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"We don't want to be just about Dharavi - we are about finding a unique hip-hop style," says Akash Dhangar, founder of the SlumGods crew. "You know [the rapper] KRS-One? He said you can't learn hip-hop. You have to become hip-hop."
I meet Dhangar, aka B Boy Akku, and members of his crew at a cafe in Mahim West one warm Sunday morning. In Mumbai, where railway lines partition localities into Easts and Wests, there is no recognisable Mahim East. Instead, you only have Dharavi, the infamous shantytown that forms the backdrop of Danny Boyle's film "Slumdog Millionaire" and Mani Ratnam's "Nayakan".
In this 500 acres of land, you will find no cafes - at least, not ones with couches, air-conditioning, or a perplexing list of coffees. We are at the nearest relatively chic option to Dharavi, on the other side of the railway line.
Dhangar is one of the estimated 750,000 residents of Dharavi, and belongs to a settlement of a once-nomadic community known as the Kunchikorve. The 22-year-old founded the SlumGods, many of whom are Dharavi youth, in 2009; they are currently an underground hip-hop crew of 17 members.
As he and his bros gulp down cappuccinos, Dhangar recalls feeling out of place at a trendy restaurant just a couple of years ago. "Looking at the other diners, we seemed shabbily dressed. From the moment we entered, everybody was staring at us. As I cut into my burger, the patty unfortunately slipped out, and it was obvious that people were judging us," he says.
Not any more. Over the past five years, the crew has collaborated with renowned hip-hop artists such as Tokyo-based DJ Sarasa aka Silverboombox, dancer-choreographer Prosenjit Guy Kundu, and the California-based MC Mandeep Sethi. Their previous Saturday night had been spent at an international street artist's birthday party in fashionable Bandra. "Hip-hop and SlumGods gave us the self confidence that we badly needed," he says.
The SlumGods crew is ever-growing, with all the core elements of hip hop culture - graffiti artists and beatboxers, BBoys and BGirls, breakdancers and DJs. Their conscious rap, by MCs such as Vineet Nair (aka Poetik Justis) and Rohan Augustine (Supersonik) is part of a socially relevant hip-hop culture that is emerging in India, in line with the "reality rap" of Kashmiri rappers Shyn9 and EssXaar.
"Take 'Dharavi Rap', for example," says Dhangar. "It's a freestyle piece about the perception that tourists and foreigners have of our home. They think there is only poverty in Dharavi, but when they come here, they realise there is so much more to the place. People are industrious and hardworking; you will not find beggary here."
Since last year, however, not only do the SlumGods practise out of two centres in Dharavi, they also teach young children from the slum and the streets about the things they know best. (I work at one of these centres, called the Colour Box; in the evening it's a miniature hip-hop artists' parade.)
The children wear baggy pants and fluorescent earrings, and have spiked haircuts. They headspin and breakdance, and stand in a Buffalo stance. Many of them do not attend regular school. Dhangar believes in preparing them for "a future of opportunities and recognition for hip-hop in India ... Some years ago, I did not even know how to speak English or use the internet. Hip-hop and rap taught me these things, and it can do the same for these children."
The lessons are free and the SlumGods refrain from accepting donations. They fund themselves with their concurrent venture, SlumGods Tours and Travels, brainchild of Sagar Vatapu (aka DJ Segar).
Vatapu previously worked as a travel guide at a slum tourism enterprise in Dharavi, but broke away - wanting to show tourists "the real Dharavi" of entrepreneurship and enterprise. He is more embarrassed to admit that there was a time when he played Bollywood beats at marriages and events in Mumbai. "The company is not the same as the crew. Akku and I stepped out of the bubble to start something new and support the bubble," says Vatapu.
Having rubbed shoulders with internationally-acclaimed artists such as Karsh Kale and B.L.O.T, the SlumGods are frequently invited to participate in competitions and festivals overseas. Unfortunately, none of them have passports. The reasons are trying: Dhangar's house has no electricity supply, and thus there is no electricity bill for address proof. Vatapu's family has lost his birth certificate.
But beyond the practicality of missing documents, their greatest hurdle is the perception that what is born in a slum is destined to stay in a slum. No amount of Slumdog Millionare-ing can change that.
Dhangar says their families and friends do not understand their talents, and simply label them as "painter" and "dancer" or as doing "time-pass". "But hip hop has brought us to the world," he adds, smiling quietly.
Benita Fernando blogs for the Dharavi Biennale
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