A narrow lane leads to more than 500 small houses crammed into the Nitaiganj neighborhood in Narayanganj, also known as Rishi Para. The area is home to at least 20 drummers, while a few others live in Deobhog and Tribeni.
The Rishi sect is widespread throughout the country. Members of a marginalized group, they are also known as Monidas and Robidas. In some parts of the country, Muslims also play dhak with Hindus as Malakar. Those who live in Brahmanbaria use Rishi as their surname.
The Rishis of Brahmanbaria inhabit two villages – Kashinagar and Sitanagar – near the Titas River. Kunjabihari Rishi, a resident of Sitanagar, said there were still seven music groups in the village of 2,000 people. Some villagers form temporary bands during Durga Puja, Bangladesh’s biggest Hindu festival, when drummers are in high demand.
“Playing dhak and other instruments is in our blood,” said Kunjabihari Rishi, a paralegal.
Jagatbondhu Rishi, who learned to play the dhak from Lalit Rishi in Kashinagar, said he had been playing the instrument for around 12 years. “My ancestors also played the drum.”
When opportunities to play dhak dry up, Jahgatbondhu drives rental cars for a living. He also plans to get married soon. When asked if the family tradition of playing the dhak is passed on to the next generation, Jagatbondhu said young people in his locality receive a general education alongside lessons in playing musical instruments such as drums and the harmonium. “Like them, I want my children to study and learn music together.”
Sadhan Malakar, a man in his sixties, has been playing the dhak for 40 years. Hailing from the Sonagazi of Feni, Sadhan continued the craft of his ancestors, but his son never developed an interest in playing the instrument.
“Young people come to me to learn to play the dhak but not my son. He left home to look for a job because he didn’t like studying. I always wanted him to be a drummer, but he turned out to be a tailor.
Sushil Das from Narayanganj, on the other hand, has no hard feelings about his children’s lack of enthusiasm for the craft. “It is true that drummers are always in demand, especially to perform at puja or other social events. But it is really difficult to survive in this climate of exorbitant prices by playing dhak alone,” he said.
“It’s a different feeling of joy that comes over me when the chopsticks hit the dhak. But my two boys are studying. One appeared for the SSC exam while the other is an eighth grader. They have no interest in it [playing the dhak]. Also, playing the dhak is quite tiring,” Sushil said.
Sushil has been playing the instrument since the independence of Bangladesh. His ancestral home is in Daudkandi. “At that time, almost every household had a drummer. I used to visit puja places, cultural programs and weddings to listen to the rhythms of the dhak and also to play it. I played dhak in Narayanganj for many years. Now we don’t have a lot of work and besides, my health doesn’t allow me to play anymore.
Although playing the dhak remains his passion, Sushil works as a rickshaw driver in the city because offers to play the instrument are not always forthcoming.
The Monidas sect of the Hindu community is primarily engaged in the game of dhak. Apart from pujas and weddings, groups are also invited to perform at Muslim shrines. Every traditional band has a dhaki in it. For drummers, the Bengali months of Agrahayon, Poush, Magh and Falgun, including the Hindu wedding season, are full of opportunities to perform.
Usually a band consists of five members – one plays the dhak, two play the flute, one plays a pair of hand cymbals and another plays the dhol, a smaller drum. But larger groups are hired for the events of the more affluent members of society. These groups earn around 25,000 Tk to 30,000 Tk on an event. The Dhakis say they pocket between 500 and 3,000 Tk thanks to these events.
Advancement in technology has had a profound impact on the profession, according to Bishnu Chandra Das, leader of the Ma Lakshmi Band Party.
“It used to be a successful profession and we could support our families with the income. We were invited to play the dhak at folk concerts all year round. playing music.” The rhythmic beats of drums, slung from players’ shoulders or strapped to their waists, have given way to the flashier sounds that come out of PA systems at most events.
The drummers sought government intervention and support to maintain the cultural tradition.
Many Muslims play musical instruments in Bishnu’s band, but dhak is primarily the domain of Hindus, Bishnu said.
Shyamal Chandra Das, 30, plays dhol in his father’s band. His father, Ishan Das, plays the dhak, but Ishan, too, knows the instrument well. They also make and repair the dhak themselves. A dhak, a dhol and a flute are arranged on Shyamol’s bed.
“My grandfather also played the dhak. I learned to play with them. In my childhood, I was forced to go with my father and play the drums. Now it has become my passion. I listen to the sounds of music even in my sleep. Most of the time we were invited to perform at Hindu weddings and pujas. It’s our job.
Sometimes the group is inundated with work while opportunities are often hard to come by, Shyamol said. “But we somehow manage to live on the meager income. One cannot simply leave the family profession. Also, I don’t have any other skills.
Times were even tougher for dhakis during the coronavirus pandemic. “In some cases, we went to play at an event, but the police came and seized our instruments. Later we had to pay a fine to get them back. It was really a tough time,” Shyamol said.
Chandramohan Das, 40, has been a drummer since he was a teenager. He plays the dhak whenever he gets the chance. Otherwise, he sells new and used shoes on the sidewalk in Narayanganj for a living.
“The sale of shoes is my main source of income. Even then, I can’t resist going there whenever there’s an invitation to play dhak,” he said.