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Mahalaya is an auspicious occasion observed seven days before the Durga Puja, and heralds the advent of Durga, the goddess of supreme power. It is an invocation and invitation to the mother goddess to rise, awake and descend on earth and annihilate the evils of the world by her Supreme Goodness -This is done through the chanting of mantras and shlokas and singing devotional songs.
Mahalaya signifies the termination of Pitri Paksha and the beginning of Devi Paksha, thus ushering in the season of religious festivals. Durgotsav, as this festival is known in Bengal, commences from Mahalaya – this is the day that Goddess Durga is supposed to begin her journey with her children from her husband Shiva’s abode in Mount Kailash in the Himalayas to her parental home in the plains. The day of Mahalaya is also the day of Remembrance. On this day, people offer Tarpan in memory of their deceased forefathers.
Since the early 1930s, Mahalaya has come to associate itself with an early morning radio program called “Mahisasura Mardini” or “The Annihilation of the Demon.” This All India Radio (AIR) program is a beautiful audio montage of recitation from the scriptural verses of “Chandi Kavya”, Bengali devotional songs, classical music and a dash of acoustic melodrama. This program has almost become synonymous with Mahalaya. Even after so many decades later, the whole of Bengal rises up at 4 am to tune in to the “Mahisasura Mardini” broadcast.
One man who’ll always be remembered for making Mahalaya memorable to one and all is Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the magical voice behind the “Mahisasura Mardini.” The legendary narrator recites the holy verses and tells the story of the descent of Durga to earth, in his inimitable style.
“Mahisasura Mardini” is a remarkable piece of audio drama matchless in Indian culture. Though the theme is mythical and the mantras Vedic, this program is a landmark composition. It’s scripted by Bani Kumar, and narrated by Bhadra. The enchanting music is composed by none other than the immortal Pankaj Mullick, and the songs are rendered by famous singers of yesteryears, including Hemant Kumar and Arati Mukherjee.
The story element is captivating. It speaks of the increasing cruelty of the demon king Mahisasura against the gods. Unable to tolerate his tyranny the gods plead with Vishnu to annihilate the demon. The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara (Shiva) come together to create a powerful female form with ten arms – Goddess Durga or ‘Mahamaya’, the Mother of the Universe who embodies the primeval source of all power.
The gods then bestow upon this Supreme creation their individual blessings and weapons. Armed like a warrior, the goddess rides a lion to battle with the Mahisasura. After a fierce combat the ‘Durgatinashini’ is able to slay the ‘Asura’ king with her trident. Heaven and earth rejoice at her victory. Finally, the mantra narration ends with the refrain of mankind’s supplication before this Supreme Power:
“Ya devi sarbabhuteshshu, sakti rupena sanksthita Namasteshwai Namasteshwai Namasteshwai namo namaha.”