Article 2014 The Year in Review

Beating the Dhak

The story of Sakher

Sakher Das has been playing the dhak – the traditional Indian drum – at Durga and Kali Pujas ever since his father taught him when he was 12. He is now 48 years old. He hangs the large drum around his slender weak shoulders and plays with two thin sticks to infuse the frenzied rhythm into listeners. His father also taught him how to make dhak out of neem wood and then cover it with cowhide or goatskin. His drums are decorated with floral cloth frilled at the edges and beautified with feathers. It is only during autumns on the occasion of Durga and Kali Puja in Eastern India that Sakher expects to be heard in the full art form. Both the festivals are incomplete without the beats of dhak. Only when one hears the sound of dhak, one then realises the biggest festival of Bengalis – Durga Puja – has arrived. Those enchanting beats are enough to conjure up the sights and smells of Durga Puja. Without Sakher’s drumbeats, the aartis would not take place, and the visarjan or the grand immersion of idols on the final day would not be possible. But these are only for four days.

Due to seasonal demand of dhakis, Sakher has to work as a rickshaw walla and a farm labourer during rest of the year in Birbhum district, a 3-hour train ride away from Kolkata. Sakher’s brother, also a dhaki, works as a cobbler. Sometimes he is found mending shoes with his dhak beside him near the market. Sakher has a nine-year old boy who also accompanies his father and uncle to Kolkata during Durga Puja. The innocent face of the boy shows an excitement to play dhak and take up this art form – a desire enveloped by the fear of an uncertain future. A band of Sakher, his brother and his son hardly earns Rs 5,000 ($82) after playing dhak fervently for four days. Sakher is an artist in his full merit, but he faces immense difficulties to make ends meet in this profession. Sakher sometimes mortgages utensils to repair his drum as he does not have any savings.

What is Dhak?

Dhak (drum) is a percussion instrument played during pujas in big temples and pandals. During Durga and Kali pujas, dhakis from rural Bengal arrive in Kolkata to play at more than 2,000 pandals erected in all over the city. Without dhaki, a puja is never complete with beats of the drum. It is only when dhak is played, the festive spirit of the puja is evoked. However, playing dhak is no easy task; it is heavy to hang on the neck and requires a lot of strength and movement, and for this reason, as dhakis get old, they cannot beat the drum any more.

Meet Sapan

Sapan Sardar is a short feeble man of 54 years, living in a remote village in South 24 Paraganas in West Bengal, India. By age he is not very old, but his face has a burden of hardships and unpleasant experiences. By profession he is a dhaki, but unlike other dhakis, he is the only one in his family. His sons, 24 and 28, never expressed their desires to be dhakis; they were not inspired by the fact their father could not make enough money to feed the family from this line of work. Sapan and his sons live under one roof, but they cook and live separately. Sapan’s sons work as labourers; they do not have a fixed job, nevertheless, they find employment at some place. His both daughters are married and live with their in-laws. Sapan lives in one room with his wife, earning little money out of being a Dhaki for four days of the year, and a hired hand for rest of the year.

Sapan has always been in the band of dhakis ever since he was eight years old. He had an ear of music from an early age, and so he accompanied his grandfather who played dhak in Durga Puja pandals in South Kolkata. When he was small and could not lift the heavy Dhak, he played kansa (bell metal). Later on, when he was little older than 17, he started beating the dhak. Since then, it has been a never-ending journey. Interestingly, he has playing kansa and dhak in same Durga Puja pandals for the last 46 years. The heads of the families looking after the pujas were replaced by their grandchildren, yet Sapan remains the same, on dhoti, and with dhak on his shoulder. He is just a little old now - that’s all the difference. Sapan has been playing dhak at two Durga Puja pandals, both are organised by two connected families. He plays dhak out of love and care for the families. Sakher with his band of three dhakis and one kansa-player earns $40 dollars at one pandal and $90 at the other. The latter puja pandal is sponsored by companies, therefore, higher the amount; while, the previous one is strictly a household puja, financed by members of the family.

Although Sapan makes the highest income of the year during these few days, most of it is spent on paying back loans. Being old and unable to do manual heavy jobs, he is forced to take loans from local money-lenders who give money at 70% interest rates. The loans help him run his small family. The meager amount of money that remains after paying back all debts runs out within a month. He had a kidney operation recently. Although he needs more money to feed his family properly without taking any loans, he doesn’t want to play in any other puja pandals. Over 50 long years, the two puja pandals took care of Sapan’s family, first his grandfather, and later on, Sapan himself; and the money earned out playing dhak once a year helped him feed his family and later on to marry off his children. It is a lot of warmth and care that he received all these years from these puja pandals and he just cannot ignore them and play dhak in some other pandals for good money. Sapan feels a lot of gratitude towards them.

Dhak - the dying art form

It is only through dhak’s beats – live performance of the dhaki – that one connects with the divine present in goddess Durga. When dhakis drum and dance barefoot, they are often seen in a trance. With intense rhythm of dhak, the ambience is created and one notices how passionately dhakis are playing the instrument. However, they are the ones who do not receive the due honour and respect. It is often seen they are beating the drum wearing torn clothes and without any shoes in a puja pandal where rest of the people are in new expensive clothes. Moreover, thanks to technology, playing dhak has now become a dying art form. With cds of recorded dhak beats, some Durga Puja organizers have started playing cds instead of employing dhaaki in order to reduce overall budget.

Although there are several NGOs and famous musicians working to keep this art alive by collaborating with dhakis, a large number of them face an uncertain future. With the next generation of dhakis not interested in this art any more, it is only a matter of years when all puja pandals have to play recorded versions of dhak, unless the people and government take up their cause and secure their lives and this dying art form.

Picture: (c) Wikipedia

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