An 83-Year-Old Song Dominates India's Airwaves Every Year

The Hindu holiday of Durga Puja and the enduring hit that gets it started

On Tuesday morning, millions of people woke up at the crack of dawn, sleepily cranked on their radios, and listened to a Hindu oratorio from 1931.

The 80-minute radio piece, Mahisasur Mardini (literally, “The Annihilation of the Demon”), is a combination of narration and melody that describes the creation of the goddess Durga to destroy a demon that has plagued the earth with evil. It’s a classic story that is traditionally played in the early hours of the first day of the 10-day, nine-night celebration of Durga Puja, which honors the goddess’s visit to earth and the triumph of good over evil.

Durga Puja is observed throughout India, but the celebration is especially fervent in the Indian state of West Bengal, where temporary public shrines, or pandals, clog the city's streets as crowds pour out and go “pandal-hopping.” It is in West Bengal's capital, Kolkata, that the devotional hymn finds its most loyal fan base, primarily because the piece comprises a combination of ancient Sanskrit chants and Bengali religious songs.

Curated and produced for the first time by the state-sponsored All India Radio in 1931, Mahisasur Mardini features a narrator with a booming baritone, Birendra Krishna Bhadra, alongside a menagerie of classically trained singers. All India Radio has since attempted remakes—famously in 1976 with the legendary Bengali actor Uttam Kumar—that were met with disdain; radio presenter Ratna Sen later said of the experiment, "The response we got was far from favorable."

Only recently did Mahisasur Mardini come out on CD, and it quickly became a bestseller. There are versions of the piece with Hindi translations of the Bengali parts to appeal to a pan-Indian audience, but the traditional 1931 broadcast of the piece remains popular even outside Bengali-speaking regions of India as a gateway into the festival. And there's even an app for it, so listeners can get the 83-year-old tune on their iPhones.

The song has survived alongside passing Bollywood musical trends ranging from disco to rap, and has endured even among India's Westernized youth. One reason for its longevity is its cultural importance among Bengali Hindus—it's an auditory introduction to the festival that is as integral to Durga Puja as carols are to Christmas. The oratorio's origins in an era when extended families gathered around a radio and listened to stories together contribute to its timelessness. People have grown up to it, and continue to play the crackling tracks year after year.

And then there's the inimitable voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the narrator of the piece, whose rich, resounding pipes recite the Sanskrit that moves the story along between operatic ballads. Bhadra’s chants, and the emotion he injects into the tale, have earned him millions of ardent fans. At the story’s most dire point, when the demon has enveloped the world in evil and there seems to be no hope, Bhadra’s voice cracks and he sobs.

It's for these reasons—the beauty of the poetry, the timelessness of the story, the force of performance, the cultural symbolism within the ringing hymns—that I, an otherwise non-religious Indian-American young woman, woke up this morning, Googled Mahisasur Mardini, and played it as the sun rose.