Dharavi is Asia’s second largest slum. About one million people live in just over about a square mile of land. The land is uneven, and from afar the houses look like soggy assorted matchboxes.
Up close, Dharavi looks more fabulous: clusters of blue, grey, brown and white, stacked upon each other with walls made of cement and corrugated iron. Each cluster has its own purpose. Some stack spare parts for cars, others display wicker furniture and knick-knackery, and still more stock pottery—vases, planters, and ghadas (traditional pots to carry water).
I’ve heard it said by Mumbaikars, that Dharavi is the birthplace of jugaad–the quintessentially Indian philosophy that involves engineering a solution for one’s self. No vehicle to transport your fresh sugarcane juice cart to the city? Just add a pair of wheels and a motor to a juice cart and drive yourself there. Can’t afford an espresso machine-esque milk frother for your tea stall? Stick a screwdriver in a pressure cooker and weld on a pipe to serve as a steam wand.
Life here is hard for most. The monsoons will make things harder still, as they pour through makeshift roads made of mud which run through large sections of this mini-city.
And as I pass a group of tourists taking a “slum tour,” I can’t help but be aware of my own hypocrisy; of my own privilege. “Please,” says their guide, “do not take pictures of people without their permission, and do not talk about ‘the smell’—this is how and where they live.”
Dharavi is the backdrop for “Gully Boy,” a 2019 Bollywood film that popularized gully rap–a genre of hip-hop unknown to much of the world, and still fairly new to most of India. The film is loosely based on the rise of rapper Naezy (Naved Shaikh) and follows his rise to stardom as a gully rapper.
To date, most mainstream Indian rap came out of the northern state of Punjab. It emulated the West with its embellished lyrics about “sex, booze, money” and rarely–if ever–emphasized real people with real stories.
Dharavi is the backdrop for “Gully Boy,” a 2019 Bollywood film that popularized gully rap–a genre of hip-hop unknown to much of the world
When gully rap burst onto the scene, fueled by the film, it became evident that India was missing out. Suddenly, stories from the narrow streets, or gullies, of Dharavi had a platform and people were ready to listen to them.
“Mere Gully Mein” (“In My Gully”) by DIVINE featuring Naezy was among the first to claw its way into the market, just months shy of the film’s release, despite having come out back in 2015. To date, the music video for the song has 25 million views. What’s more, is that it is rumored to have cost just 50,000 rupees ($725) to shoot, direct, edit and release.
Its lyrics, with talk of people living in small houses with big hearts, and of police trouble, and of Christians, Hindus and Muslims living together in their gully, are poetry.
“Dekho toh idhar mere gully mein hai ghar chote chote // Lekin zara dekho dil mein hai jagah beshumaar, de pukar” (Look at how small the houses in my gully are//But the people in them have endless space in their hearts)
Dharavi, it would seem, is nothing like the city that surrounds it. While Mumbai is divided with the utmost scrutiny–largely thanks to a mix of colonialism and gentrification–Dharavi is less so.
“Yeah,” says Kaniponu, “my background is Tamil.”
Kaniponu is a rapper from Dharavi. Being Tamil, she’s a minority within a minority there. Born and raised in Dharavi, Kaniponu’s mother is a housewife, and her father a driver, now working for a private company. She has one younger sister, who is the only person in her family who truly supports her dream of becoming the first female Tamilian rapper from Dharavi.
The word “Kaniponu,” she tells me, is her stage name. It means “virgin girl.” Her real name is Sumithra. She has a degree in Business Management Studies from a university in Sion, Mumbai, and is currently working in the Mumbai suburb of Dadar as a backend programmer, where she also dabbles in graphic design. Most evenings, she spends two hours giving students tutoring for school—“It’s all [pocket] money so I can make music,” she tells me.
The video for her last single, “Nattu Katta,” cost 25,000 rupees ($365) to produce. “That was everything from camera rental, hiring actors and a video editor,” she says, before whipping out her phone so I can listen to a new track. “My aim is to have one track out every three months.”
