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Pasha Bhai and the sound of vernacular dissent

On ‘Bangalore Ka Potta’, rapper Pasha Bhai takes us on a tour of the city as seen by a young Dakhni-speaking Muslim boy

Album art for Pasha Bhai’s 'Bangalore Ka Potta'
Album art for Pasha Bhai’s 'Bangalore Ka Potta'

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The first time I heard Aafat, the debut single by then unknown Mumbai rapper Naezy the Baa, it felt like being touched (ever so lightly) by prophecy. “This could really be something,” I remember thinking at the time. Aafat, released without fanfare on YouTube in January 2014, would mark a turning point for Mumbai rap, heralding its transformation from an obscure underground scene to a national, even global, phenomenon. 

In the years since, I have often returned to the question of what it was about Aafat that had me—and, as it turns, out millions of others—so convinced after just one listen. It wasn’t the music production, which was rudimentary, or the music video, which had been shot by amateurs on an iPad (it showed). My theory is that the secret ingredient was the Mumbai street—the working- class experience of joy, community, petty criminality and state violence in the midnight city—that ran through the song, giving it a raw authenticity that still stands out eight years later. 

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With its Mumbaiya-inflected Urdu and the archetypal street characters that populated its lyrics, Aafat created a vivid, rich world rooted in a reality that few of us had experienced outside the dry language of academia and journalism or the savarna-saviour gaze of parallel cinema. And those four-and-a-half minutes in that world felt so real—so authentically Mumbaiya—that we kept going back for more. 

There were resonances of that same raw, emotional authenticity on my first spin of Bangalore Ka Potta, the debut album by Bengaluru rapper Pasha Bhai and his crew Bokka Phod (literally “ball-breakers”), which released earlier this month. Born Mohammed Affan Pasha, the 23-year-old multilingual rapper raps in Dakhni—either a variation of Urdu or an independent language, depending on which expert you believe—and raps about his lived experience in Neelasandra, a Muslim-majority neighbourhood infamous for urban neglect and “rowdy” gang violence. 

The Naezy inspiration is evident on Bangalore Ki Daastan, Pasha Bhai’s oral history of the Bengaluru street. Over wonky Adult Swim synths and threadbare percussion, the rapper takes you on a tour of the city as seen by a young Dakhni-speaking Muslim boy, invisible to the privileged, othered by communal politics, and struggling with conservativism and patriarchy in his own community. 

But this isn’t the Bollywood style of “inspiration”. Pasha’s ambition is grander than making Bengaluru’s Aafat, and the album’s “Neelsandar” is a grimmer, grimier place than “Bombay-70”. So while Bangalore Ki Daastan also makes playful references to street archetypes—the MLA’s son with security guards, the nosy neighbours—it is accompanied by a biting critique of social conservatism and patriarchy. “Lover se milne gayech nai ki ino sondori mein? (Did they never go meet lovers in narrow alleys?),” he asks at one point, sounding genuinely frustrated and bewildered. 

Toxic notions of masculinity also come under attack on Tumare Bawa, a vivid fever-dream about the cycles of poverty, repression and misdirected violence that put India’s working classes on the front lines of the class war, facing the blunt, brutal hand of Indian policing. It’s bracingly direct both in its depiction of police brutality and its open antagonism to the police. While many of India’s popular rappers stick to playfully subversive allusions to the police—it’s not so easy to say “f*** the police” when you live in a society that still valourises “encounter specialists”—Pasha pulls no punches. Having grown up in the rapidly communalising cauldron of Bengaluru, he no longer has the patience for diplomatic niceties. 

So, on the autobiographical hard-hitter Neelsandar, he calls out everyone from the prime minister and state-aligned media to Bengaluru rap elites. His account of Neelasandra’s crime-and-violence epidemic is lightened by moments of familial and communal joy but the song does not shy away from looking urban despair in the eye. 

Similarly, Aidavalli documents police violence and state Islamophobia. “Ghosht ke diwane hume Tukde Tukde Gang se (We’re all meat lovers here, from the Tukde Tukde Gang),” he raps, the slurs of the Hindu right repurposed into sneering contempt for their paranoia. 

And then there’s Wanandaf, a multilingual collaboration with Loud Silence that celebrates the city’s multiculturalism and street life. Over propulsive folk drums and sinewy synths arranged by producer Demixx Beats, the duo crafts an anthem for the city’s rowdy youth, referencing everything from wheelies to lunch at Military Hotel. And even if you don’t get the references—or indeed any of the lyrics—you will still find yourself infected by the song’s relentlessly joyful bounce. 

Bangalore Ka Potta, then, is an excellent, distinctive debut by a unique new artistic voice. And part of what makes it so distinctive is Pasha’s commitment to Dakhni—a language with little contemporary prestige—pushing back against the homogenising pressures of the mass market and linguistic politics. 

In that commitment, it joins a small but growing corpus of works by contemporary indie artists that champion vernacular and marginalised languages. In Kashmir, artists like rapper Ahmer and folk-rocker Ali Saffuddin have brought renewed attention to  the Kashmiri language, with the latter’s Urdu and Kashmiri album, Wolivo, coming out just this month. Arivu’s north Chennai rap is finding takers way beyond traditional Tamil-speaking audiences. 

In part, this reflects a broader shift in audience tastes, as the internet and recommendation algorithms have helped dismantle global scepticism towards songs in an unfamiliar language: See the rise of K-pop and Latin pop in the US. In the Indian mainstream too, streaming has led to a slow decline (though it remains dominant) in Bollywood and Hindi music’s share of consumption as consumers grow more adventurous in their listening habits. 

But in the cases of the aforementioned artists and others like them, the choice of language is one part of a broader political assertion of marginalised and otherised identity. The specific hegemonies—of caste, religion, state power—that they oppose may differ but their work pushes back against the homogenising narratives of nationalism and communalism. Their music, in all the little eccentric specificities of their lyrics and cultural references, celebrates the broad spectrum of identities that come under the “Indian” umbrella. 

Bangalore Ka Potta, in all its nihilistic rage and blood-specked splendour, is a reminder that despite the attempts to erase certain identities, perspectives and ideas from the mainstream, the human urge to express your social and political truth perseveres, and that those truths will always find an audience. That may be small comfort to those facing the blunt edge of the stick—like Pasha Bhai and his contemporaries—but it remains one I cling to for hope in these dark times. 

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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