Hip-hop in Kolkata’s underbelly 

With each click on of his Nikon D750 digicam, 33-year-old Soham Gupta validates music’s propensity to permeate society’s collective unconscious in his new sequence Desi Boys. The Kolkata-based documentary photographer zooms in on the emergence of desi hip-hop music tradition among the many metropolis’s subaltern youth, reflecting a shift in its socio-cultural paradigm.

His signature type — the sooty-textured nocturnal backdrops, which dominated his Angst sequence portraits exhibited on the 2019 Venice Biennale — now engages with the hip-hop movement-inspired sartorial selections of his topics who hail from among the most impoverished areas and minority communities within the metropolis. “I travelled to Khiderpore, Metiaburz, Park Circus, Mallikpur, also Panskura to click these shots and clicked three groups of people, including Dalits and Shiva worshipers,” he says, over a cellphone name from Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery the place the sequence is exhibited.

Frames of contrasting realities create a mesh of ideologues and narratives that navigate the caste and sophistication divide, democratisation of data by means of the Web and its results on the marginalised. The portraits of males largely, in archival pigment, paint ironies with bleached hair, branded garments, chiselled and tattooed our bodies, graffiti on partitions, and littered roads fading into the background.

The grassroots hip-hop motion has helped the disenfranchised youth discover its voice, regardless of crippling odds like rampant class and caste tensions, xenophobia and huge revenue disparities, says Soham. “This movement is fuelled by the democratisation of smartphones and 3G/4G Internet, along with the boom in app-based service marketplaces that connect customers to service professionals, leading to a sudden demand for jobs for the economically marginalised youth. This empowers them with a sizable disposable income, which helps them indulge in fashion and music,” he explains.

Although Soham first picked up the digicam in 2005, a present from his father, he began clicking portraits for Desi Boys in 2018. “I have always been involved with the others, the in-betweens, the rebels and the marginalised. That drew me to this project. I feel this culture is empowering them. There is so much ambition in these boys. I look at this movement as a way of empowering oneself and getting globalised,” he says. Whereas Soham’s lens embraces the Indianness of the hip-hop tradition, he relinquishes the management of his digicam on a number of events, permitting his topics and their friends to take footage. “I go to the boys almost every day and hangout with them. I give my camera to them and they take the pictures. I lose control in such situations,” he says.

A majority of the town’s inhabitants resides within the suburbs, Soham says, whereas stating that it’s due to its secularism that many individuals indulge within the hip-hop motion on the grassroots. “I started photographing these boys because first, I wanted to have an art eye of images of a particular time in the history of India and so to show that people were asserting themselves. It’s a celebration of youth.”

The exhibition is on at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai until December 2. Images are on sale.

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