“My parents…Tamil parents are really traditional, you know—they just want me to be a [certain] way, to work and then get married, you know? My father is [against] it, but, my mom is…there.”
“I’ve only been doing it for five or six years now,” she tells me, “but I have hope….”
As the gully rap scene in India grows, with “bantai” (“homie”) being printed on everything from velour sweat bottoms and bejeweled hats in Mumbai’s so-called “Fashion Street,” (a row of clothes hawkers in the upscale Fort area), its definition as a genre spreads too.
Suddenly, stories from the narrow streets, or gullies, of Dharavi had a platform and people were ready to listen to them.
The gully rap scene here is bursting with potential. Young men especially seem to want in on having a role to play and a name they can latch on to: Dopeadelicz, SlumGods, 7 Buntaiz, Swadesi and Bombay Mafia are but a few of the hip-hop and rap crews from Dharavi today.
And while most expect rappers who have “made it” to leave their homes in the slum, so far the two biggest names in the scene—Naezy and Divine—are happily settled in their original homes. Divine, who came up through the slums of Andheri’s JB Nagar, recently said in a documentary produced by Red Bull, “Unlike the rest of Mumbai city, survival is the only religion in the gully.”
And it is perhaps this need to survive, rather than thrive, that drives the gully rap scene in Mumbai.
At just 22, Kaniponu has made a name for herself within the Tamil rap community. But it’s clearly tough to break out into the mainstream and I ask whether she’s ever considered giving it all up. “I had a rough period in between…I didn’t see [the sense in] continuing,” she says. “But then, after midnight one day, I got a call from Mia.”
She’s referring to M.I.A., the Grammy-nominated English rapper of Sri Lankan (Tamil) descent. “She told me to keep going and to try writing a few tracks in English. I’m working on a few things now, but they’re all in Tamil.” M.I.A. is one of her 594 followers on Instagram.
The Tamil community, I’ve come to learn, is very tight-knit. But that closeness also means her parents are deeply involved in her life—and career. Things are strained between her and her father, she says, looking down at her hands. Everything, including what clothes she wears, is a topic for debate. Today she sports a T-shirt, baseball cap, hoodie, and jeans; her long hair, she says, can’t be cut and styled how she likes until she’s “made it.”
But it’s thanks to telephone calls from people like M.I.A. and winning talent competitions in college that she says her mother eventually came around. Just before we sat down for our interview, her mother calls to ask if she felt prepared and to wish her luck.
It’s not the “done thing” for a girl of her background to be rapping, much less form a crew as the only woman amongst four men. “I have no friends who are girls,” she says. “When I started rapping, [they all left] because their parents all said, ‘stay away from that girl.’”
“People are [constantly] judging me for being too [young]. ‘Why don’t you do something else?’ I sometimes ask myself, but I want to rap—that’s it.”
The stigma around being a rapper—especially a female one—is the main reason she wants to host workshops and classes for girls like her when she can afford it.
“I have the same few friends today,” she tells me, “the ones who [coaxed] me into being a rapper in the first place.”One of them is her childhood sweetheart Kevin Manoj: “He’s the reason I’m a rapper,” she gushes, admitting she didn’t have much of a grasp on rap before she met him. The two often write lyrics together, butting heads as to how much English to sprinkle in: “He wants me to rap only in Tamil,” she explains. “He’s such a [talented] rapper. He’s going to make it big. I just know it.”
At just 22, Kaniponu has made a name for herself within the Tamil rap community. But it’s clearly tough to break out into the mainstream
When I ask Kaniponu if she has a plan B, in case the rap dream falls apart, or if her day jobs become more demanding than her rap career, she appears confused: “No, I’ll do it. I’m [going to] try till [I] succeed. ‘Slow and steady wins the race’—this is also a saying, no? If you’re working really hard, you have to get somewhere?”