On Hindi Film Soundtrack Jhund, a line punched by Vipin Tatad effectively sums up the three-hour plot in just 30 seconds: “Kale mel ke gali se ubhar ke aayela jhund.” From the blackened earth of a path came a herd.
The March release, which focuses on a sports teacher training young men from a slum to play football, gave Tatad greater prominence. But it’s not like he’s a newcomer to the music world: For nearly six years, 25-year-old Ambedkarite has been part of a quartet called Raptoli.
The four members of Raptoli – toli means “group” in Marathi – live in slums in Amravati, Maharashtra, and met on social media. Tatad, also known as VIP, Tausif Khan, or TMK, Mangesh Ingole, or Vardhan, and Gourav Ingole, or Charli, are from Dalit and marginalized communities.
Shaped by their struggles, their music explores casteism, educational inequalities, health, farmers’ issues, gender, Islamophobia and contemporary politics.
Life in a slum
Tatad lives in Siddharth Nagar, a pocket of slums in the middle of the city of Amravati, which is surrounded by uptown Sindhi Mohalla and Gadage Nagar. He is preparing a master’s degree in mass communication. His father worked as a peddler outside 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 canteen aide at the city’s Rainbow Institute of Medical Sciences hospital. Financial worries and family circumstances forced him to drop out of college. He arrives at the hospital at 7 a.m. to distribute tea and breakfast until noon, returns home to complete household chores, and returns to the hospital at 4 p.m. to work until 8 p.m.
Tausif Khan has an engineering degree but couldn’t find a job, so he helps his father run a Chinese food stall. Gourav Ingole – the fourth member of Raptoli – is also unemployed.
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 reflecting on the developments around him prompted Tatad to start writing. “I understood that rap would be the way to express myself,” he said. “I see my slum and our daily struggles. I see Khairlanji massacre, Rohith Vemula, Payal [Tadvi], and Hatras. Everything is based on caste.
The list he unrolled refers to the events that shook India. Khairlanji is the village in Bhandara district, Maharashtra, where four members of a Dalit family called the Bhotmanges were massacred.
Rohith Vemula was a Dalit doctoral student who committed suicide at Hyderabad University in 2016 after being harassed by authorities. Dr Payal Tadvi was an Adivasi medical student who took her own life in 2019 after alleging caste-based discrimination by her elders at BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai.
Hathras is the district in Uttar Pradesh where a Dalit woman was gang raped in September 2020. She died in hospital two weeks later.
Khan makes his music despite his parents’ disapproval. “They say it’s haram in Islam,” he said. But he says he wants to rap because many people in his neighborhood have been arrested and detained on what he claims are bogus charges.
“The families of many of those arrested don’t even have the money to send their children to school,” Khan said. “Their lives are a constant struggle to free their sons and their 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 law fast-tracks Indian citizenship for undocumented migrants from neighboring Afghanistan. , Pakistan and Bangladesh – except for women. This introduces a religious basis for Indian citizenship.
Last year Khan produced a song called Chala Wazan Daal as an affirmation of their identity and their rights. Chala wazan daal is a slang meaning roughly “to speak with freedom”.
Other national issues also influenced Raptoli’s repertoire. In 2020, when the first Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, the band rapped about the anger of migrant workers and laborers who were stranded without food or money to pay their rent due to the strict restrictions.
During the year-long protest by farmers’ groups at Delhi’s borders, Raptoli wrote a song about the enormous economic pressures farmers were facing.
The life of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution and a great defender of the rights of Dalits, 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 birthday.
“We are still struggling with [caste], but I think we are able to fight this thanks to Ambedkar,” Tatad said. “I believe the Ambedkar spirit stands with us, leads us.”
He added, “I 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 house serves as Raptoli’s studio. Group members speak on conference calls or meet in the evenings, when they have time, to discuss new tunes or ways to popularize their work.
Tatad, who learned video editing online, often works late into the night and concentrates on his rapping during the day. Mangesh Ingole tries to save time between shifts.
Raptoli’s YouTube channel has over 11,000 subscribers and some songs have over a million views. While the Internet has seemingly democratized musical creation, it’s hard to make a living from it. Only a well-edited video and song can attract huge online viewership which generates revenue for the creators. But this requires funding.
Raptoli barely makes any money, and the group has no funds to buy the musical beats that form the basis of rap tracks. These beats can cost Rs 3,000-Rs 5,000 each. Instead, the band sticks to royalty-free available music.
Each song takes the band about a month and a half to produce. Once they’ve written the lyrics, they search online for beats that might match the words. Often, the beats that Raptoli gets for free are then flagged for copyright infringement, causing the band to remove their songs from YouTube.
Recording music in a professional studio can cost between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000, and they also need to rent a video camera. A friend helps the group advertise on social media.
why they rap
For Tatad, rapping is part of his struggle for basic needs. “We don’t even have enough toilets in our slums,” he said. “In such circumstances, how can we think about their career?
Khan is here to inspire others. “People laugh at me,” Khan said. “But I ignore them because some say we inspire them. It motivates me.
Tatad says he’s in it for the long haul. He says he never dreamed of being famous in the film industry. “How can I be a star in a country where a Dalit can’t sport a mustache or ride a horse in his own wedding procession?” He asked. “The Indian film industry is no exception to the caste system. I don’t even think I’m a star, but I know what I have to do now.
Prashant Rathod is a student at the Kautilya School of Public Policy in Hyderabad. His email address is [email protected]