In this world of blatant masculinity, it’s fascinating to see the biggest festival in Bengal celebrates a woman – Durga. What’s more encouraging is that the women of rural Bengal have chosen the most iconic instrument that represents the festival to empower them – Dhak. 

There are precisely three things that signals  Durga puja is around the corner – Kans grass, the iconic voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra and the sound of Dhak. It is an integral part of most of the religious festivals in and around Bengal.

Dhak is a percussion instrument made best out of matured mango wood, and the surface which takes the beating is covered with either goat or cow skin. The sheer weight of the instrument has traditionally contributed to its masculinity.

The poor farmers play the Dhak only during the festive season, to earn some extra income. Dhak being one of the oldest percussion instruments in Bengal, never earned the same respect as Tabla or Mridangam.

So, it will sound too far-fetched to think that one can make a career being a Dhaki, that too a woman. But then the Hindu deity Durga did the unthinkable and so did the women of Machlandapur village of North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal.

It all started in 2010, when the ‘Dhak Samrat’ Gokul Chandra Das was on a tour in Los Angeles to play with Tabla legend Tanmoy Bose’s band ‘Taal Tantra’. After the concert, Das went to a music store to buy a saxophone for his son.

There he met the store attendant, a woman who was playing guitar, drums, flute, saxophone, and other instruments to demonstrate to the customers.

“I thought to myself, if this woman can play so many instruments, then why couldn’t the women of my village play the Dhak?” – Das recollected in an interview given to Kaahon.

According to Hindu mythology, it took several deities to arm Durga with all the required weapons to combat the evil. For the women of Machlandapur, it was Das alone. It took a while to fight the resistance of social stigma, but the Durga(s) were invincible.

Das initially started off with his niece, daughter-in-law and three other neighbors and formed the first all women dhaki band named after his father – Motilal Dhaki. Their overwhelming success later attracted the entire village and soon the number went up to double figures.

Jyotsna Das, one of the early members of the band recalled, she was allowed to get trained by Das only after she had finished all her household chores at her in-law’s house.

The women of Machlandapur are now financially independent. They’re not only the ‘talk of the village’ but also touring nationally and internationally, playing Dhak in the most unique fashion, courtesy Das’s training and their indomitable urge.

While Das remains the only dhaki to play alongside late Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain, his idiosyncratic effort to take Dhak beyond the religious festival appearance remains in its nascent state even after more than a decade.

We as much as Gokul Chandra Das can only hope for a day when a Dhak will be used as a metaphoric weapon in the hands of Durga that will combat the evil of the stereotypical gender bias of our society, and everyone will rise to the rolls of Dhak played by the Durga(s) of rural Bengal.