Jawhar Sircar: M.P. Rajya Sabha. 5th. October 2021. Mahalaya in Bengal is inextricably associated with Birendrakrishna Bhadra’s Chandipath over radio just before dawn. Lakhs of usually late-rising Bengalis take special efforts get up just to soak in the atmosphere of Devi-paksha — by listening to this soul-stirring prayer to Durga as she battles with the powerful Mahishasura. But few know that this is not really a very ancient ritual but an extremely successful experiment that Kolkata began in 1932 to attract more listeners to the new gadget call radio.
A private company had started Calcutta Radio but was not picking up as imported sets were expensive and programmes were not very attractive. All India Radio had not yet started. So, Nripendranath Majumdar, the Programme Director of Calcutta Radio station organised a serious discussion with Bani Kumar, Pankaj Kumar Mallik, ‘Galpa-dadu’ Jogesh Basu, Raichand Boral. They suggested that the radio station could start a Durga Saptasthi before Durga Puja but no one could imagine then that this recital would break all records.
Birendrakrishna Bhadra recorded the prayer recital and in the early days, Pankaj Mallik and Bimal Bhushan provided the songs. Later, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and Arati Mukhopadhyay joined in with their songs. It was a unique combination of sacred chants, prose recitation, songs, shanka-dhwani and background music. Incidentally, Muslim musicians were the ones who carried the burden of the programme. But Birendrakrishna Bhadra stole the limelight with his emotional rendition and it became branded with his name.
For the first few years, it was broadcast at dawn on Sashti but as many Bengalis leave the state on that date or were in trains, it was shifted to Mahalaya. Some pundits, however, grumbled that Devi Paksha was yet to arrive, while others raised questions about whether a non-Brahman was entitled to chant these sacred incantations. There are sadly no records of these annual live broadcasts of the first 34 years. What we hear was recorded edited only in 1966.
TV tried its best to better this programme, but did not succeed even with Uttam Kumar, the matinee idol. Later on, experiments were made on Doordarshan with film actresses. this also did not work. Akashvani sold its copyright to a private company several years ago for mysterious reasons, and now there are several audio and video versions available on the net, but nothing matches the pre-dawn on Akashvani.
Mahalaya ends Pitri Paksha, when the spirits of our ancestors come down from Pitri-lok and hover around the earth, along with numerous bhoots. Even the British knew this, for we find M.M. Underhill stating a century ago that “the Sun is in the rashi Kanya (Virgo) and …… spirits leave the house of Yama and come down to occupy the homes of their descendants”. We find another report in 1917 by C.H. Buck that “of all Amavasyas, the chief is Mahalaya, the 15th or last day of the moonless fortnight of Ashwin or Kuar.”
Millions of sons and grandsons, therefore, get into the water on Mahalaya for Pitri Tarpan. Ganga is the most preferred option buy if it is not nearby other rivers will do. Even the sea or local ponds are used.
The worship or respecting of one’s ancestors is, however, not restricted only to Hindus. The ancient Romans celebrated their Parentalia which was a nine-day festival in honour of ancestors, while the Egyptians were obsessed with after-life and had special books dedicated to the dead.
Catholics make it a point to visit the graves of their ancestors on All Souls Day on the 1st of November — the night before is when the graves are lit up (like Diwali) with candies. The Irish and Scottish venerate their dead as Samhin on that night/day. Americans have their amazing Halloween during this time while Mexicans commemorate their ‘Day of the Dead’ — and lighten up this grave occasion.
Many Muslims who observe Shab-e-Barat also remember their ancestors on that night.