Indian Railways in his late twenties – who also doubled up as an amateur playwright – would eventually step into the sedan and be whisked a few kilometres away to the local headquarters of All India Radio (AIR), the state broadcaster.
The man would join another 30 odd friends and colleagues at the AIR studio – each a legend of contemporary music in Kolkata and India at the time – in last-minute voice rehearsals and final tuning of musical instruments.
Everyone – including the vast assembly of orchestra musicians of every faith – would be dressed in starched white sarongs for men and crisp red and white sarees for women. It was also a custom for the entire team to take a bath ahead of what lay ahead.
Then, sharp at the stroke of 4am, it would begin.
First, the billowing conch.
Followed by a short chorus in Sanskrit.
And then Birendra Krishna Bhadra would join the menagerie of classical singers with his booming baritone, beginning the first cantata of a live musical journey with words that have since come to herald the biggest festive season in the eastern Indian state of Bengal and beyond: “Ashwiner Sharad Prate Beje Utheche Alokomonjir…. (What brilliant light bursts forth this autumn morning, what veil of clouds adorns the skies…)”.
The 85-minute extravaganza that Bhadra and his ensemble produced, called Mahishasur Mordini (The Slaying of the Demon), remains a timeless combination of narration, orchestra, chorus and Sanskrit hymns that describe the Hindu goddess Durga’s creation and her quest to destroy a buffalo demon king (Mahishasur), who has unleashed unspeakable horror upon earth.
First broadcast on radio in 1931, Mahishasur Mordini, also known colloquially as Mahalaya, is traditionally played in the early hours of the first day of the 10-day celebration of Durga Puja every autumn in eastern India – as it was played last week.
As the festivities peak this week, many temporary public shrines across the eastern state of Bengal will be heard playing selected sections from Mahalaya throughout the five most auspicious days of puja this week before it ends on Saturday.
What’s the story of Mahalaya?
Mahishasur Mordini or Mahalaya was crafted exclusively for the radio and combines a narrative in Bengali, classical melodies and Bengali songs interspersed with Sanskrit hymns taken from Markandeya Purana, estimated to have been composed between AD400-600.
The storyline depicts the tyranny of the buffalo demon king (Mahishasura) on earth, due to which a Hindu trinity of gods create a ten-armed powerful female form – Durga. Blessed and armed by an immortal retinue of deities, a lion-riding Durga finally slays the demon after a fierce battle and restores peace upon earth.
The 85-minute recital is broadcast on public radio across India on the first dawn of the nine-night celebration known as Durga Puja in the eastern parts of the country and Navratri in the north and west. Broadcast since 1931, Mahalaya is one of the oldest surviving radio programme for All India Radio (AIR), the Indian state broadcaster.
Pankaj Mullick, one of the pioneers of film music in Bengali and Hindi cinema, was the music director of the recital. The script was written by Bani Kumar while the narrator was Birendra Krishna Bhadra, who also chants all the Sanskrit hymns. Renowned composer Raichand Boral, considered to be the father of Bollywood film music, played a key role in curating the entire recital for AIR.
In its simplest form, Mahalaya is an invocation to Durga with a dash of acoustic melodrama.
But thanks to the magic of Bhadra’s voice, it has traversed beyond the realm of scriptures to become a social and cultural landmark. Translated and simultaneously broadcast in Hindi across India every year, the recital’s underlying message of the triumph of good over evil also resonates with a global audience.
Part ballad, part oratorio and fully uplifting, Mahalaya has for the past 86 years galvanized millions of listeners – most of them either gathered around the crackling radio or cocooned in bed – as embalmed darkness would slowly dissolve into dawn outside.
Just as no Christmas would be complete without carols, festive celebrations for Bengalis around the world remain unfulfilled without the familiar refrains of Mahalaya wafting through the autumn air.
For more than 30 years since its inception, Mahalaya was a live programme broadcast from the AIR studios in Kolkata – it was only in 1966 that it moved to a pre-recorded format.
The public appeal of the programme was so strong that in 1976, when AIR deployed Bengali film icon Uttam Kumar alongside legendary singers Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle and Hemanta Mukherjee to replace the original version of Mahalaya, there was a massive outrage verging on state-wide rebellion.
The then Indian information minister LK Advani was eventually forced to issue a public retraction and reinstate Bhadra’s version in 1977.
Age cannot wither Mahalaya
Since then, generations have passed, but the tradition has endured: to paraphrase Shakespeare, it seems that age cannot wither Mahalaya nor repetition stale its infinite variety.
