Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hip-hop dream thrives in India’s Dharavi slums

Hip-hop dream thrives in India’s Dharavi slums

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A student performs during a group class to learn breaking or ‘b-boying’ at a training session on the rooftop of a building in Dharavi slums in Mumbai on July 2. AFP

Hip-hop dream thrives in India’s Dharavi slums

After India’s largest slum defeated the Covid-19 pandemic, some of its young residents pulled out their phones to write, shoot and release a triumphant rap video.

“At first we were afraid, what would happen to us? But we stood with the doctors . . . now it’s your turn”, rapped the young men in the video.

We Did It – Kar Dikhaya in Hindi – showcased new talent and won acclaim from celebrities, but its creators’ abiding goal was to fight the stigma dogging this densely-populated corner of Mumbai.

The Dharavi slum is home to around one million people, many of whom live in single-room shanties and share communal toilets.

Its labyrinthine alleys have long been associated with filth and disease despite its remarkable success in the battle against Covid-19, and its residents battle constant discrimination.

But Ayush Tegar Renuka, one of the star students of the Dharavi Dream Project hip-hop academy, said he feels “so proud” of belonging to the community.

“The Dharavi shown on TV channels and the real Dharavi are very different places,” the 16-year-old said.

Ayush began breakdancing three years ago, brushing off his widowed mother’s pleas to give up a pursuit she feared would result in a trip to the hospital.

She was not alone. Many parents were initially reluctant to enrol their children in the school’s free classes, dismissing hip-hop as dangerous, a distraction from homework or simply a waste of time.

The Dharavi Dream Project’s co-founder Dolly Rateshwar was determined to change their minds.

The daughter of a Hindu priest, Rateshwar was nervous about venturing into the neighbourhood, but the teenagers she met struck a chord with her.

“I was raised in a very conservative family . . . I never knew there was a bigger world out there,” the 38-year-old said.

“And I was worried that these kids might lose out on life because they didn’t know the possibilities open to them.”

‘My confidence level was zero’

The school opened its doors in 2015, offering free classes in breakdancing, beatboxing and rapping to around 20 students, with digital media start-up Qyuki – Rateshwar’s employer – and US entertainment titan Universal Music Group footing the bill.

As the project won praise from musical icons such as Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman it rapidly expanded, with young students like Joshua Joseph – now better known as MC Josh – using hip-hop to tell their stories.

If black rappers in the United States could shine a light on racism, he reasoned, hip-hop could do the same for India’s glaring inequality and mistreatment of marginalised communities.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
For 21-year-old teacher Vikram Gaja Godakiya (red cap), who learned breakdancing from YouTube videos, the school means more than a steady paycheck. AFP

“My confidence level was zero before I started to rap,” the 21-year-old said.

“The school changed my life.”

When Covid-19 arrived, the rapper’s income collapsed overnight as Dharavi was put under a stringent months-long lockdown.

Mumbai authorities quickly realised that the slum held the key to defeating the pandemic and launched “Mission Dharavi” – aggressively sanitising communal toilets, running daily “fever camps” to check for symptoms, repurposing wedding halls as quarantine facilities, and asking residents to stay home.

By the end of June 2020, Dharavi had recorded just 82 deaths – a fraction of Mumbai’s over 4,500 fatalities.

Like the slum, the school staff also refused to be cowed by the virus, switching to online classes soon after the first wave of infections hit last year.

As the pandemic ground on, Rateshwar realised that the academy could expand its reach even further, and broadcast an invitation on Instagram for anyone, anywhere, to join their classes.

They received 800 responses in the first 24 hours.

‘Everyone wants to be a superstar’

A year on, the school hosts 100 students who attend every online session – half from Dharavi itself – and 300 others who pop in occasionally, including from overseas.

But Rateshwar’s focus remains firmly on students from the Mumbai slum, on making sure their voices are heard and their future prospects secured.

“Obviously everyone wants to become a superstar but . . . I also try to tell them about alternative careers in the music industry, as artists’ managers, or jobs in social media,” she said.

“Most of all, I want them to stand tall.”

For 21-year-old teacher Vikram Gaja Godakiya, who learned breakdancing from YouTube videos, the school means much more than a steady paycheck.

“People have always been unfair to Dharavi,” he said, describing how the pandemic had made employers increasingly reluctant to hire slum-dwellers.

When Godakiya started breakdancing in secret nine years ago, he never imagined he would be able to do it for a living.

“Breaking has given my life purpose,” he said.

“I want my students to know that they can do anything if they give it their 100 per cent.”


  • Joy as Koh Ker Temple registered by UNESCO

    Cambodia's Koh Ker Temple archaeological site has been officially added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on September 17. The ancient temple, also known as Lingapura or Chok Gargyar, is located in

  • Famed US collector family return artefacts to Cambodia

    In the latest repatriation of ancient artefacts from the US, a total of 33 pieces of Khmer cultural heritage will soon return home, according to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. In a September 12 press statement, it said the US Attorney’s Office for the

  • Cambodia set to celebrate Koh Ker UNESCO listing

    To celebrate the inscription of the Koh Ker archaeological site on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Ministry of Cults and Religion has appealed to pagodas and places of worship to celebrate the achievement by ringing bells, shaking rattles and banging gongs on September 20. Venerable

  • Kampot curfew imposed to curb ‘gang’ violence

    Kampot provincial police have announced measures to contain a recent spike in antisocial behaviour by “unruly’ youth. Officials say the province has been plagued by recent violence among so-called “gang members”, who often fight with weapons such as knives and machetes. Several social observers have

  • PM outlines plans to discuss trade, policy during US visit

    Prime Minister Hun Manet is set to meet with senior US officials and business leaders during his upcoming visit to the US for the UN General Assembly (UNGA), scheduled for September 20. While addressing nearly 20,000 workers in Kampong Speu province, Manet said he aims to affirm

  • Manet touches down in Beijing for high-level meetings

    Prime Minister Hun Manet arrived in Beijing on September 14 for his first official visit to China, where he is slated to attend the 20th China-ASEAN Expo and meet other leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Upon his arrival, Manet laid a wreath at the Monument