Dhakis of West Bengal: Where They Come From and Where They Go

Dhakis playing dhaks in a Durga Puja pandal

Introduction

India is a country of rich cultural diversity and the essence of festivity for each Indian state is unique on its own. The main festival of the Indian state of West Bengal is Durga Puja, which is held during the auspicious Aashwin Durga Navtras in the months of September-October. During the festival the Mother Goddess is welcomed to her home on Earth with 9 long days of celebrations and joy. As a ritual of the festivity both her arrival and departure are rung by hundreds of thousands of “Dhaks” played by the professional drummers, locally called as “Dhakis”.

Dhak at a Puja Bari

What “Dhaks” Are: How They Are Made

The word “Dhak” comes from the Austric word “Dhaka” included in the Sanskrit language. The word later became a part of the Bengali script. The dhak is a big membranophone instrument that originally belongs to South Asia. The dhak has become an integral aspect of the widely loved Bengali festival of Durga Puja, other Bengali rituals and festivities. It would have no festive aura if not for the maddening rhythm of the dhak. The dhak is beaten with two sticks loudly to infuse the frenzied beats into the listeners. These beats are enough to raise the spirits and conjure up the feel of the Durga Puja. Without the instrument, the heavily celebrated festival would have felt sombre.

The sound of the dhak depends on a lot of factors like the shape. The shape varies from almost cylindrical to barrel-like. On one hand, the outer portion of the wood is shaved off and carved to create the barrel shaped instrument. On the other hand, the inner side of it is made to be absolutely hollow.The two ends of the dhak are wrapped up with goat skin on the top and calf skin at the bottom. It is said that using these two types of hides bring out the perfect sound texture of the dhak. The manner of stretching the skin over the mouth of the dhak and lacing it is also an important factor in the kind of sound that will be produced. The more the strings on the side of the dhak are pulled the higher the pitch of the dhak gets. The two sticks that are used to beat the dhak are carefully chiseled and formed out of thin cane or bamboo. Because of the drying session of the wooden structure and the intricate handwork and decoration, it takes around one month to reach the perfection in making the instrument.

Making of Dhaks

Who “Dhakis” Are: The Heritage follows

‘‘Dhakis’’ are integral to almost all festivities in Bengal but the art of playing the huge barrel-shaped membranophone instrument is considered as a staple of Bengal’s most celebrated Durga Puja. Most of the ‘dhakis’ or men who play the ‘dhak’ hail from humble rural backgrounds of Murshidabad, Hooghly, Malda, Bankura and Purulia districts of the state. Just like playing any other instrument that is highly associated with a centuries-old cultural heritage, the art of playing dhak, or the business of dhakis are often found to be ancestral and moving in the families since ages. The art of playing such instrument is considered as a living witness, bearing the tradition of the state of West Bengal. The art of playing dhak is passed on from one generation to the next though this art is gradually dying out and losing its focus. One of the reasons for this is the uncertain informal nature of this profession. They still teach the children to play the dhak is to preserve the culture and heritage.

Each part of Durga Puja rituals has a different and unique tune and beat of the dhak right from the arrival of the idols till their immersion. It is played when the idol enters the pandal and even when it exits the pandal on the last day of puja, Dashami. In fact, it is the deafening sound of the dhak that fills the air of immense celebration during the ‘Sandhya Arati’ on Ashtami. This ceremony is absolutely incomplete without the beats of the dhak. Along with that, the ‘Dhunuchi Nach’ is also an essential part where the dhak provides the musical rhythm to which people dance with the ‘dhunuchi’. Another popular tradition is the ‘Dhaker Lorai’ or ‘Fight between Dhaks’ where the grandeur is revealed the best when dhakis play in groups. It is usually a fascinating experience for the audience to see the feathered drums being played by the dhakis dancing to the music produced. Finally, on Dashami, the majestic beats of the dhak helps lift the air of sadness and gloom during the vermilion ritual and ultimately, the immersion.

Female artists too have now taken up the responsibility to revive the age old art of playing the dhak. In such a male-dominated profession where carrying the dhak is a major issue, women have proved themselves to be no less than their male counterparts. Teams of women dhakis are finding fame and getting established slowly in their fields.

Dhakis of Bengal

COVID-19 and The Livelihood of Dhakis

The Impact The drop in the number of Durga Pujas in and outside Bengal amid the novel coronavirus outbreak has taken the rhythm out of the lives of many dhakis (traditional drummers) who look forward to this festive season as their main source of earnings in the year. Every year, the dhakis from different districts and villages of Bengal use to appear at Sealdah station premises before Durga puja. The dhakis used to play the drums in front of Sealdah station every year before puja. From there, various puja committees used to take them in the puja pandals to play the ‘dhak’. But for the past two years the situation is very different, as Puja Committees and Organizers are tight in budget and have to follow a lot of restrictions . Moreover, thousands of dhakis from Bengal districts like East Burdwan, Birbhum, Purulia, Bankura and Hooghly would in other years travel to states such as Assam, Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh to perform at Durga Puja pandals and get higher pay than what they would have got in their home state. But, COVID-19 has restricted that option too for these drummers in past years.

Dhakis at Sealdah station, Kolkata

Where Are They At Now: How We Can Help

Acknowledging the fact that, playing dhak couldn’t be considered as a stable profession and is more inclined to be an occasional source of performing art and earning money, most of the dhakis are often associated with other rural jobs like farming, weaving, fishing to support their livelihood. During Pandemic, the dhakis hope that though they could not travel outside Bengal, they were still lucky if they got calls from Bengal puja organisers. When budgets are low, organisers play recorded beats of the dhaki in pandals. However, several organisers in Bengal have decided to go ahead with dhakis to add the traditional fervour to festivities with the state government offering a dole of Rs 50,000 to each puja committee.

A group of Women Dhakis in front of Goddess Durga idols

Conclusion

Just like of everyday’s, MachhBhaat, Bengal ’s essence of festivity is incomplete without the rhythmic beats of Dhaks. Along with everyone one of us, they are also looking forward for a better situation in the upcoming years, while we can celebrate together the joys of life without fearing for the safety of our health . With the constant effort of the Government and the citizens together , hope we are going to reach that phase very soon.