Gokul Chandra Das: Playing Dhak beyond Puja and religious rituals

Posted by Kaahon Desk On October 15, 2018

Dhak, Bengal’s very own traditional percussion instrument, is commonly considered to be an integral part of the Puja, making occasional appearances during the religious festivities and then kept aside only to get covered in dust. Over the years the picture of Dhak or the Dhakis has almost remained the same having its tag of tradition unblemished. But Shri Gokul Chandra Das, coming from a family that has been playing Dhaks for generations, with his unique touch of creativity has succeeded in bringing the Dhak to the mainstream and introducing the artistic aspect of this regional instrument to the greater world. Hailing from a small village of Bidhanpally in Maslandapur, West Bengal, Das has so far performed at San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Wellington and Berlin. An indispensable member-artist of Tabla virtuoso Tanmoy Bose’s ‘Taal Tantra’, Shri Gokul Chandra Das has also shared stage with the late Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain. He received the most prominent international recognition when he performed at the famous Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in 2009 as the first Dhaki in history, as part of the Ravi Shankar Centre Ensemble. It is his flair for unusual and innovative playing techniques, once compelling him to stop playing at all for four long years, that has played the most pivotal part to encourage him to think of liberating this instrument from its constraints of specific religious associations and promote it as a competent percussion instrument perfectly capable for mainstream music.

While recounting the history of their family’s association with Dhak, Gokul Das brings into light the dark episodes of casteism and the authority it used to hold upon the society. Although convinced that illiteracy had the greater part to play in it, Das admits that there are still some trails left at places. According to him artists have their own caste, which debunks any social or religious divisions. He discusses how a community that is so rich in talent and artistic finesse is gradually being trampled due to abject poverty and daily hardships. He also talks about the construction of Dhak and the industry that is involved with it. Gokul Das debates how Dhak has never been considered to be a musical instrument that holds a unique aesthetic and artistic value of its own. He believes to bring this instrument, which has so far been traditionally bracketed with Puja, to the mainstream; it must have its own language and discipline. Notwithstanding its limitations, Das craves to establish Dhak as an instrument of an individual identity and significance, free from its social and religious constraints.

Sri Gokul Das talks about his father, a person so famous with his Dhak that his name transcended all physical boundaries. The unique playing techniques that made his father an unparalleled Dhaki, are carefully preserved in him today. He recounts how he got to meet the distinguished percussionist Tanmoy Bose and his life took a deciding turn from then on. Das believes that the primary criteria for success, in any field, are the sheer will and dedication towards the purpose. In addition to that, he also discusses how a systematic training of the classical music completes an artist’s perception of music. For Gokul Das, Dhak is not just a mere part of tradition but also a dynamic medium of expression.

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