B-Boy Vikram is an alumnus of and instructor at The Dharavi Dream Project (TDDP), also known as the After School for Hip-hop (Courtesy: Goutham Raj KJ)

In Conversation with B-boy Vikram: Destigmatising Hip-hop in Dharavi

in Interview
Published on: 27 October 2020

Goutham Raj Konda

Goutham Raj Konda is pursuing a Master's degree in Urban Policy and Governance (2018–20) at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He’s trained in Social Sciences and loves to read postcolonialist discourses, especially subaltern studies.

B-Boy Vikram is an alumnus of and instructor at The Dharavi Dream Project (TDDP), also known as the After School for Hip-hop.

Vikram is a 20-year-old breakdancer—hence, B-boy—in Dharavi, and has been teaching b-boying in Dharavi for almost two years. His fascination with breakdancing began when he saw a bunch of dancers who practised daily in a ground close to his home. Later, with the help of his friends and the crew members of the hip-hop collective SlumGods, he started learning b-boying. However, he had to quit his practice due to financial problems at home. Though he parted from the crew, he continued practising at home on the terrace or nearby playground in the evenings and worked during the days as a helper in a merchant store. His passionate story in pursuing b-boying with the SlumGods crew was central to a documentary made by The Guardian on Dharavi’s hip-hop scene. He resumed his passion to learn b-boying with the long-awaited permission/acceptance from his parents and joined TDDP. He was chosen as a tutor for his skills gained from two to three years of learning at TDDP as a student. He has performed at many concerts and battled in b-boying competitions across the country. 

In this interview, Vikram discusses the practice of hip-hop art form and the associated challenges and opportunities in Mumbai’s relentlessly transforming informal landscape, Dharavi, by delving into his personal experiences.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview originally conducted in Hindi on November 22, 2019, at Ganesh Vidya Mandir, Dharavi, Mumbai.

Goutham: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Vikram: I live in Shahu Nagar, Dharavi and I am a b-boy, which means I do break dance. I am part of The Dharavi Dream Project here in Dharavi. I teach b-boying to advanced students once they complete their basic training under B-boy Kancha. 

My parents sell idols of Hindu gods and other casual idols on the bazaar road in Chembur market. They struggled a lot, and they didn’t want me to struggle like them. They commute to Chembur market from Dharavi every day, sit on the road and sell the idols. I used to go to work when either of my parents were sick. I do this till date. As a child, I didn’t understand what I was doing. Fights and quarrels started in my family because of financial issues. I felt guilty about not being helpful to my family. I didn’t like to study, but I had to go to school. Hence my schooling was not smooth, and I have never been to any sort of academic tuition in my life. My parents are not educated, and they couldn’t help me with my after-school studies, so I had to sit at home and study while my parents fought about financial problems. We live in a joint family in Dharavi and there were always issues regarding monthly ration and supplies. Living in a joint family for a boy like me involves regularly helping with household chores, etc. This is in addition to my school and after-school studies at home. But I always made time to practice for one hour starting roughly around 6 pm. This one hour, my friends and I used to practice breaking wherever we could. All that we needed was an empty space. SlumGods considered me a crew member but I simultaneously also practised with my friends who are still with me.

Goutham: Why did you choose hip-hop and how did you start b-boying?

Vikram: I didn’t know what hip-hop was when I began. I started doing this in 2011 or 2012. I just used to watch others doing breakdance moves like handstand, windmill, flip, etc. These are all the moves they used to do in the park, and I used to watch them fascinated. I didn’t know what these moves were but now I know the moves and their names.

There is a public park near my home in Dharavi where a lot of people play cricket. This park is called Gtab. Once when we were playing cricket, I saw a couple of people come to practise breakdance. I wanted to talk to them to see if I can join them, but I was scared. One of my friends, Gopi, seeing my hesitation for two days asked on my behalf to let me join them. 

I felt very strongly to learn what they were practising. Back then, there was none as young as me who was practising b-boy skills in Dharavi. I was 14–15 years old when I started b-boying back in 2012–13. Currently, I am just b-boying and not practising any other element. This is the only way to improve myself, to travel more and to help other kids from the hood not to get stuck in a career dilemma like I was. 

Goutham: How was the hip-hop and b-boying scene when you began? How did it change over time?

