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After-school ofhip hop

  • Dil Aziz, a single by two students from St Michael’s School for the Blind, Ranchi, has been racking up plays on JioSaavn’s Artist Originals Initiative
  • They are now part of an underground music movement in smaller cities and towns across the country

Album art
Album art

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Dheeraj Kumar Gupta and Subhash Kumar are out for their summer holidays, presumably having a blast. And while they are away, Dil Aziz, a peppy folk-fusion song they penned, and which released through JioSaavn’s Artist Originals initiative, has been steadily racking up plays on the platform—100,000 in under a month, and counting.

This is nothing short of a feat, given that Gupta, 15, and Kumar, 14, are both students at St Michael’s School for the Blind in Ranchi, Jharkhand, where they are being tutored in music by Rishabh Lohia, a Ranchi-based musician who writes and performs as The Mellow Turtle. Lohia, 26, has been teaching visually impaired students at the school since 2016, after a chance visit as a volunteer sparked something in him. With the support of the principal, he began teaching a few students how to play the guitar; more joined in. He remodelled a defunct room in the school into a music room, setting it up with donated instruments, and began jamming with the children.

“One day,” Lohia says, “Subhash, the lyricist, told me he had written a song. I was like, ‘That’s really cool, let’s hear it!’ Dheeraj sang it, and I was just mesmerized. A 14-year-old writing such intricate lyrics.” They had the structure of the song ready, and Lohia made his friend and frequent collaborator, the hip hop producer and rapper Sumit Singh Solanki (aka Tre Ess), hear a clip of it on the phone. Excited, the two decided to record the song properly at Solanki’s studio. They worked with the students on the arrangements and produced the song.

The recording process with Gupta, who is trained in classical music and has been learning music since he was 5, didn’t last more than 2-3 hours. “He’s extremely passionate about music; he plays the tabla and the synth as well. It’s like a vibration passing through his body. I have never seen music affect someone in such a positive way,” says Lohia.

That’s how Dil Aziz came into existence. According to him, it was that environment; having the freedom to create. “Just the whole dynamic of kids feeling comfortable with each other, collaborating,” he says.

Lohia and Solanki are both on the roster of nrtya, the Mumbai-based indie music label. While Lohia’s music falls in the bluesy, experimental space, Solanki’s work is in the hip hop realm. They are both part of the growing underground music scene around the country, which has grown slowly over the years, given the rise of “bedroom producers” who are able to access and learn recording software thanks to internet tutorials. These artists get to put their music on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and YouTube, and build a following through social media, as audiences open up to newer sounds. With the media hype around hip hop—a movement built on DIY endeavours by the artists themselves—and the entry of streaming services in India, this is getting magnified further.

The two ran Dil Aziz through nrtya, with whom JioSaavn had been in touch, looking for talent for its Artist Originals (AO) programme. In a previous interview with this writer, a spokesperson at JioSaavn had explained that with AO, they work out customized, non-exclusive deals with artists, and, depending on the need, help to produce and distribute the music.

Rishabh Lohia, Sumit Singh Solanki, Dheeraj Kumar Gupta and Subhash Kumar.
Rishabh Lohia, Sumit Singh Solanki, Dheeraj Kumar Gupta and Subhash Kumar.

Previous works include releases by Prateek Kuhad, Sid Sriram and a collaboration by American rapper Nas. For Dil Aziz, Lohia and Solanki had the freedom to record and produce the song, while AO handled the mixing and mastering process before putting it out on its streaming service.

The song is driven by Gupta’s piercing delivery, backed by restful, understated instrumentation which draws from folk traditions as well as pop and rock music. The words speak of vulnerability, love, friendship, though Lohia is reluctant to examine the lyrics too deeply—he feels they are open to multiple interpretations.

While released as a single, Dil Aziz isn’t a one-off. In fact, while both Gupta and Kumar are happy with how it turned out, Lohia talks about how they are already looking forward to working on more music. The duo is working with the children at the school for an EP—more songs have been recorded—and Lohia speaks glowingly of another student who has written a song in his native Nagpuri language.

It’s all part of a wider initiative Lohia has in mind. He paints a bleak picture of the indie music scene in Jharkhand, pointing to the complete absence of venues with facilities to programme live music and the lack of commitment and dedication among artists. “Forget original music, we don’t even have covers! There’s great talent in Ranchi, but no active community of forward-thinking musicians. Somehow, the work ethic is lacking. You need a community; people to interact with. You can’t be in your room alone making music. It happens, but it won’t last.”

Lohia’s work with the students at St Michael’s School for the Blind is part of the Taal initiative by the Ekastha Foundation, an NGO he has founded. Ekastha, which means “standing together”, is his way of working towards environment conservation. “I thought planting trees, urban forestation, would be a good start. In the long run, I want to work towards conservation of biodiversity, of forests, in Jharkhand. The long-term vision would be the conservation of forests and empowering tribal communities.”

He wants to bring about a change through community engagement, and intends to work with music and students as a way to mobilize the youth and involve them in social causes. “I am trying to link music to all of this—it can be a catalyst to get students in school to learn about waste management and the environment.”

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