Rita Saha pirouettes and jumps, like a bird taking flight, while drumming up a crescendo with her mallet. Her fingers are almost invisible as she swings her feathered dhaak on her shoulder, matching her feet to her own beats. “Eta te moja pai, sammano pai, maayer aashirbado pai (I have a lot of fun, get respect and blessings of the goddess when I play the barrel drums),” says the 35-year-old, looking up at the clay idol of the goddess that’s awaiting a final coat of colour. But Saha feels complete as one of the first woman drummers of Bengal who are creating a new century of women dhaakis as percussion artistes.
Today, they are called to perform as an ensemble, from the old puja in the bylanes of Kolkata’s Ahiritola to distant Atlanta. Anjali Das, 38, is awaiting her passport for the next big gig. “We were a family of limited means. Now that I am a professional dhaaki, I can add to the family income and get to travel the world,” she says. Both mothers — Saha has a six-year-old daughter and Das has a 16-year-old daughter — had reconciled to their humdrum existence. Their farmer husbands would make just enough to get by. Nothing really happened in their tucked-away lives in Maslandapur, a sleepy railway town in Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district. But come pujas and there would be a beeline from Kolkata to hire the town’s notables, namely the dhaakis, schooled by the legendary Gokul Chandra Das. As the men spun around and beat their drums while setting off for their various destinations, Saha and Das would tap their feet unconsciously. “Rhythm is a dancer, it doesn’t need song or music. Everybody can do it,” says Das, who can whirl like a dervish for an hour. “In that moment, I forget the world, my conflicts and pain, I become somebody else,” she adds.
Their foot-tapping did not go unnoticed by Chandra, who has had many patrons from Kolkata. Somewhat of a rebel, he was groomed by tabla maestro Tanmoy Bose as part of his project to mainstream the dhaak beyond just being a folk musical instrument. Bose included him as part of the Masters of Percussion tour in the US in 2010, where he played with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain. And it was while picking up a saxophone for his son at a music shop that he saw a woman, playing guitar, drums, flute and saxophone altogether, a one-woman orchestra. “I was immediately reminded of the multi-limbed Durga and wondered why I wasn’t looking at women in my village to play the dhaak, some of whom had grown up with the sound of beats seeing their men practise at home. Durpa puja rituals are entirely dependent on women. So why leave them out of a celebratory practice and put a gender barrier?” asks Chandra.
The dhaaki tradition in Bengal began as a seasonal performance by farmers in their non-harvest period. It was an acquired skill that was passed down from father to son and pretty much stayed within the men in the family. So when Chandra first started training the daughters in his family he met much resistance. He then decided to hold dhaaki hobby classes for women between the ages 13 and 50. “I even reconceptualised the dhaak, weighing under 5 kg, so that women could carry it around easily, strapping it to their shoulders,” he says.
In 2013, he started a training centre at the courtyard of his home to create a safe space. He held classes between 5 and 6 pm, which allowed Saha and Das to wrap up most of their chores for the day. “During board exams, we move up our classes by an hour so that our children can have an undisturbed study time,” says Saha. Apart from breaking the gender barrier, Chandra has also shattered the caste bias by opening doors to all talent. “Drumming is an art and art is free-flowing, it doesn’t choose a caste,” says Das.
A decade later, Chandra’s academy now hosts several batches of students. Both Das’ and Saha’s daughters are enrolled here, too. And once the women started getting paid for their performance, acceptance from families followed. “Though there were some reservations about travelling to faraway places and spending nights away from home, the respect and awards we get and our financial independence changed mindsets. Now our husbands encourage us to travel. Mine tells me to see the world through my work as we cannot afford to do that on our own,” says Saha, who is travelling in a group with Das and two male drummers. They have each other’s back, chat and bond over their beats. They are the eternal music makers.
When Nandini Bhowmik, 63, took voluntary retirement as a professor of Indology and Sanskrit studies at Jadavpur University to become a priest, nobody understood why. But she had her reasons. She saw how her students were drifting away from ritualistic traditions because they could not relate to them. She saw how young people were gradually giving up on ceremonial weddings because most male Brahmin priests went through the motions of chants and mantras that made no sense to them. So, when it came to her elder daughter’s wedding four years ago, she decided that being a scholar in the subject, she would officiate as a priest and revive the Vedic marriage ritual as it was meant to be in the ancient texts, as a reading of vows by two people with Prakriti or nature as witness.
“Rituals are part of the cultural consciousness of every kind of puja in Bengal. But without the interpretation of their significance and adaptation to the times, they do not remain dynamic. Besides, priesthood has been historically male-dominated and confined to Brahmins. No wonder then that they became a small entitled tribe that never felt the need to reinvent for changing times. Our Upanishads and Puranas are about bhakti, not about ticking the boxes,” says Bhowmik, who did another round of extensive research before she began with social ceremonies related to weddings, memorial service (shraadh), a baby’s first rice-eating ceremony (onnoprashon) or house-warming (grihapravesh). That was the first step as she gradually took on patriarchy, beginning from her marital home where there was much scepticism. “Nowhere in the scriptures is the mandate of priesthood assigned to men or a certain caste. A priest’s role is to disseminate knowledge. And nowhere is menstruation a barrier for worship, it is a natural cycle of life. Why else do devotees flock to the Ambubachi Mela at Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, which is the celebration of the annual menstruation course of the goddess and a fertility ritual?” she asks.
Questioning logic and countering biases with scriptural reference, she has built her own constituency. “Now the young couples whom I have married off want me in every social function,” says Bhowmik, who along with four other women have set up Suvamastu, an organisation of women priests, who are known by their first name. “A surname comes with a caste tag and inherent biases. We want to come from a space of enlightenment, not darkness,” she says.
Over the last two years, Bhowmik has also made her way into conducting Durga puja, the ritualistic part of which was always considered the most difficult part of Shakti worship and considered to be the preserve of Brahmin men. Now, she takes care of six community pujas and has invitations coming in from Delhi, the US and even the Netherlands.
Bhowmik has brought about some changes, interspersing her chants and practices with Bhakti sangeet, elevating the ceremonies to a performance art that involves everybody. “I match the scriptures with songs written by Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, the latter probably having the largest repertory of Bhakti sangeet and lends to the emotional tide of the puja. So, every ritual becomes a musical performance,” she says.
Historically, the Brahmo Samaj, the monotheistic sect of Hinduism that relied on Upanishads and was set up by the reformer Raja Rammohan Roy, had a few women priests. But they worked within their groups and not in the community. In that sense, Bhowmick has made a giant stride for women.
She has restored the seriousness of certain rituals like the Nabapatrika snan. “Nobody understands why nine plants — Banana, colocasia, turmeric, common sesban, stone apple, pomegranate, asoca, arum and paddy — are sanctified and given God-like status with the idols. You need them in your diet to keep away from infection and illnesses as you prepare for the winter. Once you explain their relevance in practical life, people get interested in the ritual rather than passing it over,” says Bhowmik. She has also restored the worship of the swan and owl, the vahanas or animal companions of goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi. “Was it because they represented goddesses? But I found no references,” she says.
Bhowmik, on whom the 2020 film Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti is based, is now working on including widows in sindoor khela, where women smear each other with vermillion on Dashami day. “Why glorify married women only and remind those who have lost their husbands of their grief? A red dot on the forehead is Durga’s blessing, a sign of cosmic energy, it is for everybody,” she says, asking questions about conventions that nobody has done so far. “Priesthood is earned, not given,” she adds.
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