Break-out time for India's SlumGods

Rachel O'Brien
8 February 2013
SlumGods members take part in a dance practice at the Sion fort in Mumbai on November 30, 2012
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SlumGods members take part in a dance practice at the Sion fort in Mumbai on November 30, 2012. They want to show there is more to life in a Mumbai shantytown than poverty and squalor -- even if the hit film "Slumdog Millionaire" suggested otherwise

The youngsters from India's best-known slum spin, twist and flip their bodies to the hip hop beat -- but don't call them breakdancers. And definitely not slumdogs.

These are the SlumGods, who want to show there is more to life in a Mumbai shantytown than poverty, squalor and trying to escape -- even if the hit film "Slumdog Millionaire" suggested otherwise.

"When we heard the name we didn't like it. Why slumdogs?" asked 20-year-old Akash Dhangar, known as B-boy Akku, who co-founded the crew of "breakers", graffiti artists, DJs and rappers.

"I felt very bad about it because after the movie, people started thinking this was just a dirty, unhygienic slum area," he said of his neighbourhood Dharavi, a sprawling backdrop to the Oscar-winning movie.

When the film came out in India in 2009, Akku was newly hooked on b-boying or breaking, the hip hop street dance that was born in the ghettos of the Bronx in the 1970s and has since spread across the globe -- better known to laymen as breakdancing.

Akku's mentor was B-boy HeRa, now 30 and living in New Delhi, who honed his moves growing up in New York's Queens before his Indian family moved back to the subcontinent in the early 2000s.

Visiting Dharavi with a friend, HeRa found a spiritual home for b-boying -- "it kind of clicked", he said, and he found the youngsters there were eager to learn.

"It's a community thing that people learn off each other. You've been given something and you pass it on," he told AFP.

That philosophy led him and Akku to set up SlumGods, which now has 40 to 50 core members across the cities of Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore.

The crew works hand-in-hand with Tiny Drops, a non-profit group founded by HeRa in Dharavi and his Delhi neighbourhood, offering "a space for kids in the hood" to explore hip hop dance and culture.

They have inspired hundreds of urban Indian youngsters to try their hands at graffiti, rapping or especially b-boying, a cheap and funky combination of exercise and self-expression.

"Dancing is in us. It's part of our culture," HeRa said, although it seems breaking has struck a particular chord with the children of Dharavi.

"Indian middle-class kids are fat and in malls. These kids are lean and mean and don't have inhibitions."

Their love of the culture can be seen atop the crumbling Sion Fort, a 17th-century, British-built structure that has become -- as a graffitied sign indicates -- a very different kind of "Battlefort Mumbai".

Offering more space than the nearby cramped confines of Dharavi, the fort ruins have hosted dance-off contests and regular practices for b-boys and the odd b-girl, who show off their routines to tinny music from a mobile phone.

As Akku leads the dancing crew, young children who crowd around to watch are shooed away by fort guards with sticks.

"It's a cool space but it's informal. We want to ask the city of Mumbai if they can give it to the kids, to give them ownership," said HeRa.

The options are otherwise limited. Tall and gangly B-boy Sin, as Pankaj Shivpur is known, almost fills the small room in Dharavi that he shares with several relatives as he backflips to Bollywood tunes on the television.

The tiny passageway outside, where a goat, cats and children mingle beneath clothes hanging on tangled cables, offers little alternative space for the 18-year-old college student.

He snatches a practice whenever he is home alone, but he goes to the fort several times a week. "It's spacious and my friends practise here too," he said.

As their quest for open spaces continues, HeRa hopes Tiny Drops will grow to become a self-sustaining business; he remains suspicious of the idea of outside help and wants the communities to support themselves.

One profitable sideline for the dancers is to appear in Bollywood films, which can earn them about 2,000 rupees (37 dollars) a day, although parents sometimes moan that their children are neglecting their studies, says Akku.

He however sees the hobby as a good way to keep them on the straight and narrow.

"Some people who were involved in drinking, bullying or stealing, they left these things when they started breaking," he said.

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