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Cover Story: Pasha Bhai

Dakhni Urdu rapper Pasha Bhai's quest for selfhood in Bengaluru

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
Pasha Bhai and members of Clan Bokka Phod performing at Bowring Club on May 7.

Pasha Bhai and members of Clan Bokka Phod performing at Bowring Club on May 7.

Pasha Bhaiat his studio in Bengaluru.

Pasha Bhaiat his studio in Bengaluru.

A still from Pasha Bhai's music video 'Eid Ka Chand'.

A still from Pasha Bhai's music video 'Eid Ka Chand'.

Pasha Bhai’s journey from the Muslim ghetto of Neelasandra to the posh clubs of Bengaluru is as much a story about his art as about Dakhni Urdu, the language he consciously chooses to rap in, making it both a quest for selfhood and for his mother tongue’s history.

Institute, one of Bengaluru’s oldest social clubs, is pulsing with energy. Raftaar, a sensation in the Hindi and Punjabi rap scene, is the marquee act. Warming up the audience before he comes on is a bunch of Bengaluru-based rappers with funky monikers such as MC Truth, Ray, and Quake. Third in line is Pasha Bhai and his Clan Bokka Phod (CBP). On the evening of May 7, Bowring

When his turn comes, Pasha Bhai bounds onto the stage with his trademark energy. His hair cropped short and wearing a loose, full-sleeved T-shirt with baggy trousers that hang low on his waist, he opens with ‘Eid ka Chand’ (The Moon of Eid), one of his popular songs. A rousing cheer goes up from the audience, which is familiar with this number that has garnered more than 45,000 views on YouTube.

When Pasha Bhai sings the lines: “ ” (I’m my father’s spoilt brat/ My heart is like wax, but I have the courage of steel), some of his fans hum along. Pasha raps in street-Dakhni, and he raps at warp speed, which means that many in the crowd cannot grasp the lyrics but they are bound up in the frenzied covenant between singer and audience, which is part of the frantic mood of a rap concert. Even his band’s name is a Dakhni phrase for ‘ball-breakers’. Ladila Bawa Ka, Bigda Huwa Beta/ Moum Ka Dil, Par Jigra Loha Mera

Pasha follows up the first song with a few more popular solo numbers such as ‘Haraanya’n’ and ‘Kumbhakarana’. Then he is joined by his gang, the infamous Ball-Breakers, and they rap to ‘Khuda Gawah’.

Pasha screams ‘I love you Bangalore!’ before getting off the stage after his set. T-shirt soaked in sweat, he chugs down a bottle of water as fans walk up to him to take selfies. While the 23-year-old rapper has performed in several spaces in Bengaluru, being part of the opening act for Raftaar has added to the growing reputation of this savvy singer.

Also read: The curious case of Urdu

There are some distinct reasons for Pasha Bhai’s success. First, his originality as a lyricist and his intuitive ability to vocalise in Dakhni; second, his moorings in a marginalised social and economic Muslim stratum in Bengaluru that resonates with the ethos of the early Black rappers who emerged from the ghettos of American cities; and third, his conscious use of Dakhni, his mother tongue, which some linguistic scholars argue is a language on its own but which is often dismissed as a dialect of Urdu.

Spoken mainly by Muslims in Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Tamil Nadu, Dakhni, translated as ‘Deccani’, traces its provenance to the reigns of the Bahmani and Deccan Sultanates between the 14th and 17th centuries whose territories sprawled across the Deccan plateau from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. In certain parts of Hyderabad and Bengaluru and across urban centres in south India (except Kerala), Dakhni continues to be the lingua franca of a wide section of the non-Muslim population as well.

Says Bengaluru-based Arjun Sharma a.k.a Quake, the rapper who curated the event: “Pasha Bhai is one of the best thinkers/ writers out there. He’s talking sense and he’s talking reality. People should start understanding Dakhni to listen to him; that’s the only way our language will grow and get recognition. He is the only person representing Dakhni now.”

Pasha Bhai, whose non-rapping name is Mohammed Affan Pasha, has a simple studio, christened ‘Dakhnistan’, on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in the largely Muslim ghetto of Neelasandra in central Bengaluru. To get there, one has to negotiate a maze of narrow, meandering roads dotted with meat stalls, tiny mosques, and food kiosks. Minimally furnished, the most interesting thing in the dingy hangout is a carrom board around which Syed, Demixx, Nimbu Da, Marwan, Shoaib and Maddy of the CBP gang has gathered.

