Durga Puja is practically here already; with the land waking up as usual in the dawn of Mahalaya to an age-old tradition – tuned in to the enchanting melody of Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice on ‘Mahishasura Mardini’, a set of Sanskrit recitations on India’s oldest radio show aired by the All India Radio Calcutta (now Kolkata) for the first time in the 1930s. According to the scriptures, it is on Mahalaya that the ‘Pitru Paksha’, or the 16-day lunar day period when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors (Pitrs), ends – thereby beginning the ‘Devi Paksha’ (“the era of the goddess”) which the arrival of Goddess Durga, and the festival centered around her worship – Durga Puja – heralds.
The dawn of Mahalaya holds a special significance to the millions of Bengalis in India, Bangladesh, and beyond. At 4am sharp, households tune in to their FM radios, where the All India Radio (AIR) continues to broadcast editions of the Mahishasura Mardini programme every year. Although the radio may now have been replaced by its more modern, easily accessible alternatives – the age-old tradition continues in several homes with its peculiar mix of nostalgia and hope as if to defy the passage of time.
Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the late radio broadcaster, playwright, actor, narrator, and theatre actor from Kolkata, is undoubtedly still the star of the show. His legacy – the Sanskrit ‘Chandi Path’ recitation – has been described as “bewitching”, and without it, the occasion of Mahalaya remains incomplete for many Bengalis. They wait for the riveting chant to begin at the onset of the day, eyeing the arrival of Durga Puja with as much enthusiasm.
Mahishashura Mardini, the two-hour programme, describes the epic battle of goddess Durga with the demon king Mahishashura; the script for the show was written by Bani Kumar, while the music was directed by Pankaj Kumar Mallik. The rendition recorded by Birendra Krishna Bhadra eventually went on to become so popular that even Uttam Kumar, the late Bengali actor of fame, did not receive a favourable reception when he was employed to recite the programme back in 1976. It was later shifted back to Bhadra’s original version of the recitations; his daughter Sujata Bhadra received accreditations from Saregama India Ltd on Mahalaya day in 2006 in recognition of the legacy and royalty of work.
A 90-minute-long Mahishasura Mardini was first composed in 1931 under the supervision of Pankaj Kumar Mallik. A live performance of the recitations was aired by the radio every year hence, featuring notable artists like Manabendra Mukhopadhyay and Arati Mukhopadhyay. The show was first recorded in 1966, following which the All India Radio continued to air the recorded version each year at the dawn of Mahalaya. The broadcaster also attempted to “re-record” the programme multiple times with several different artists, but those never received popular appreciation among the nostalgic Bengalis, who believe no one else could neither emulate nor succeed Bhadra’s riveting melody. Birendra Krishna’s tour de force remains his enduring legacy for the millions in this land and beyond; one that is not unending, but everlasting.