While we don’t mind waking up to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s baritone for several Mahalayas to come, is Mahishasur Mardini never to see new voices?
Before you picked up today’s paper, you have probably experienced the magic— some rousing Sanskrit recitation, music and a dash of acoustic melodrama — thanks to the reverberating baritone of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. It goes without saying that this show at All India Radio, is what whole of Bengal rises to in the chilly predawn hours of 4 am, to be precise, on the Mahalaya.
Since the early 1930s, Mahalaya has become synonymous with Mahishasur Mardini recited by orator Birendra Krishna Bhadra. But in the Mahalaya morn of 1976, Bengal woke up to what can be called a jolt. “AIR decided to experiment and planned a special show. Uttam Kumar, was roped in to do the chandi path for us. He obliged, but the response we got was far from favourable,” says Ratna Sen, radio presenter with AIR.
The Akashvani Bhavan was flooded with angry phone calls demanding the return of Bhadra to the airwaves. “Some phone calls were so caustic that we had to slam the phone down,” remembers Sen.
Bhadra has long passed away, but his recorded voice still forms the core of the Mahalaya programme. What is it about the original show that makes it such an integral part of our lives? “Mahishasur Mardini is a remarkable piece of audio drama matchless in Indian culture. Look at the people associated with it. It was scripted by Bani Kumar, and narrated by Bhadra. The enchanting music is composed by none other than the immortal Pankaj Mullick, and the songs were rendered by famous singers of yesteryears, including Hemant Kumar and Arati Mukherjee,” says percussionist Bickram Ghosh.
The bad taste of the 1976 fiasco has been long washed away. Bhadra continues to rule airwaves. But in this age of jazzed-up Devdas and Parineeta, are we still that hostile to the idea of a new version of Mahishasur Mardini? “I have my doubts. The original version of the show has become a part of the Bengali psyche. It will be very hard to reconcile to anything new. Bhadra’s mellifluous voice is a part of Bengali milieu,” says music director Debjyoti Mishra.
However, there was a time when Bhadra himself was prevented from participating in the programme as he was considered “too old”. “Sanjay Gandhi had said that older people like Bhadra should not be a part of the cast and so he was prevented from singing. There were even people who went and stoned Bhadra’s house. However after the programme, when younger singers went on air, the listeners were so angry that they started stoning All India Radio,” recalls Supriti Ghosh, one of the members of the original voice cast that made the show.
Ghosh anticipates such a scenario if we end up putting together a newer version of the programme, without “proper dedication”. “Why meddle with a work of art when you can’t better it. I am not saying that we can’t better the enterprise, am sure we have enough talent to do so. But one thing I am sure of, we cant do it just for the sake of doing so,” says Bickram Ghosh.
Mishra agrees. “Bhadra has achieved the status of an icon, so there is no question of bettering him. What people can aspire for is to emulate the success story of the dream team that made the show.”
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