Throughout the day, they play the drums. The rhythm remains the same, but the tempo keeps changing every few minutes: sometimes slow, sometimes fast and then slow again.
Holding a pair of drumsticks with three fingers (thumb, index and middle), their palms move like wings of butterflies. This particular rhythm, known as "pujar badyo" has been played unaltered for centuries, and throughout generations they are carrying this art of playing drums in their blood. They are the "Dhakis", named after the exotic Bengali drum– Dhak, a centrepiece of Durga Puja, the biggest festival in this part of the sub-continent.
During the puja season, these drummers leave their slumbering rural homes and flock to the urban areas, where the biggest concentration of puja pandals are. In Dhaka city alone, there are more than 250 pandals erected this year, requiring more than a thousand drummers to perform. Elsewhere, around the country, there are 31 thousand more pandals abuzz with festive drumbeats for five days at a stretch.
"This rhythm of Dhak has something special in it, which touches the heart of every Bengali, no matter where he belongs to. It creates ripples in the blood streams inside," says Bhabaranjan Chandra Mani, a 45 year old Dhaki, who was playing the drums in the evening at the pandals of Jagannath Hall, Dhaka University. A number of devotees, veiled in essential smokes, were dancing at the altar of the Devi Durga and her pantheon: Ganesh, Kartik, Laksmi, Saraswati and the Mohishashura. The evening dance is called Arati.
"This particular puja rhythm is played in 6 by 8 meter cycle, a pattern that resembles Jhumur taal," explained Mithun Chakra, a renowned drummer and percussionist who played with Oskar winning musician A R Rehman. "It touches the heart, because Jhumur taal is the basic rhythm that lies beneath every kind of folk music all over the world, be it Latin America, or Africa, or Middle East. This is a rhythm pattern that the whole world spiritually communicates with."
On Saturday, a group of four drummers were playing drums at the puja pandal in Jagannath Hall, a student's dormitory of Dhaka University. This group came down from Koikirtan, a village in Shinagar Upazilla, Bikrampur. Koikirtan is a village of over a hundred Dhakis, who mostly belong to Rishi community – a group of people who are considered to be at the bottom of the stratified, hierarchical caste system in Hindu religious belief.
Shekarnagar, a village adjacent to Koikirtan has a bigger population of Dhakis.
This small orchestra was playing with two Dhaks, one Dhol and one Kasor Ghonta, a metallic percussion plate.
"There is a big difference between Dhak and Dhol," explained Bhabaranjan Moni, the leader of the orchestra. "Dhak is bigger in size and is played only in one side. Dhol is played on both sides. The drum beats of Dhak plays the lead role, the beats of Dhol and Kasor only accompany the Dhak."
"Dhak is one of the most powerful instrument I have ever come across," said Mithun Chakra. "It goes well with the worship of Goddess Durga and Kali, both are deities that symbolizes strength and power."
The Jagannath Hall group of drummers were hired for Taka 65,000.
"The deal covers both playing for Durga and Kali Puja, the latter is scheduled two weeks from the end of the former," said Sadhan Chakravarti, General Secretary of Jagannath Hall Puja Committee. He said, "We do not hire the same troupe every year. We hire them based on their performance."
Another group of eight drummers at the Ramna Kali Mandir pandal had struck a deal of Taka 70,000 for playing for Durga Puja only. This motley group is comprised of drummers from different part of the country – Bagerhat, Faridpur and Jessore. The leader of the group owns a company of musical instrument players, who play on hire round the year.
"Our peak season is puja, which keeps us busy 9 months a year. We are hired for ceremonies as diverse as marriage, birthday, khatna and even political gatherings," said Ganesh Biswas, the leader of the orchestra.
In Mollahat, Bagerhat, Ganesh owns a musical company named Mitali Musicals, which boast of having instruments like drums, trumpet and clarinet. These companies are popularly known as 'band parties.'
All the members of the group belong to Rishi community, having diverse family names like Das, Biswas, Golder and Sarker.
"The number of Dhakis are growing every year, as the trend of puja pandals are on the rise," said Sushanta Das, a drummer from Kashiani Upazilla, Faridpur.
Unlike other drummers who wore traditional Dhoti and a white sleeveless t-shirt, Shushanta was sporting a white uniform, donated from the company he belonged – a symbol that suggested the heydays of the profession.
"We are happy, because more and more people are coming in this profession," said Bhabaranjan, who runs a grocery shop. The shop remains closed whenever the owner is away on hire, something that happens more frequently these days.