Early call to goddess
You don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn on Mahalaya to tune in to All India Radio — Mahishasur Mardini is already playing on loop at a traffic intersection near you.
Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s iconic voice that has been heralding Devi Paksha for as long as Bengal can remember crackled over loudspeakers at some traffic signals in town on Wednesday, more than a week ahead of Mahalaya.
The mystery of Mahishasur Mardini’s early advent was solved when the police headquarters in Lalbazar confirmed that the familiar strains of Ya devi sarvabhuteshu being heard at traffic signals wasn’t a goof-up.
“It has been officially decided to have Mahishasur Mardini playing instead of Rabindrasangeet at 419 traffic intersections from Thursday till Navami, 9am to 9pm,” a senior officer of Calcutta traffic police said.
Nobody in Lalbazar would be quoted on this, but the buzz is that chief minister Mamata Banerjee had suggested to the police brass that the recording be played at traffic signals through the day in the run-up to Durga Puja and beyond.
By Tuesday evening, CDs of the recording had been sent to private operators responsible for the musical interludes at traffic signals with the instruction that the city should wake up to it the next morning.
“The idea is to go with the mood of festivity that sets in at this time. The authorities think Mahishasur Mardini reflects that best,” said a representative of an outdoor advertising agency that has the music contract for intersections in the central business district.
Mamata had introduced the concept of playing Tagore at signals months after becoming chief minister, apparently to soothe the frayed nerves of the Calcutta commuter subjected to a daily dose of snarls and other traffic ills.
But just as music at traffic signals is not everyone’s idea of celebrating Tagore, some feel that Mahishasur Mardini while waiting for the light to turn green at every intersection will be out of place.
There have been instances of Rabindrasangeet playing at some traffic signals not only through the day but also at night because someone forgot to switch off the music player or didn’t set the timer correctly.
Governor M.K. Narayanan had once complained about being disturbed by music playing at two traffic signals near Raj Bhavan in the dead of night.
“Mahishasur Mardini is like the Taj Mahal for AIR, among its most treasured programmes. The popularity of this programme at the break of dawn has no parallel. But I can’t imagine listening to it throughout the day,” said Jagannath Basu, a former Prasar Bharati director who had a long association with AIR Calcutta.
Mahishasur Mardini is an invocation to the goddess through shlokas interspersed with songs. The tradition became stronger when AIR first aired the programme with Bhadra reciting the story of Durga’s descent to earth.
Scripted by Bani Kumar and set to music by Pankaj Kumar Mullick, the programme became an instant hit with singers Hemanta and Sandhya Mukherjee adding to the magic of Bhadra’s voice and intonations.
In the 1970s, an alternative recording of Mahishasur Mardini with Uttam Kumar’s voice and Lata Mangeshkar’s dulcet notes made its debut. But the programme didn’t come anywhere close to rivalling the original.