2008 was the year of Slumdog Millionaire and street urchins jumping into pools of shit. 2009 was the year Akash Dhangar inverted the idea of Dharavi with his hip-hop inspired group ‘Slumgods’. Right here in the alleys of Dharavi is an emerging culture of breakdancers, hip-hoppers, rappers and graffiti artists. “When I told people I am a slum dweller, they treated me badly. Now, when I introduce myself to people as a breakdancer, then think I am cool and ask all kinds of questions. How do you do that? Where did you learn? Do you give classes? It makes a difference to my life and to others’,” says Akash.
Sturdy and speaking only when spoken to, Akash hails from a once-nomadic community known as the Kunchi Kurve and speaks Kaikadi, a mix of Dravidian languages. On the floor, Akash comes alive with a performance of b-boy lingo. He downbrakes and leaves your nerve endings in a tizzy. This 21 year old breaker learnt his moves from Netarpal ‘Heera’ Singh, a US based BBoy who was teaching slum children in Dharavi in early 2009.
“There are no restrictions in hip-hop. It’s all about freedom and all about peace. You mix your moves and you find your own style,” says Akash. In the early years of the crew’s inception, Akash was either battling with life or battling with dance. It’s all fine now, he says, as Slumgods has helped him learn English, become more confident and also brought in some financial support.
This crew is not just about cool moves, though. Addicted to the sound of the machines and juggling of beats, Sagar Vatapu learnt DJing and met Akash in 2011. Sagar, while not a resident of Dharavi, belongs to a family that has seen some hard times. On most days, Sagar is at Akash’s place or with a small bunch of comfortably dressed Europeans in street corners. He founded the tourist guide branch called Slumgods Tours and Travel, which is sought out by a substantial number of foreign tourists.
While Sagar breaks when he finds the time, he introduces the congested heart of our slum to tourists gracefully. But this is no trip into understanding impoverished India. “When you think Dharavi, you think shanties, corrugated iron sheets, tarpaulin, marshy land and mafias. Truth is, when you walk down Dharavi, you realise it is like the rest of Mumbai – there are roads, people are educated, we have vehicles. And it’s not just foreigners who have this negative idea about Dharavi. A lot of Indians think the same thing,” says Sagar. Walk down a lane in Dharavi, observes Sagar, and you will find that no one is begging here. They may be making papads or pots, but everyone is doing something here.
At Colour Box, the Slumgods crew teaches young children how to be BBoys. You can easily picture these boys someday in some street cipher, executing moves and rapping beats with great ease. For now, they believe they are stunt performers. But they know that hip-hop is all about brotherhood, peace and friendship.