First let me tell you ’bout where I come from 
City that the best an the brightest run from
City where the trash grows 5 miles high while beemers and benzos just glide on by
Past the pushers and peddlers and the hookers and the whores
Past the people on the streets in their homes with no door
And no ceilings, no walls, just a bed – that’s the floor
Have you heard, have you seen, have you been there before?

— ‘Small Town, Big City’ by Park Circus

It’s a sweltering Sunday in April. DJ Valentine, 27, pulls me aside to a quiet corner, away from the belligerence of the thumping sub-bass, to tell me one of the many redemption stories of his crew members in Kolkata’s underground hip-hop scene. The story he picks is of Bikash, a former break-dancing student from the back alleys of Behala in Southwest Kolkata, who once had to go on the lam. “He went underground for a month. Nobody could find him.” Valentine believes that multiple timelines had come together favourably for us to be here. We are in an abandoned warehouse in a part of Kolkata where Google Maps starts going wonky. There are many graffitied pillars around us. The one my interlocutor is leaning against has the words “Relax, bro” written on it.

The rickety warehouse seemed an apt setting for Rasta Jam (Street Jam), a cypher-jam curated by the Kolkata-based alternative hip-hop group Park Circus in association with the independent pro-expression record label Orbs Cure Labs. Hundreds of performers were gathered there, among them some of the most hardened, talented and respected members of Kolkata’s underground hip-hop scene, with backstories that would fill a Da Capo book and a half.

Despite the humidity, there was a collective show of strength, proficiency and variety at the six-hour event. Flavours of Bhojpuri, Hindi, Bengali and English converged effortlessly in impromptu open-mics and mohalla rap battles, while the musical elasticity stretched from 1970s funk, old school and contemporary hip-hop, reggaeton and Bollywood to synthwave, glitch, nu-disco and electronica.

Apart from the throng of performers, local children had dropped by, as had the elusive Kolkata skateboarders and graffiti writers. The demographic ranged from early-teens to people in their mid-forties. I was clearly witness to the Kolkata hip-hop scene’s coming-of-age carnival. “Yeh jo scene aap dekh rahe ho na, iske tarah koi scene nahi hai India mein (There’s nothing quite like this in India),” said Raju, a first-generation Kolkata b-boy. “Yeh jam mein lagta hai ki Kolkata ka pura hip-hop culture hi aa gaya (It’s like the whole of Kolkata’s hip-hop culture descended on this place).”

A rap battle at Rasta Jam. Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid
A rap battle at Rasta Jam. Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid

Safe spaces

Valentine fitted the definition of what many here call an OG, an “original gangster” of Kolkata’s hip-hop culture. It is a street term and a salutation given to someone who has been there and seen it all. A member of the hip-hop group Park Circus, he was one of the hosts of the event. He pointed me towards Bikash. Through the steadily growing, grooving circle of a crowd, I caught a glimpse of a man doing an effortless upside-down elbow-stand (an elbow-pike, Valentine informed me) to the beats of California Love by Tupac Shakur and Dr Dre. This is what a cypher looks like. A cypher is both a sacred performative space and a democratic process, in which the people who build the circle also partake in it. And that circle is a safe space for former troubled youths like Bikash.

Valentine joined the leading music-makers at a red plastic table. The set-up was surprisingly minimal: a turntable, three laptops, two Ableton Push and an Advanced Process Controller. The outputs were hooked up to a sound system and set spotlights that matched the beat. Pulpy Shilpy, songwriter-turned-song creator, the co-operator of Orbs Cure Labs, was keying in the bassline. To her right, beep-bopping away at the multi-coloured squares of his push device, laying down the beat for the event, was producer National Animal, a member of the politically outspoken Park Circus.

Park Circus/SoundCloud

When done right, hip-hop serves as this generation’s protest music. It started off as a restorative and an emancipatory musical art form for the downtrodden, first for a race of people (African-Americans in the Bronx) being systematically marginalised under a conservative government, and then becoming a voice against the police brutalities and race-related lynchings in America’s West Coast.

