Late on Mahalaya evening, the prelude to Bengal’s 10-day puja carnival, 25-year-old Uma Das prepares to take centrestage at a south Kolkata pandal. Her face, with a dot of sandalwood paste adorning the forehead, is a mask of concentration. Her lal paar sari is starched stiff, with not a fold out of place. As she moves towards the dais, you half expect her to pick up a thali and help out with the puja preparation. Instead, Uma hangs the jute strap attached to a hefty dhak around her neck and signals her band of five women to follow suit.
At Durga puja pandals across the country, wiry men wearing dhotis and the traditional phatua (short kurta), and carrying big drums are almost as ubiquitous as the idol of the goddess itself. Since the earliest documented puja was organised by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of the Shobhabazar Rajbari in Calcutta in honour of Lord Clive in the year 1757, the men have heralded Bengal’s most important festive season. The boisterous beats of the dhak, its intimidating size, the mango-wood body glistening with mustard oil and the large plume of feather attached to it — all of this has come to mean something distinctly masculine to most Bengalis. But here are Uma and her girls, swaying before us to the rhythm of their own beats and lost in a trance. They seem to demonstrate the perfect way to welcome the embodiment of feminine power that is Durga. “When we first played in a puja pandal in 2011, people were a little taken aback. They didn’t know whether to be happy about it or not,” say Uma, who is married into a family of traditional dhakis in Bengal’s Habra town. “My father-in-law is a well-known dhaki, as is my husband,” says Uma.
It’s not difficult to locate the Das residence in Maslandapur village near Habra. Any shopkeeper near the quaint Maslandapur railway station is only too happy to show the way to the dhaki residence. Sometimes, they offer to accompany visitors too and guide them down the winding brick path, talking about Uma and her group’s recent television appearances. “Ever since we performed on a popular Bengali talent-hunt show a year ago, the people in our village are particularly proud of us,” says Putul Saha, 31, a member of Uma’s troupe. The residence, a two-storey structure with an overhanging terrace, doubles as a training school for women dhakis.
“We have over 25 students from different walks of life. Some are teachers, some homemakers and others college students,” says Uma’s 22-year-old sister-in-law, Tuku Das, who has been a part of the troupe for over four years.
Arranged around the performance arena are drums and sticks, a total of 12 in an approximately 600 square feet space. “The drums are lighter than the traditional wooden drums. These have a fibre-glass body. This is an innovation to help women carry them around easily,” says Uma.
But how did the idea of having an all-woman dhaki troupe come about? “About six years ago, my father-in-law Gokul Das went to the US to perform in a puja pandal there. He stopped by a musical instrument shop in New York where the salesperson was a woman. She was playing every instrument that the customers were checking out. Watching her, my father-in-law felt inspired. He wondered why shouldn’t there be an all-woman dhaki troupe,” says Uma.
It didn’t take much for Gokul Das to motivate Uma, Tuku and their neighbours, Lakshmi Das (30), Jyotsna Das (30), Rimi Das (24). “There were five of us initially — I was still not married into the household then — but my father-in-law was our guru and he took it upon himself to train us for months together,” says Tuku Das. They did face some resistance from villagers when they started off. “Some people pointed out that this goes against the scriptures. But my father-in-law pointed out that nowhere is it written that the dhakis have to be men,” says Uma.
Gokul Das, 62, who is in Hong Kong to play in a Durga puja pandal, feels the time was ripe for such an initiative. “When I travel around the world, I see so many women performers. As a professional, I also recognise the novelty value of an all-woman troupe. People will remember them once they see them perform, they will invite them to their puja,” says Gokul in a telephonic conversation.
Indeed, last year’s puja saw a rush of invitations for Uma and her girls. “We performed in more than 25 pujas last year. The week passed in a flurry. We would be ushered from one pandal to the other. It was a lot of fun,” says 19-year-old Sumita Das, a student of the Gobardanga Government College. The money is good too. “Each of us is paid Rs 1,000 for each performance. So for the five days of puja, we earned about Rs 25,000 each. That apart, there are smatterings of performances all through the year, and we can easily earn about Rs 5,000 per month through this,” says Sumita, who plans to be a full-time dhaki after she completes her education.
For Rimi Das, 24, a homemaker, this is her primary source of income. “My husband left us a few years ago and I have two sons to raise. This has empowered me in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. I was always musically inclined and had it not been for this, I would have ended up being a domestic help in Kolkata,” says Rimi.