Vikram: As I mentioned, there were no young kids doing b-boying back then. People didn’t allow their kids to join crews or practise hip-hop in Dharavi; the scene was weak. We had no place to practise. The acrobatic nature of the art form involving swift movements with high flexibility raised concerns among parents and people regarding high possibility of injuries during the practise and the cost involved in treating such injuries. People always asked, what are you going to achieve by doing this? People were not just against breaking but towards hip-hop itself. People were also against it because they noticed some young men getting together to form crews who used to smoke ganja. At that time where I stayed, there was a park, but children wouldn't play in the park, instead bigger boys would come to do drugs. They used to have a very different appearance due to their funky style and that made them look peculiar. The dressing style of hip-hop is very different. Erstwhile Dharavi found it unabsorbable and viewed it as odd, and everyone called them names.

But now we have a big school. We have a place and proper classrooms. Dolly Ma'am manages The Dharavi Dream Project. She's a lady doing this and it's a great thing. If we had done it,people would have thought this means nothing. But when an outsider comes, they explain what is happening. They talk about their ideas and thoughts, so it's easier to explain to the people. 

Goutham: Could you talk about the crews that were formed? Who were the people that formed these crews? Which crew did you join?

Vikram: I don’t remember the names of the crews but there were many. We used to sit in the park and there were many people practising different sorts of things and I didn’t know that those were different elements of the same thing, hip-hop. We used to practise amidst the often-chaotic nature of the playgrounds and parks where different people come with varied purposes. 

I joined this crew that called themselves SlumGods. The crew was not very formal back then, but it was led by B-boy Akku [Akash Dhangar]. Despite forming the crew, they didn’t have the means to engage full-fledged. During monsoons, it was impossible to practise as the parks and grounds would be wet. So, during the first season of monsoon, I used to practise at home what the crew members taught me initially. I called five of my friends and told them about this newfound art form and artists in our neighborhood. One of my friends had a mobile phone and he showed me a video of breaking. Eventually, we started learning steps from the YouTube tutorials too. My friend knew a little English to search required content on YouTube that the rest of us were not able to. So, he used to search tutorials on YouTube and we practised accordingly.

Goutham: What is it like to be a hip-hop artist in a crew?

Vikram: We are like a family. When the crew is made, we are very excited.  So, the way that you've come to me, today to The Dharavi Dream Project, and tomorrow you’ll go to SlumGods and then to Dopadelicz [a hip-hop crew] to get information, everyone has a way. All hip-hop artists don't stay together all the time. But when we go to some shows, crews don't matter, we are only hip-hop artists then. This is how everybody is, it is not just one person, it's a community. We come, we do cyphers, we have fun, and there is an exchange. 

When you talk about religion, Muslim-Hindu and so on, there is no religion in hip-hop. Hip-hop in itself is a religion. It's an unbreakable power. And there's a lot of honesty there. No one is above or below. All are equal. A rapper also gets equal respect. A breaker also gets equal respect. All MCs also get equal respect. When we come and meet each other, it feels like a festival is going on. And that festival goes on for a year. Whenever we meet, we are very happy. 

Goutham: Could you talk a little about The Dharavi Dream Project? How was your experience with them?

Vikram: The Dharavi Dream Project evolved from informal classes that used to be held. Like I was telling you, I had gotten very serious about the practice sessions and after one monsoon, I went back to the park and met the SlumGods crew members. I showed some steps and flips which I had learnt in the meantime. They were very happy to see me perform and for the fact that I continued my practice. Then they invited me to their taught class sessions for breaking aspirants in Dharavi itself. I didn’t know Sameer Sir [Samir Bangara] or Dolly Ma’am, who handle what is now The Dharavi Dream Project. 

They asked me to join the classes, but I refused. I was afraid that my parents would be furious, and they wouldn’t allow me to practise in the park. But they convinced me saying I can join class whenever it suits within the two–three hours of sessions in the dusk. So, in the name of getting milk I used to go to classes keeping it as a secret from my family. They found me very good at breaking, best among all the kids. The crew members like B-boy Akku were ready to speak to my parents to convince them to send me to the breaking classes. I refused thinking that my parents may get angry. Even after that, I used to practise with my friends in the park hiding from my parents who also come to the same park for walking and jogging.

Within TDDP we form crews as per performances and reorganise them as required. It's about teamwork, we stay together, and we do things in our own way. This is how we will split the performances in the hip-hop show also. Dopadelicz split their hip-hop in their own way. Each has their own thing. Similarly, [crews such as] MC Heam, McAltaf, 7Bantaiz have their own style. 