On the contrary, it continues to attract a wide swathe of new audiences – from the deeply devout to the utterly non-religious – for whom it has become an enduring gateway to the festive season.
More than 86 years after its first production, the Mahalaya experience has now moved into the realm of laptops, YouTube, live streaming and even Android and iPhone apps – but the yearning it induces remains intact.
Many would not even follow the meaning of the classical Bengali words or the complex Sanskrit hymns enunciated through the songs or the recitations, but its essence as captured by the sonorous voice of the narrator would trigger a sense of collective nostalgia, an impulsive bond with the immense edifice of memory that connects all humanity.
And Birendra Krishna Bhadra is the epitome of that nostalgia.
A lesson in harmony
Born in 1905 into a family of linguists and lawyers in north Kolkata, Bhadra graduated in 1928 from Scottish Church College. His father Kali Krishna Bhadra could speak 14 languages and was awarded the title “Roy Bahadur” by the British rulers of India in 1927.
Bhadra’s professional career was spent in the mundane surroundings of the Indian Railway’s office in Kolkata’s Fairly Place, as a clerk. But it was in his pursuit of the more sublime that Bhadra found his true calling. After a brief dabbling in theatre (both as a playwright and director) and a few failed attempts in radio auditions as a voice artiste, Bhadra finally got a breakthrough in AIR for a voiceover for a play.
In 1931, a casual brainstorming session on new programmes for All India Radio — between Bhadra and doyens of the music industry such as Pankaj Mallick and Raichand Boral — resulted in a rough outline of what is now known as Mahalaya, worked out with AIR programme director Nripen Majumdar.
Bhadra was tasked with the narration of the story as well as reciting the hymns.
With a voice that was at times grating and sometimes nasal, Bhadra still instantly won over the audience with his sincerity, tugging them along on an emotional roller-coaster.
His voice quivers with grave concern when the demon and his minions run amok on earth; and trembles with joy when he chants “Ya Devi Sharba Bhuteshu Matri Rupena Samsthitaa,” a universal salutation to the supreme manifestation of female power.
After the demon has been slayed, an overcome Bhadra hails Durga in a choked voice, in one of the most memorable passages of the recital.
With master musicians such as Khushi Mohammad on the harmonium and Ali on cello, the recital was also an experience in creating the perfect harmony.
Although Mahalaya struck the right chords with the audience even in 1931, Bhadra still had several hurdles to cross.
The timing of the programme itself, at 4am, came under criticism from orthodox Hindus, who wanted it to be broadcast well after day break to signify the end of a lunar fortnight.
The conservative Hindu upper caste Brahmins of Bengal also strongly objected to Bhadra, whose caste hierarchy happened to be a notch lower, reciting Chandipath (prayers to Durga). But Bani Kumar, who produced the script, ignored critics on both issues and forged ahead with the plan.
Acutely aware of the pan-Indian appeal of Mahalaya, Bhadra also had to work hard to refine his Sanskrit diction – which is today one of the hallmarks of the programme.
As a person, Bhadra was a picture of simplicity as he walked the streets of Kolkata – typically dressed in a khadi kurta (collarless shirt), a dhoti (long traditional loincloth) and a shawl, carrying an umbrella and a bag full of scripts for audio plays, dipping intermittently into his box of snuff.
Despite his identity as the voice of Mahalaya, Bhadra in personal life was never an overtly religious person.
Apart from Mahalaya, Bhadra also became the popular voice for live radio commentaries on the final journey of public personalities such as Rabindranath Tagore.
Lack of recognition
But while Bhadra’s voice made him one of the most popular figures of radio in Bengal for more than 50 years, public fame never translated into material affluence.
The voice which so fervently ushered in the season of festivities was conveniently relegated once the celebrations were over. Bhadra was never entitled to pension after he retired in 1970.
A typical contract job with AIR about a couple of times a month would fetch him the princely sum of Rs75 (approximately Dh4 at current exchange rates, about Dh300 at inflation-adjusted rates).
In a strangely perplexing act, AIR sold the full copyright of Mahalaya to HMV (now SAREGAMA), virtually destroying any scope for the intellectual protection of the landmark programme. It also immediately spawned millions of copies on cassettes, CDs as well as cheap imitations.
While Bhadra, who died in relative obscurity in 1991, might not have reaped any financial reward or social recognition for his mesmerizing masterpiece, his Mahalaya remains an epic and timeless experience that has transcended all social and even religious barriers: as a heartfelt narrative of the triumph of hope over despair, of the victory of humanity over hardship, it will resonate for generations to come.