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Dharavi hip-hop school to rear b-boying talent for Olympics | Mumbai News – Times of India


MUMBAI: The orderly wooden benches in Shree Ganesh Vidya Mandir’s classroom have been nudged aside to make space for a new kind of education. Instead of uniformed kids and the rustle of notebooks, the air is charged with the energy of youngsters in baggy tees and cargos, defying gravity, spinning on their heads and spitting out rhymes to the sound of beatboxers. In that very moment, accompanied by a cracking coconut and the chorus of ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya,’ a school is born-the ‘Hip Hop Paathshala’-poised to unpack the history, techniques and very soul of hip-hop as an antidote to the pitfalls that often beckon Dharavi‘s youth.

Launch of the Paathshala last week carried dual significance-unveiling a new chapter in the city’s hip-hop culture while celebrating the genre’s half-century milestone. Fifty years have passed since August 11, 1973 when some teenagers threw a back-to-school party in an apartment in New York’s Bronx. They played with two turntables while break boys battled each other on the dancefloor and unknowingly birthed what we now call hip-hop. Over time, it exploded as an international art movement, where rap battles, breakdance and graffiti-daubed walls became a voice for marginalised youth.

Nonetheless, it was inconceivable at that point that hip-hop would ever seep into Mumbai’s gullies and become the city’s slang-infused celebration of the working-class. This unlikely transformation took root in the mid-2000s when hip-hop crews sprouted across the city indulging in cyphers-a casual gathering of rappers, beatboxers and breakdancers in a circle to jam together-at city parks. One of them was Akash Dhangar aka ‘B-boy Akku’ who became a vanguard of Dharavi’s burgeoning hip-hop scene and set in motion an artistes’ collective that he named the ‘SlumGods’ as a counter-narrative against the term ‘slumdog’.
“The release of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in 2008 was a key point for our hip-hop movement,” says Dhangar. The juxtaposition of ‘slum’ and ‘dog’ irked him. “Why must we be reduced to dogs just because we live in slums?” he pondered. Dhangar remembers watching the word being hurled as an insult on Mumbai trains. “It became an abuse aimed at anyone dressed shabbily or alighting at Mahim station.”
It was this indignation that seeded their connection with hip-hop. The catalyst was Netarpal ‘Heera’ Singh, a b-boy (short for breakdancer) from the US, who stumbled into their lives at a computer class. Heera’s annual sojourns to India when he spent two months teaching them how to b-boy became more than dance lessons. For the boys they were an escape from mundanity and for Akash, almost an epiphany.
“The spins, the headstands, it defied the very definition of dance. I loved how audacious and unshackled it was,” says Dhangar, recounting the dare he couldn’t ignore nor its purpose as he assembled ‘SlumGods’-a motley crew of rappers, beatboxers, b-boys, and graffiti artists.
Unlike the sanitised confines of a studio, the streets became their stage. “We practised wherever we found space-on the street, inside shut shops, at Sion fort and Shahunagar playground. We enjoyed the street dance culture and the challenge of performing b-boy’s athletic dance on concrete and tar,” says Dhangar.
Although steeped in the Bronx style, the collective forged their distinct language through instruments like the morchang and didgeridoo, and spitting rhymes in local tongues-Marathi, Tamil, Hindi. “Our brand of hip-hop became a draw for foreign visitors on Dharavi slum tours that we started conducting to fund our street cyphers. It sparked attention, documentaries, rap stars and even a Bollywood film,” says Dhangar. “Yet, for many in the hip-hop community, transforming our passion into a sustainable livelihood remained elusive.”
Fifteen years down this journey, Dhangar’s hustle persists. “I juggle between conducting slum tours, as a cabbie or a delivery boy. Through it all, I’ve held onto hip-hop because b-boying was a badge of respect, my unique identity.”
Fast-forward to 2023, Dhangar, now 31, and a few remnants of his original crew are poised to reshape the very alleys where they’ve breathed and lived hip-hop. Anchored by a rigorous six-month curriculum, the Paathshala will immerse students in hip-hop’s four cornerstones-rapping, beatboxing, b-boying, and graffiti-Tuesday through Saturday, from 6pm to 9pm, while Sundays are designated for jam sessions.
“Already, 45 kids between five and 15 from Dharavi, Sion and Kurla have enrolled,” says Dhangar. But their ambition this time is grander: to nurture an ecosystem where raw talents can develop full-fledged careers. “In Dharavi, children are prone to negative influences, fights or addictions. Hip-hop could be a life raft for expression and escape. That’s why we’re not peddling fame or stardom to kids or their parents. Parents also find comfort knowing it’s not just an after-school hobby; b-boying is now an Olympic sport.”
For the first time, b-boys and b-girls will be breakdancing for Olympic medals next year. A b-boying squad from Dharavi isn’t in sight for the upcoming year, Dhangar admits. “But in five years, yes. That’s why the Paathshala,” he says, adding that conversations are underway with The All India Dance Sport Federation and corporate entities, to transform hip-hop into a spectacle with ‘Breakdance Super League India 2024’, similar to cricket or kabaddi. “Although Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Chandigarh and Kerala have thriving b-boy-b-girl scenes, there’s no authoritative structure to it yet. Our vision is to nurture a talent pool through this competitive league under Olympic guidelines,” explains Dhangar, his hopes pinned on a year-end launch.



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