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The dawn of break

  • The world finals of Red Bull BC One in Mumbai shone a light on India’s breaking culture
  • Breaking is a street dance style that emerged in the Bronx in the 1970s

A participant in the Hip Hop Battle during the Red Bull BC One Camp, ahead of the World Finals in Mumbai. courtesy red bull
A participant in the Hip Hop Battle during the Red Bull BC One Camp, ahead of the World Finals in Mumbai. courtesy red bull

The imposition of Section 144 in Mumbai following the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Ayodhya dispute could not dampen the enthusiasm of the 4,000-odd hip hop and street dance fans who converged at the NSCI Dome in Worli last Saturday for the world finals of the Red Bull BC One competition. This was the first time Red Bull BC One—the biggest global one-on-one breaking competition—was hosting the world finals in India, and the Indian breaking community had been abuzz with excitement since the news was announced in March.

The event lived up to its billing as Dutch b-boy Menno made history by becoming the first person to win the competition thrice. Russia’s Kastet took the honours in the b-girl event, which was added to the competition last year.

For the uninitiated, breaking is a street dance style that emerged in the Bronx in the 1970s, an essential element of the hip hop subculture. As early hip hop DJs started using dual turntables to loop the rhythmic breakdown sections of dance records, they provided an opportunity for dancers to show their skills in competitive battles. Drawing from influences as diverse as James Brown, kung-fu movies and uprock—an aggressive dance style popular in New York Latinx communities—the early b-boys were the original stars of hip hop parties. As other elements of hip hop—especially rap music—broke into the mainstream, breaking also gained popularity.

Over the decades, breaking has become a globally popular dance form, with vibrant scenes in Brazil, France, Korea, Japan, Russia, India and many other countries. In India, breaking—as well as DJing—were the hip hop elements that first caught people’s attention, before rap music took centre stage. Earlier this year, I spent a couple of months doing research for Breaking New Ground: India’s Dance Revolution, a feature-length documentary on the Indian breaking scene produced by Red Bull India and released last month in the run-up to the BC One world finals. As we spoke to three different generations of b-boys from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai and Shillong, we were inspired by the dedication, hard work and resolve of the men and women who built this scene, with little support from state institutions or private capital.

The Indian breaking story started in the early 2000s, when a handful of youngsters across the country discovered it through YouTube, movies like Stomp The Yard and You Got Served, and chance interactions with Indian-American hip hop veterans like Netrapal Singh aka b-boy HeRa. Over the next few years, these self-taught breakers found each other on Orkut or at college dance events and formed their own crews—Freak N Stylz and SlumGods in Mumbai, Black Ice Crew in Bengaluru, Break Guruz in Kolkata and Chennai, and Tandav Crew and Projekt Street Dance in Delhi. They travelled across the country to battle in dingy halls and tiny dance studios, at community-organized events like The Culture and Cypherholics.

Their efforts—despite the lack of financial support—have led to India becoming an increasingly popular destination for international breaking events, with Red Bull BC One holding qualifiers here from 2015. For many, the world finals of the competition coming to India felt like a vindication of their efforts.

“This is a massive moment for all the b-boys and b-girls who have been pushing the scene here for so long," says Arif Chaudhary aka b-boy Flying Machine, who represented India in the BC One world finals. Disappointed at being eliminated at the quarter-final stage, he still believes the event will provide a boost to the Indian breakers wanting to make it to the world stage. “I think if we can get some government support so we can travel and experience this level of competition on a regular basis, we will see an Indian b-boy be the world champion very soon."

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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