In a special series, Rediff.com looks at India through the lives of her people.
Today: Sufal Das, a dhak player in West Bengal.
As a child, he used to dream of becoming a dhaki. But a life full of adversities, and the dwindling popularity of the dhak, has made him regret his dream.
We have been dhakis for three generations. My father and my grandfather were well known for their skills.
I grew up seeing them playing the dhak during Durga Puja and other Hindu festivals.
As a child, I just loved to listen to the beats of the dhak and wondered when my turn would come.
One fine morning, I think I was 15 then, my father handed over a brand new dhak and said, 'Eta baja dekhi. Bhalo kore bajash. Amader man rakhis (Try your hand on this. Play it well. Keep up our good work).
I was overwhelmed. My years of wait were over at last, I thought.
Little did I realise what was in store for me.
My father used to take pride in his acumen as a dhaki. 'No other dhaki in Bengal can invoke Ma Durga like I do,' he would tell me.
But he never mentioned that, by embracing his profession, I would be thrown into a life of endless hardships and struggle.
Dhakis are becoming redundant in this age of digital and electronic forms of entertainment.
Earlier, I used to earn Rs 9,000, 10,000 during the months of September and October.
Not any more.
Orders (for a performance) are less frequent now and the event management companies that approach us take huge commissions from their clients. As a result, we get a pittance.
I work more as a farm labourer now than as a dhaki. It fetches me Rs 250 per day on an average, but this work is seasonal too.
I have been a dhaki for 25 years. And I have been suffering the pangs of poverty ever since.
Earlier, we lived in Murshidabad district. But after a killer flood swallowed our home in 2000, we shifted to Tentulia village in Hooghly district. I stay here with my wife Shonali and son Ashish.
I recently married my daughter off to a mason from my home district, Murshidabad, after taking a huge loan from the village moneylender. I could not meet the demands of my daughter's in-laws.
I am yet to present them with 10 gm of gold, a cot, an almirah and a showcase -- gifts that they had asked for.
I just pray to Ma Durga that my child's in-laws don't torture her for our lapse.
After my daughter's marriage, my wife was forced to take up a job as a maid servant. She works in four houses in the vicinity and earns about Rs 1,200 per month. I set aside her earnings for my son Ashish's education.
Because of the mounting debts, we have now been compelled to cut our daily expenses.
Earlier, we used to have rice, dal and vegetable curry for lunch and dinner (we could never afford more than two meals a day). Now, we only have rice with a bit of salt. We have almost forgotten the taste of fish and meat.
My son loves to eat fish, yet he doesn't complain.
When someone from our village invites us for any ceremony, we send Ashish as our representative. There, he gets to eat well at least for the day.
The house that we live in is in shambles. During the monsoon, the roof leaks and there are snakes all around. We take turns at night to keep watch.
It's a pathetic life we live here.
As dhakis, we have been serving Ma Durga for generations. I wonder why the Goddess is not showering Her blessings on us.
To get rid of the burden of debt after my daughter's marriage, I started taking more contracts from event management companies but was soon bedridden because of the pressure of work.
One night, an acute breathing problem woke me up. I was gasping and felt like someone was throttling me. I thought it was indigestion and had some water. But the discomfort remained.
At daybreak, I visited the village healthcare centre. The doctor there referred me to a Kolkata hospital. Several painful tests later, I was diagnosed as suffering from cardiac asthma.
The Kolkata doctor prescribed quite a few costly medicines and advised rest.
While I had to sell many household items to buy those medicines, I could not follow the doctor's suggestion to rest.
Instead, I started taking more contracts. When I was not playing the dhak, I started working in the farmlands around my home. After all, I needed to earn enough to pay Rs 1,000 every month for my medicines.
Though event management companies don't pay the dhakis well these days, those performing at the Durga Puja organised by old zamindars' kin get a handsome bakshish.
This year, I am performing at a pandal in south-central Kolkata. I hope I get reasonable payment this time.
Though my life story is fraught with poverty and pain, the moment I start playing the dhak, the serene face of the Goddess makes me forget everything.
There is something really intoxicating about Durga Puja; the beats of the dhak just accentuate the festive fervour.
I have heard that our honourable President Pranab Mukherjee invites dhakis from rural Bengal for the festival at his ancestral home in Birbhum. I wish he invites me once and gives me a chance to exhibit my skills there.
The dhaks of yesteryears had leather for the hide. They were expensive and difficult to maintain.
But present day dhaks have a synthetic hide. They are quite easy to handle and can last for as long as four years at a stretch.
I hear that many Puja committees nowadays play recorded dhak beats or resort to Hindi film songs.
As a veteran in my field, I must say these new entertainment modules cannot hold a candle to our live performances.
Many years back, a company had taken me to Bombay (Mumbai) to perform at a Durga Puja organised by a club.
The payment was really good.
I wish I could go to that city on work again.
My health is failing and I am losing my vitality fast.
Won't I get a chance to visit Bombay once more before I die?
My son is a big fan of Hindi movies -- Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif are his favourites. He nurtures a dream of visiting the city of his 'idols.'
Being a poor father, I haven't been able to do much for him.
But should Bombay beckons me ever, I will take my son along.
'Don't worry baba, when I start earning, your woes will end,' my son tells me often.
As I earnestly wish so, I refuse to bring my son up as another dhaki. I don't want him to suffer like me.
I want him to study hard so that he can bag a job at the earliest.
I know how it hurts to be an illiterate. I wish my father had sent me to a school. I wish he had given me a book instead of the dhak.
I don't want to repeat my father's mistake.
Sufal Das goes to bed each night wondering how to make ends meet. He shared his dream of performing at a Durga Puja in Mumbai with Indrani Roy/Rediff.com
If you would like to help Sufal Das, you can get in touch with him at the following numbers: 9564668525 and 9733146728.
For those who wish to help Sufal financially the following are his details.
District: Hooghly, West Bengal,
India - 712514
Photographs and Video: Abhiroop Dey Sarkar