Slumgod breakers: Dharavi dancers battle Bronx style

Slumgod breakers: Dharavi dancers battle Bronx style

New York-raised Netarpal Singh now teaches Mumbai's rag pickers, electricians, tailors and carpenters how to 'break' out

TinyDropsMumbai's slumgods: (R to L) Sumit aka b-boy Ninja, Simon Talukadar, b-girl Amy, b-boy Kid, Wasim, Suraj, b-boy Example, b-boy Karan.In 1994 a 12-year-old illegal immigrant desi boy walked his way home from public school along a sidewalk in Queens, New York City.

At the street corner as a deejay jocked, prolonging each rhythmic break of the record, wide-eyed, mouth agape Netarpal Singh watched the b-boys break, doing unbelievable stuff with their bodies and he was mesmerized.

"'Yo, teach me I said.' Yeah, they pretty much told me to get lost."

Despite the last decade or so spent in India, Singh's conversation is conspicuously peppered with colloquial NYC street slang and an overarching Yankee twang. From 28-year-old HeRa, as he’s known to his "NYC peeps" and "Dharavi homies," I get the 101 on breaking. Lesson one: don't call it breakdancing.

B-boying, down-rock, freeze, power-moves -- these terms are alien to me, but they're everyday parlance for a group of Dharavi's breaker kids now under HeRa's tutelage.

Kids from the ages of 10 to 21 are breaking to forget the stress and rut of lives lived as rag pickers and apprentices, electricians, tailors and carpenters. They become the dance, like the original breakers, underpriveledged youths from the Bronx in the 1970s.

Upping the amp on their inherent oomph are the blueprints of HeRa's soon-to-be opened community center on the outskirts of Dharavi, TinyDrops.

India's first breaking organization for lower income group children, this attention-grabbing mix of street dance and athletics is infiltrating their lives and bringing positive change to their communities. 

TinyDrops"No one teaches you," Singh says. "All you can do is watch, and never, never imitate." NYC backstory: 'Like a Kung Fu movie'

But this story begins many oceans away, where a young, confused sirdar found his groove at a neighborhood community center in Queens. 

One street-corner rejection already under his belt, HeRa stumbled upon groups of breakers, deejays and graffiti artists, all looking for an outlet. Here he found inspiration, an identity and answers.

These hiphoppers met under one roof and practiced routines for hours on end. For most of them, Singh says, it was simply something to do, to stay off the streets and out of gang fights and drugs.

They spent hours innovating and reinventing their craft and mixing self-discipline with a deep understanding of themselves. It was the strong push for individuality that HeRa hopes to instill in his boys from Dharavi -- to set their own movement, and form their own identity based around the dance.

In the visceral world of niche street-culture hip hop, predominated by rapping, breaking, graffiti and deejaying, Singh explains, "There are no tutorials, no videos and no classes. It is like a Kung Fu movie, with apprentices and a master-pupil style of teaching."

This educational style inspires his relationships with the young boys of Dharavi and echoes years of young peoples' movements from Cuba and Brazil to South Africa and Palestine, giving impoverished youngsters an opportunity to come into one room, together with a similar purpose. 

In America, as his mother sewed on buttons at a sweatshop and his father fulfilled his role as the ubiquitous Indian cabdriver, HeRa found a sense of structure at the local community center that he hopes to replicate at TinyDrops. 

"No one teaches you," he says. "All you can do is watch, and never, never imitate. You just have to prove you’re dedicated. And as you experiment, you slowly find your identity."

In 2001, when the world watched the twin towers of the WTC come crashing down, the aftershocks that reverberated through thousands of illegal immigrant families unceremoniously sent HeRa and his family back to India. His search for an identify began all over again. 

During his next few years working with various NGOs and a layover at Greenpeace, HeRa felt there was no scope for hip hop in India, especially in the days before YouTube it its stride.

HeRa stopped dancing. There was no context or reference to the dance here, and sans Bollywood's nod, it wasn't going percolate into popular culture.

TinyDrops"You just have to prove you're dedicated. And as you experiment, you slowly find your identity," says Singh.Mumbai: Land of the Slumgods

So it was with some trepidation that HeRa took his first Indian student, Simon Talukdar's advice to move to Mumbai. The private school educated Talukdar, whom HeRa had randomly encouraged to start breaking in a coffee shop late one evening in Dehra Dun, had gone onto become India's first breaker.

Talukdar used his precious Sunday outings from the nearby Doon boarding school to learn the dance form from HeRa.

The two initially took classes and workshops together for the city's rich kids and Bandra's middle class college students. But something felt wrong.

They were going against the original grain of hip-hop "being an alternate urban secret. It's a ghetto thing, where I come from. Not something suburban kids did," Singh explains. 

Succor came in the form of a random jaunt to Dharavi, to check out visiting European graffiti artists. Talukdar and HeRa started breaking and right there the kids around them just jumped in.

Breaking, doing handstands, flips and freestyle rap. These kids, completely removed from American hip hop culture, had it down pat.

And it struck him. This was it. The real deal.

These were India's ghetto kids, HeRa realized. They had the music in their souls.

So the duo started teaching them a couple of times of a week. Sadly, many of the kids have jobs, and can't stick to the dancing.

But sometimes they do, and the luckier ones even make some money out of it. Some of the dancers even starred in the music video of crash metal Mumbai band, Scribe.

For Dharavi's young prodigies this complicated dance routine is their daily prayer and mantra, and its complicated nuances their escape from the drudgery of living life ghettoized in what's infamously become Asia's largest slum.

Going beyond TinyDrops, Simon, HeRa, a young breaker from Dharavi Akash Danghar and Indian American rapper Mandeep Sethi have also started an artists' collective called SLUMGODS, which brings together rappers, deejays, breakers, film-makers and photographers from India and America to promote artists.

Turning the euphemism Slum’dogs’ on its head, because as Danghar puts it "we aren't dogs!" SLUMGODS is a crew which recognizes slums and the culture of poverty as being the roots of hip hop.

Whatever their reason to join, whether it's a Bollywood dance competition dream or just an artistic outlet that makes money on a curb, TinyDrops promises to shatter the limitations of everyday urban life.

TinyDropsSadly, many of the kids have jobs, and can't stick to the dancing, but sometimes they do, and the luckier ones even make some money out of it.



Got something to say? Speak up! CNNGo is looking to reward one smart reader with a free night's stay at Raffles Tianjin, China. Leave your thoughts and we'll pick the best comment posted before 11:59:59pm, September 16, 2010, Hong Kong time. Full details here
Isha Singh Sawhney is a writer, musafir and obsessive people watcher. She loves seeing new places and hates leaving them. She writes on anything that glitters, especially when she finds out it's not gold.
Read more about Isha Singh Sawhney