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.