ON AN AFTERNOON IN MARCH, a small, unkempt park in Delhi’s Khirki village was packed. In one corner, towering speakers shielded a console with a turntable from which loud hip-hop beats emerged. Standing around a linoleum sheet, breakers, MCs, DJs, graffiti artists as well as some curious passers-by and neighbours stood watching three teenage boys freestyle dancing. First jumping around as if on an invisible pogo stick and pushing out their arms in quick-changing angles, they then hit the floor and spent the next few minutes contorting their bodies into a series of complicated shapes.
The trio was competing at the Khirki Park Jam, an open b-boying (a style of street dancing associated with hip-hop culture and commonly called “breakdancing” or “breaking”) contest between groups from around the city, with guest appearances from hip-hop crews Desi Beam and Kru 172 from Chandigarh. Rotating wildly on his head, legs in the air, was 15-year-old Hari; spinning during a handstand was 15-year-old LaLa; and freestyling “beat ke hisab se (according to the beat)” was Rishi, also 15.
The boys are members of SlumGods, a Delhi-based b-boying group formed at Tiny Drops, a hip-hop community centre in Khirki village that describes itself as a gathering of “fierce eight to 18-year-old break dancers, rappers, graffiti writers and artists”.
Tiny Drops was founded by 31-year-old Netrapal Singh (aka He Ra), India’s best-known b-boy, who had his initiation in 1993 on a dark street corner in New York City’s Times Square. After this, He Ra remembers getting active in community centres in the city where you have “your own space and you get into the mix. That’s where true hip-hop is—on the streets.” For the teenage son of an undocumented Indian immigrant living in Forest Hills, Queens, breaking and hip-hop were a form of expression that allowed him to voice his longing for identity and freedom.
In 2004, escaping a paranoid post-9/11 America, He Ra moved back to India with his mother, and eventually made his way to Mumbai in 2008 to teach dance to a gentrified Bandra crowd. It was a welcome change for him. “But that spirit was kinda missing,” He Ra says. Later, at a graffiti workshop he was attending in Dharavi, he started dancing by himself when cries of “Bhaiya, bhaiya, hamey bhi sikhao (Teach us, too)” engulfed him. “That’s where the oomph was. It was like we were doing a baraat on the street every day!” He Ra recalls. He began taking hip-hop classes thrice a week at a community centre in Dharavi, before formally opening the first Tiny Drops Hip-Hop Centre, also in Dharavi; in 2010 he opened Tiny Drops’ Delhi centre at Khirki Extension in collaboration with KHŌJ International Artists’ Association.
It wasn’t easy to convince parents to let their kids attend Tiny Drops sessions. Of the SlumGods, Hari, who comes from a village in Bihar on the Nepal border, lives with his autorickshaw driver father and homemaker mother in Khirki. His mother would prefer that he concentrate on his studies. Frowning, Hari spoke about his recent class 10 results and presumably bleak academic options: “Haan, kuch 60 percent aae hain, toh arts lena hi hoga (I got 60 percent, so I will have to study arts).”
Lala’s mother had enrolled him in a Bollywood dance class so he could become a back-up dancer or dance coach. But he refused to attend. “Mujhe accha nahi laga teacher banna (I didn’t want to become a dance teacher),” he said.
But the boys have reason to be excited about their fledgling hip-hop careers: since its inception Tiny Drops has performed in venues as diverse as the Siri Fort Auditorium, Tihar Jail and Blue Frog, and earned hat tips from publications like The New York Times and The Guardian. At the Khirki Park Jam, however, a disgruntled, self-proclaimed president of the colony, who had made his way behind the console, began lecturing the group on how kids shouldn’t be listening to this “devil’s music” and should instead be “painting, singing and doing drama”. While a few matronly women stepped in to conciliate between the organisers and the neighbourhood men, He Ra and the dancers started moving their bags into a small room in nearby KHŌJ to carry on their battles with breaking.