One day in a year, at 4 am sharp, an entire people wake up to the crackling sound of the radio. They recognize every verse, every tone and every triumph. Yet the entire city holds its breath, for they are witnessing a show that never ends.
I came to Kolkata looking for stories that were untold. I tried to eavesdrop on whispers at the Kalighat Metro Station and stole glances at scholars who drowned in ancient texts at forgotten corners of Book street. I heard much that filled my mind with intrigue. Kolkata after all indulges every traveller with carefully articulated conversation and a never ending gasp of curious thoughts. Yet it wasn’t an age old secret or a long lost tradition that filled my empty canvas. It was a way of life. It was something that brought an entire people together at a particular time on a particular dawn. It was a piece of art that soared through the air waves with pride, that crackled through metallic speakers without hesitation, that turned debate tables into a resting place of ears wide open and elbows that went weak. It was a carefully constructed epic that was built over time and that could never be replaced. I was told repeatedly that no one could describe what they heard, they told me that I would understand only if I witnessed everything that was said and sung. So I waited, for days on end till that day arrived. The show came to life on the day of Mahalaya of the Durga Puja festivities and it happened only at a particular time. It was 3.55 am, we were in the dead of the night and the prelude of dawn. I woke up straight out of a dream, groggy like the incoherent radio signals that stumbled into the darkness of my room. And then the clock struck 4. It was 4 am sharp, and from the abyss of incoherent radio signals rose a show that never ends.
In the summer of 1931 in Kolkata, All India Radio was just a year old and was still finding its tone, its array of programs and was reaching out to all sorts of artists to fill its incredibly large canvas. Amid the plenty of artists was a writer named Bani Kumar. He would often write a series of songs and narratives that was mainly of a religious nature and that described an event in the lives of a God or a Goddess. He would write these hymns about many a mythical figure, yet it was his hymn about Goddess Durga that caught the imagination of an entire people. As he wrote his intricate songs and narratives, he met composer Pankaj Mullick who put music to his words and narrator Birendra Krishna Bhadra who put a voice to his narratives. The trio would come together year after year and create the most iconic modern day performance in the world today.
‘It was innovative, atrocious and audacious to put a show at 4 am in the morning!’ chuckled Chandril Bhattacharya, grandson of the script writer Bani Kumar. The show was slated to start at 4 am in the morning, a time when even the All India Radio played nothing but a standard radio signal into the air. ‘I don’t know of any art that demands you to be physically uncomfortable. Why should anyone wake up at such an unearthly time when they can sleep instead,’ said Chandril. Yet they did. The three artists along with a bunch of singers and performers from all walks of life and all cloaks of religion performed live at 4 am. And this performance which told the creation story of the Hindu Goddess Durga, found an audience that went far beyond its own religion.
Each song and chant was meticulously written, each arrangement and instrument were made to linger long after the silence had overshadowed the listener’s ears and the ensemble of songs and stories were rehearsed repeatedly till everything was inch perfect. The rehearsals went on for months on end and if you were an artist, no matter how famous or talented, but didn’t have the time to rehearse, you were politely asked to leave the group. Many a famous performers from Kolkata’s grand stages met with the same fate over the years.
While anyone who has listened to this epic performance remembers the dramatic voice of the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra and the intricate music of Pankaj Mullick. However, it was the director and script writer, Bani Kumar who put in an obsession for perfection. ‘He kept a little diary. In that diary were corrections made to all of his songs. Some songs were used in films and the songs were released and heard by millions of people, yet he still felt the need to correct them.’ said Chandril.
Bani kumar was seen as an erratic genius who took no compromise on quality and ensured that no reason came in between him achieving that standard. One year, there was uproar by a few artists who claimed that muslim artists shouldn’t be allowed to perform in a show that was about a Hindu Goddess. Bani Kumar staunchly refused and offered to personally drive the protestors out of his studio, which he often referred to as his personal puja room. The unity in making this incredible show made it lesser of a Hindu program and made it more of a program that belonged to all of Bengal.
As the show started to achieve its iconic status, plenty of myths of its process began to surface. One of the myths stated that the narrator Birendra Krishna Bhadra would go for a dip in the river Ganga before performing live. ’I surely think that’s a myth because he performed the show live for 28 years, now the Ganga is always cold at 3 am, by the laws of everything science, Birendra should have caught a cold and his voice would have changed at least in one of those years’ chuckled Chandril who quickly examined a myth rationally. Rationality being the very cornerstone of Bengali conversation, it was interesting to see myth and rationality coexist peacefully in such a vocal society.
The show was performed live for over 27 years to the year 1958 and in every live show, Bani kumar kept the core of the show together but sprung surprises with new songs and narratives. In 1958, after Bani Kumar’s sudden demise, the live shows stopped and one last show was pre recorded for the first time and that very recording has played ever since on the air on the day of Mahalaya every single year at 4 am sharp.
Now over the years, like any performance, there have been attempts to recreate this with different artists. Even Bengal’s most iconic actor ‘Uttam Kumar’ attempted to recreate the show on the radio and television. Yet there were no takers and all attempts failed.
Soon there were tapes and CDs and youtube links that played the entire recording in full. There were traffic signals in Kolkata that housed the song as you crossed its busy streets. You could hear the song invade your thoughts when you sat in a local Tram. The song was everywhere, ingrained the lives of every true blue Bengali. Yet here’s the really interesting bit. Even though all of Bengal and bengalis from all over the world recognise the show by every song, every narrative, every triumphant note or measured silence. This entire league of people still wake up at 4 am on the day of Mahalaya, dust their old radios and listen to this magnificent performance till the stroke of dawn. They know exactly what to expect, yet they still listen to it and are still moved by every word that is sung and chanted.
There even are incredible stories of Bengalis from across the world calling back home when the clock strikes 4, so that they could listen to the performance over the phone. Such is the relationship the show has carved with its endearing audience.
And as I talked to people from all walks of life about the show that sprung to life at 4 am. I realised that somehow I have come to believe that the world we live in is spinning into the future and away from the past. I have come to believe that nothing here is rooted and everything is but a momentary glimpse. So it was incredibly comforting to know that my beliefs were not entirely true. It was comforting to know that in a bustling city which moved frantically into the future, there was one day, one moment right before the stroke of dawn where everyone simply sat still and got lost in a show that will never end.