History is cyclical and patterns repeat, but National Animal insisted that despite the coming together of Kolkata’s hip-hop community during the national election season, the event wasn’t a statement. Rather it was an exercise in freedom from judgement in performative spaces. “I’m happy that it doesn’t really represent anything,” he said. “There are a variety of people here – beatboxers, b-boys, dancers, rappers, free stylists, MCs and DJs, and they don’t need to be under a local banner or a label to perform here – it doesn’t matter.” Class distinctions and power dynamics between the performer and the audience, often witnessed in traditional performance spaces, were absent, said National Animal.

Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid.
Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid.

In Rasta Jam, the lines between the performer and the audience often blur. “This performance space is more cooperative and not like a product to be consumed,” said National Animal, 30. “Everyone has some stake in it, [rather] than just judging whether it’s good or bad. There’s a participatory vibe. Even when I’m playing the beats, for example, I’m trying to give the rapper breaks. And it’s not so much whether my beats sound well as much as it is about everybody trying to make the best of it. There’s a real sense that all of us are in this together.”

Events like this have a life of their own. “Jatras [Bengali travelling theatre groups] operate on similar levels,” said National Animal. “Your story, your presentation is secondary to the collective, community experience.”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” said BC Azad of Park Circus. “It may be something peculiarly Bengali, or Indian, but when it comes to the combination of festivities and the streets, people respond to it.”

DJ Valentine, National Animal and Pulpy Shilpy. Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid.
DJ Valentine, National Animal and Pulpy Shilpy. Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid.

The hosts spent Rs 25,000 to make the event possible. This expense included the fans, lighting, sound system, equipment, platform and the food and drinks. The money came from what they had earned through their live performances this year.

Community spirit

Pune-based Pulpy Shilpy was enthralled by her experience. “The gigs where I call them or they call me, it’s a lot like, ‘Oh, look at me, I am performing my songs,’” she said. “But here, to be at a level where you’re sharing and interacting and co-creating, this is like a dream come true for me.”

MC Manmeet Kaur, a resident of Goa, was the designated MC for the event. Having performed in Marseille and Paris, Kaur has a nuanced understanding of international street culture and she was fascinated by the extent of the artistic ability under one roof in the Kolkata warehouse. I7, a female waacker (a dance style formed in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles during the disco era), one of the performers who took to the open floor, emphasised that the gap between simply listening to hip-hop and going to clubs, and actually being a part of a crew and the street culture is massive. Real hip-hop, I understood, is not found in the clubs, but here.

Park Circus/SoundCloud

This old warehouse, I was informed, is not a place you can rent. It is a reclaimed space, part of the Public Works Department’s holdings. Certain arrangements had to be made. “It’s tricky,” Azad said, “but the tricky part is often straightforward.”

Even the initial resurrection of this space was a community effort. The transformation was spearheaded by the underground skateboarders who, a few years ago, cleared out the garbage and filled the potholes with cement, making the venue safe for local children’s practice.

Sense of belonging

I did eventually meet Bikash. He was diminutive, with chiselled features. As a teen, he mixed with the wrong crowd. He had been a pickpocket, a hustler, a self-proclaimed bareknuckle fighter, but the identity he derived most pride out of was that of a b-boy.

The warehouse. Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid.
The warehouse. Photo credit: Nawaz Khalid.

“Yeh ulti duniya hai, ise sar ke bal khade hoke dekhne se hi sahi nazar aati hai (This world is twisted. Only once you change your perspective, does it start to make sense),” he explained.

The day that Bikash fled from the scene of a crime, and subsequent events, changed him forever. He now holds a full-time job as a ward boy and is training to be a male nurse. The boredom of patta, dendrite and other low-brow addictions and criminal vices was replaced by the proactivity and due process of dance and a sense of belonging and responsibility derived from the city’s hip-hop community. “When life gets better, and so many believe in you, you don’t feel the need to anaesthetise yourself as much,” he said, just as we parted.