On the soundtrack of the Hindi film Jhund, a line rapped by Vipin Tatad effectively summarises the three-hour plot in just 30 seconds: “Kale mel ke gali se ubhar ke aayela jhund.” From the blackened dirt of a lane has emerged a herd.

The March release, which focuses on a sports teacher training young men from a slum to play football, has brought Tatad greater prominence. But it isn’t like he’s a new entrant into the world of music: for nearly six years, the 25-year-old Ambedkarite has been part of a quartet called Raptoli.

The four members of Raptoli – toli means “band” in Marathi – live in slum settlements in Maharashtra’s Amravati and met on social media. Tatad, also called VIP, Tausif Khan, or TMK, Mangesh Ingole, or Vardhan, and Gourav Ingole, or Charli, are from Dalit and marginalised communities.

Shaped by their struggles, their music explores casteism, education inequality, health, farmer issues, gender, Islamophobia and contemporary politics.

Life in a slum

Tatad lives in Siddharth Nagar, a slum pocket in the middle of Amravati city, which is surrounded by the posh areas of Sindhi Mohalla and Gadage Nagar. He is studying for a master’s degree in mass communication. His father worked as a hawker outside the Daya Sagar Hospital before he decided to devote his time to running a non-profit magazine called Blue Morning.

Mangesh Ingole works 12-hour shifts as a helper in the canteen of the city’s Rainbow Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital. Financial concerns and family circumstances forced to abandon his college education. He arrives at the hospital at 7 am to distribute tea and breakfast till noon, returns home to finish household chores and goes back to the hospital at 4 pm to work till 8 pm.

Mangesh Ingole works in the canteen of a hospital in Amravati. Credit: Prashant Rathod.

Tausif Khan is an engineering graduate but hasn’t been able to find a job, so he helps his father run a Chinese food-stall. Gourav Ingole – the fourth member of Raptoli – is unemployed too.

Music is their way of seeking answers from society and those who hold the reins of power. Why is there no running water in our homes? Why is social and economic development selective? Why this discrimination?

Personal and political

Tatad says he learned to rap by listening to American rapper Tupac Shakur. He was also inspired by the songs and poems of Vaman Kardak and Vitthal Umap, Ambedkarite artists from Maharashtra.

Learning about the struggles of the Dalit community and thinking about developments around him prompted Tatad to start writing. “I came to understand that rapping would be the way to express myself,” he said. “I see my slum and our daily struggles. I see the Khairlanji massacre, Rohith Vemula, Payal [Tadvi], and Hathras. Everything is based on caste.”

The list he reeled off refers to events that have shaken India. Khairlanji is the village in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district where four members of a Dalit family named the Bhotmanges were hacked to death.

Rohith Vemula was a Dalit doctoral student who died by suicide at the University of Hyderabad in 2016 after allegedly being harassed by the authorities. Dr Payal Tadvi was an Adivasi medical student who died by suicide in 2019 after alleged caste-based discrimination by her seniors at BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai.

Hathras is the district in Uttar Pradesh where a Dalit woman was gangraped in September 2020. She died in hospital two weeks later.

Vipin Tatad in a still from Raptoli's new track Jay Bhim Kadak2. Credit: Nikhil Patil.

Khan makes his music despite his parents’ disapproval. “They say that it is haram in Islam,” he said. But he says he wants to rap because many residents of his neighbourhood have been arrested and detained under what he claims are false charges.

“The families of many of these arrested people do not even have money to send their children to school,” said Khan. “Their life is a constant struggle to free their sons and husbands.”

Khan was also moved by the wave of protests across the country following the passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019. The act expedites Indian Citizenship for undocumented migrants from the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – except if they are women. This introduces a religious basis for Indian citizenship.

Last year, Khan produced a song titled Chala Wazan Daal as an assertion of his identity and rights. Chala wazan daal is slang that roughly means “speak with freedom”.

Chala Wazan Daal

Other national issues have also influenced Raptoli’s repertoire. In 2020, when the first Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, the group rapped about the anger of migrant workers and labourers who were stranded without food or money to pay their rents due to the stringent restrictions.

Ghe Na Lockdown, or Have Your Lockdown

During the year-long protest by farmer groups at the borders of Delhi, Raptoli wrote a song about the enormous economic pressures that the farmers were grappling with.

Jai Jawan Jai Kisan rap

Ambedkar’s influence

The life of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution and towering Dalit rights crusader, inspires the group. On April 10, the group released a new track, Jay Bhim Kadak2, which talks about Ambedkar’s legacy and how slum dwellers celebrate April 14, his birth anniversary.

Jay Bhim Kadak2

“We are still fighting against [caste], but I think we are able to fight against it because of Ambedkar,” said Tatad. “I believe that the spirit Ambedkar stands with us, leads us.”

He added, “I’ve decided to rap for my people. And I think that should be my ultimate goal.”

Success and dreams

A small room in Tatad’s modest home serves as Raptoli’s studio. The group members speak over conference calls or meet at night, when they have time, to discuss new tunes or ways to popularise their work.

Tatad, who learned video editing online, often works late into the night and focuses on his rapping during the day. Mangesh Ingole tries to make time between shifts at work.

Raptoli’s YouTube channel has more than 11,000 subscribers, and some songs have over one lakh views. While the internet has seemingly democratised music-making, it is hard to make a living from it. Only a well-edited video and song can draw the enormous numbers of online viewers that earn the creators revenue. But that requires funding.

Mangesh Ingole and Vipin Tatad during a recording session. Credit: Vikrant Thakare

Raptoli barely makes any money and the group has no funds to buy the music beats that form the foundation of rap tracks. Those beats can cost Rs 3,000-Rs 5,000 each. Instead, the group makes do with music that is available royalty-free.

Each song takes the group about one-and-a-half months to produce. Once they have got the lyrics down, they hunt online for beats that could fit the words. Often, the beats that Raptoli obtains for free are later flagged for copyright infringement, forcing the band to pull their songs from YouTube.

Recording music in a professional studio can cost between Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000, and they also have to rent a video camera. A friend helps the group with social media publicity.

Why they rap

For Tatad, rap is a part of his struggle for basic needs. “We don’t even have enough toilets in our slums,” he said. “In such circumstances, how can one think of their career?”

Khan is in it to inspire others. “People make fun of me,” said Khan. “But I ignore them because some say we inspire them. That motivates me.”

Tatad says he is in it for the long haul. He says he never dreamt of being famous in the film industry. “How can I be a star in a country where a Dalit can’t sport a moustache or ride a horse in his own wedding procession?” he asked. “The Indian film industry is not an exception to the caste system. I don’t even think I am a star, but I know what I should do now.”

Prashant Rathod is a student at the Kautilya School of Public Policy in Hyderabad. His email address is rathodprashant148@gmail.com