The most important festival in the calendar of the Bengali Hindus, the Durga Puja officially commences from Mahalaya - the first day of the Devi Paksha(the fortnight corresponding the festival). In West Bengal, Mahalaya is observed as a public holiday. The Mahalaya is an auspicious occasion that heralds the coming of Ma Durga, the goddess of supreme power. This is the time when Goddess Durga is believed to descend to the Earth with her four children - Ganesh, Lakshmi, Kartik and Saraswati to visit her ancestral home. Hence a special kind of invocation, similar to an invitation, is made to Goddess Durga to welcome her on earth. The invocation involves the chanting of mantras and singing devotional songs. A particular devotional Bengali song, known as "Agamani", is sung on this time to praise Ma Durga and provide her a warm welcome.
But the Durga Puja truly begins with the Mahishashura Mardini, a collection of shlokas and songs broadcast by All India Radio Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the dawn of Mahalaya.
It all started off in the early 1930s, when the All India Radio began to broadcast this radio programme. Scripted by Bani Kumar, this legendary programme describes the epic battle of goddess Durga with the demon king Mahishashura and the eventual victory of the powerful deity over the evil demon. The title "Mahishashura Mardini" literally means "The Slayer of the demon named Mahishashura." The narrative of this two-hour long programme is based upon the Vedic account of the creation of Goddess Durga, one of the prime deities of the Hindu pantheon. The scriptures mention that in the ancient ages, demons frequently attacked the demi gods to gain dominance over heaven. The demons were headed by their fierce monarch Mahishashura. This demon king was intolerably cruel and unable to match his might or counter his brutality, the gods pleaded with Lord Vishnu - the supreme deity - to assist them in annihilating the demon. The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara (Shiva) came together to create a powerful female form with ten arms. Thus was born Goddess Durga or 'Mahamaya'. She is the Mother of the Universe, the "Nari Shakti" who embodies the primordial source of all power. With blessings and weapons from the gods, Goddess Durga rides a lion to battle the evil Mahishashura. Inspite of taking different disguises and adapting various tricks, the demon suffers defeat in the hands of the deity. After a fierce combat the 'Mahishashura Mardini' is able to slay the 'Asura' (demon) with her trident. Heaven and earth rejoice at her victory. The narration ends with the reverent obeisance to the Mother Goddess from mankind, recreated with the magically superb recital of the late spiritual poet Birendra Krishna Bhadra:
"Ya devi sarbabhuteshshu, sakti rupena sanksthita Namasteshwai Namasteshwai Namasteshwai namo namaha."
It will not be a mistake to say that the "Mahishashura Mardini" is deeply ingrained into the Bengali psyche. Nearly three generations of Bengalis have grown up listening to this All India Radio (AIR) program, which is a beautiful audio montage of recitation, Bengali devotional songs and classical music.
Accompanied by the enthralling music of Pankaj Kumar Mullick, the programme initially starts with the late spiritual poet Bhadra's enchanting voice. Mullick joins in later with both of them reciting hymns from the scriptural verses of "Devi Mahatmyam" or "Chandi Kavya". This unique piece of audio drama not only consists of recitations but also the renditions of Bengali devotional and classical songs by famous singers of yesteryears, such as Hemant Kumar and Arati Mukherjee.
Every year, Bengalis wake up a little before 4 am om Mahalaya Day and tune in to the All India Radio to listen to the "Mahisasura Mardini" broadcast. In most houses, this has become a tradition for almost six decades now. Exactly at 4 am, the programme commences on All India Radio with the enchanting voice of the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra reciting the holy verses and telling the story of the descent of Mother Durga to earth, in his inimitable style. The whole of Bengal rises up to listen to this broadcast that has almost become synonymous with Mahalaya.
The highlight of this enchanting recital is, undoubtedly, the captivating rendition by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. This annual broadcast used to be conducted live earlier. Since the 1970s, a recorded version began to be broadcast. It has been a long time since Bhadra passed away but the whole of Bengal still wakes up to listen to his mesmerising recital for two thrilling hours. As the sonorous voice of this spiritual poet reverberates across every household, millions of Bengalis of every age group listens in rapt attention to the ancient tale of triumph of good over evil and provide a warm welcome to the Mother Goddess from their heart of hearts.
It can safely be said that the Durga Puja is incomplete without this landmark composition. The program has also been translated into Hindi and set to similar orchestration. Outside Bengal, this Hindi version is broadcast for a pan-Indian audience at the same time as the Bengali one.
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