Mahalaya is a date on the Hindu lunar calendar that stands at the cusp of change—a period of shraadh or homage offerings to ancestors changes over to the worship of the devi. One of the myths describe Mahalaya as the day that heralds the much awaited homecoming for Goddess Durga after she has saved the world from the ire of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Mahalaya arrives announced by natural cues like the blossoming of the white kash flowers and the lengthening rays of the post-monsoon sun.
The iconography of Mahalaya is both religious and socio-cultural and over the years, has embedded itself into the life and culture of Bengal. From rituals to radio shows to the beginning of festive menus at speciality Bengali restaurants in Kolkata to the final artistic flourishes on community puja pandals, Mahalaya usually heralds in a period of festivities lasting over a week.
This being the year of the pandemic, things have changed. From unusual lunar occurrences to the challenge of executing a massive community festival during the times of social distancing and the new casting of the demon as a magic-realist character — the coronasura, Mahalaya 2020 is different.
Here is a look at Mahalaya 2020 — that which changes and all that still endures.
Mahalaya and the kash blossoms
The kash always blossoms around the time of Mahalaya and Durga Puja. Photo: Majority World CIC / Alamy Stock Photo
A global pandemic has changed the world for us humans. Nature continues its cycles of life, death and rebirth unabated. The wild kash phool proliferates at this time of the year, breaking through fields of grass in their feathery white glory, ushering in the changing season and the autumnal festivities of Durga Puja. Captured by photographers, poets and most famously by Satyajit Ray in his film Pather Panchali, the kash flower is little more than a wild grass and yet, this humble bloom is the one most commonly associated with a goddess who personifies shakti in all its forms.
Mahalaya and the voice from the radio
Dawn on Mahalaya would break with Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s voice pouring out of my grandfather’s radio on Akashvani (meaning the Voice from the Sky) or the All India Radio broadcast. Playwright, actor and radio broadcaster Birendra Krishna Bhadra lent his voice and theatrical talent to this programme first aired in 1932. Believed to be one the earliest radio programmes in India, this went on to become a phenomenon with such cultural resonance that not even Bengal’s favourite superstar, Uttam Kumar could topple its fame on a televised version of the show. Various television dance dramas went on to capture the same story with popular film stars of the day enacting the goddess and her battle with the damn mahishasura and the victory of good over evil, yet none had the same hold over the imagination as the radio show.
The popularity of the telecast led to live performances of the same till 1966 after which it was recorded. Controversies raged with upper caste Hindus accusing Bhadra, a non-Brahmin, of reciting lines from the religious text, the Chandi Path and all of it was laid to bed with the overwhelming fan following that he garnered.
Back then, I understood little beyond the fact that it was an invocation to the Goddess Durga. Bhadra’s voice chanting, ‘Ya Devi Sharba Bhuteshu Matri Rupena Samsthitaa’ or ‘Jago tumi Jago Ma’ resonated with drama and together with Pankaj Kumar Mullick’s music created an otherworldy magic.
I was merely one of thousands of young kids growing up in a Bengali household who would wake groggily to this majestic voice from the radio reciting Sanskrit stotras and have it embedded in their auditory memories for life.
Eighty eight years later, Birendra Krishna Bhadra continues to be aired on radio every Mahalaya at 4 am. The session has been recorded on cassettes, CDs and vinyl records and there are versions on YouTube and other music streaming platforms.
Whatever be the medium, every Mahalaya for two hours, Bengalis across the country and beyond tune in to feel connected with the motherland and its grandest festival—Durga Puja through Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s soul-wrenching voice.
Mahalaya and the tale of two new moons
The Ritual of Tarpana or presenting offerings to ancestors is performed on Mahalaya. Photo: DEBARSHI MUKHERJEE / Alamy Stock Photo
Normally, Mahalaya follows the Pitru Paksha or the period devoted to offerings to one’s ancestors and precedes Navami by a day and Durga Puja by 6 days with celebrations for the latter beginning on shashti. However, 2020 is not a regular year and this year, there is a gap of more than a month between the two dates.
Astrologers and makers of religious almanacs often diverge on specifics, but in this case, they concur that this year marks the occurrence of a phenomenon known as the mala mash or an inauspicious month bookended by two amavasyas or new moons.
What this means is that no pujas or festivities can happen in the interim and so, Durga Puja 2020 falls on 22 October. The last recorded instance of such a Mahalaya was in 2001.
Mahalaya and a pandemic
Every year, Mahalaya ushers in the last-minute frenzy to complete the Durga Puja pandals, each of which are installations in their own right, capturing social, political and contemporary themes through various traditional and modern artworks. This year, Mahalaya will begin the complex process of planning community Durga Pujas during a pandemic. While open-air pandals, limited access and proper ventilation are being considered as much as artistic merit, there is a sense of hope and resilience that the show must go on and the spirit of the festival must reign beyond the pandemic. On a lighter note, the famous Bengali wit has found a new avatar for the virus (previously they had come up with a coronasandesh). Now there is the anthropomorphic ‘coronasura’—the demon that will be defeated by the goddess and peace restored on earth again. Puja Pandals across Kolkata are coming up with ways to represent the virus through their art and the results are likely to be interesting.