"The pandemic and lockdown hit us hard, yet we are here to play happy tunes to cheer up a Covid-stricken city," says Gadai Das.

Das, who is from Tarapith locality – the site of a famous temple in Chandipur village in Birbhum district – is a dhaki, a traditional and often hereditary drummer in rural Bengal. Durga Puja time every year sees dhakis from all over the Bengal countryside congregate at the Sealdah railway station in Kolkata. The station complex buzzes with activity and often reverberates to the sound of drums, the rhythms of many feet, and the melodies of arrival – all melding together at once.

The skills of drummers from Bankura, Bardhaman, Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia usually draw sizeable crowds. The drummers appear at relatively smaller community pujas rented for their performances.

Alas, not this year. Like all other folk artists, they’ve been devastated by the Covid-19 lockdown. Very few drummers have been able to come to Kolkata – the trains are not running. Dhaki Vadu Das, from Sherpur in Murshidabad district, explains that 40 of them from his village and surrounding areas got here crammed in a small bus for which they had to pay 22,000 rupees. Payments for the dhakis in Kolkata have fallen to less than half of what they would have been in another, non-pandemic year. And several cash-strapped puja organisers have switched to playing recorded music – a huge blow to these rural musicians.

All the dhaki troupes I ran into had one prayer for Maa Durga: Please bring back the happy days as soon as possible.
Gadai Das (in the taxi window) arrives at his venue. Right: a group of dhakis negotiating a fee with a client
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee
Gadai Das (in the taxi window) arrives at his venue. Right: a group of dhakis negotiating a fee with a client
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Gadai Das (in the taxi window) arrives at his venue. Right: a group of dhakis negotiating a fee with a client

Ritayan Mukherjee

Ritayan Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based photographer and a 2016 PARI Fellow. He is working on a long-term project that documents the lives of pastoral nomadic communities of the Tibetan Plateau.

Other stories by Ritayan Mukherjee