Goutham: What is the demography of the students who come to TDDP?

Vikram: Dharavi is a slum area, but it is not that everyone here is poor. But everyone's background is not that good. People live in joint families here. There are no separate rooms. Whatever happens, happens with the family. I am also from Dharavi and I stay with my joint family. In one home,12of us live. That's how it is. 

Every person in the family has struggled a lot. And they expect from the children that they don't struggle like them. So, everyone thinks that if a child learns and writes, gets well educated it is good. But it is difficult to study in Dharavi. There are so many people here. 

Goutham: When did you join TDDP and how did you become an instructor?

Vikram: In 2013–14 when I was in my fifth–sixth standard, fascinated by the breakdancers practising daily in a ground close to my home, I started dreaming to learn the art form despite my lack of knowledge regarding hip-hop. Later, with the help of my friends and the cordial acceptance from the SlumGods crew members I started learning b-boying. But I had to quit due to financial problems at home and started working. Though I parted from the crew, I continued practising at home on the terrace or the nearby playground in the evenings and worked during the days as a helper at a merchant store. My passionate story of pursuing b-boying with the SlumGods crew was central to a documentary made by The Guardian on Dharavi’s hip-hop. I resumed my passion to learn b-boying with the long-awaited permission/acceptance from my parents and joined TDDP. The hip-hop school was managed by SlumGods initially and later it became The Dharavi Dream Project to be completely managed by Qyuki [recording and audio systems company] by the time I resumed b-boying. I was chosen as a tutor for my skills gained through two–three years of rigorous and sincere learning at TDDP as a student.

Goutham: What all do you teach in your class? What is the pedagogy that is followed in TDDP?

Vikram: In my breaking element, we teach many things, like breaking moves, top rock, foot rock, power moves and floor rock which has four bases. There are four different elements in breaking: top rock, footwork, freezes, and power moves. You can call them structural parts of breaking. Whatever is a part of the element, all of it is taught. Breaking is an original dance form. 

We as artists try linking our personal lives with our art form. Many things from our personal lives that we cannot write or talk about are put out in the form of dance. I try speaking about my life through the art form venting out all my struggle, anger and pain that I endured. I teach my students to create a style of their own and keep building their personal signature on the art form making it more creative and vibrant. 

I work really hard to teach my students better and not let them fall in the dilemmas of career making. I want them to know there's a future in this and it can be a professional career that anyone can pursue. We’ve invested our lives in this school. Thus, we aim to break all the stigmas associated with hip-hop such as ganja and alcohol. This is to incentivise people’s positive perception towards hip-hop in Dharavi, so that they can send their children with full confidence.

Goutham: Can you please tell me about the monetisation involved in the art form and if it is benefitting the artists at all?

Vikram: It's really hard to really do hip-hop. I'll tell you about myself. If I can't do real hip-hop then I can't do battling, I can't go for competitions.  Then I can only do cyphers. We do exchanges where one b-boy meets another b-boy. So, this doesn't give money. 

But since last year more competitions are coming up. Bigger competitions are coming up in India. The World Hip-hop Championship is coming. In different cities where all b-boys meet, they compete with each other and get a good sum of money about INR 10000–20000. So, with that amount they manage their necessities, but it is not enough for their entire life. So, to get money in hip-hop everyone needs to come together and create unity and encourage more teamwork. If the entire hip-hop [scene] gets together as one, we can do a lot. 

 Goutham: Who provides funding for the hip-hop shows that happen, like the Haq Se Hip-hop event?

Vikram: For the Haq Se event, Rolling Stone and Qyuki funded the show. Everyone had the invitation for the show, not only from entire Dharavi but also from entire Mumbai. Everyone was invited from different cities; many artists had come. To meet people from different cities is a way to learn from each other and it really helps everyone to grow better.

Goutham: What do you think is the future of hip-hop in Dharavi?

Vikram: It has just begun and there’s a lot to be seen from Dharavi. The movement has resonated in the country with the success of artists, albums, and Bollywood movies. There were hip-hop artists and crews in Dharavi since very long, but now the new recognition and the possibility of monetisation is attracting new talent into hip-hop in Dharavi. Once the existing stigmas are obliterated, it would be much easier for the hip-hop aspirants to convince their parents. The new digital advancements are also enabling artists to have wider audience and recognition with much less material means.