Also read: ‘Language is not a prisoner of religion’

Pasha was born in 1998 and grew up in Neelasandra. “We are the children of rowdies,” he said, referring not to his father, who was an auto-driver and passed away when Pasha was still in school, but to the grimy milieu of violence that engulfed him and his clan members growing up in Neelasandra. Pasha always had an ear for music and as a high schooler he began to listen to American and Indian rappers such as Eminem, 50 Cent, Yo Yo Honey Singh, Raftaar, IKKA and Machas with Attitude.

The Hindi rappers were a tremendous influence on him. Among his greatest inspirations was Mumbai’s Naezy because he “is also a Muslim from the ghettoes of Mumbai”. Pasha began rapping in Hindi at the same time, and the 2019 film about a rapper also had an impact on his nascent career. At this time, Pasha was doing “chhatri kaaman” (petty jobs) for easy money. Having failed in Class 12 and with a floundering love affair to boot, Pasha began working in a garment factory as a helper. His mother worked there too. It took a year of hard work before he realised the importance of education and enrolled himself in evening college. Gully Boy

Amid this tumult, Pasha’s cachet as a rapper was soaring, as he continued to rap in Hindi and began fledgling attempts at rapping in Dakhni. For Pasha, the hip hop and rap culture was alluring because the genre “does not ask you to be anyone but to be real and true to yourself”. Pasha adds that there were “no restrictions while rapping and there is no structure to the music”. Connoisseurs of rap will disagree with this assessment, but Pasha’s confidence only reiterates the intuitiveness with which he has grasped the technicalities of the medium. Pasha says rap gave him the freedom to become a musician without learning music.

He also started a cypher (a gathering of rappers making music extemporaneously) called ‘Wanandaf’ (a shortening of ‘one and a half’) in 2019, the name inspired by the refrain of Bengaluru auto-drivers demanding an inflated fare. Held weekly in open spaces such as Cubbon Park and Lalbagh, Wanandaf attracted budding rappers, hip hop artists, beat boxers and graffiti artists before the pandemic stepped in. Part of why Pasha began Wanandaf was to democratise hip hop in India.

Also read: ‘Attempts to impose Hindi not new’

“Hip hop is owned by marginalised African Americans, but when it came to India it was acquired by the elite. It was a closed group of artists and I couldn’t enter its exclusive space. When we’d go to rap concerts wearing slippers, we weren’t allowed in. It made me hate the culture of rap music,” Pasha said. But by 2019, Pasha had surmounted these class barriers and become a respected member of a network of fellow rappers who appreciated him for his ingenuity, which led to creative collaborations and caught the attention of aficionados. Counting singles and collaborations, Pasha has made almost 30 songs so far. He was also a sought-after act during the anti-CAA (Citizenship [Amendment] Act) protests in Bengaluru.

Pasha is India’s first rapper in Dakhni, and this was not accidental. When he “did not find a representation of his language in the rap industry”, he consciously chose to rap in Dakhni and the exercise has turned into a quest to know more about his mother tongue. “As a child I would proudly speak Dakhni even though it was mocked and patronisingly referred to as ‘Broken Urdu’. I was ignorant that the dialect had a name, unaware of its origins, history or associations. Like others around me, I grew up calling it ‘Bangalori Urdu’. As I researched further, I realised that Dakhni has always been under threat of being erased, misnamed or compelled to become a ‘dialect’ of a larger language and cultural group. The legacy of Dakhni poets and artists has been one fraught with constant struggle to keep Dakhni-ness alive.”

Hyderabad-based journalist and researcher Yunus Lasania argues that it is wrong to describe Dakhni as ‘Urdu’ or ‘Hyderabad Hindi’. “Dakhni (or Deccani) is usually mistaken to be a ‘dialect’ of Urdu, especially among northern Urdu speakers. Both Dakhni and Urdu have roots in Dehalvi (also known as ‘Old Urdu’), which existed in Delhi for around a century before it reached the Deccan in the 14th century through the conquests of Mohammed Tughlaq. Dakhni is a mix of Persian, Old Urdu (Dehalvi), Kannada, Marathi and Telugu. It was created when Dehalvi mixed with the three aforementioned languages,” he said.

Karthik Malli, an independent researcher and writer working on south Indian language histories, said, “Dakhni has, in all likeliness, been part of Bengaluru’s social landscape for many centuries now. Numerous Sufi shrines in Chickpet dating back to the 1700s catered to local Dakhni-speaking Muslims. Tipu Sultan [who was born in Devanahalli on the outskirts of modern Bengaluru] was a Dakhni speaker as well, and even commissioned literary works in the Classical Dakhni register cultivated earlier in Bijapur and Golkonda.”

Malli added, “Despite Dakhni’s presence and history in the city, it has seldom found any serious artistic expression. Digital media is helping change that by giving voice to artists like actor and comedian Danish Sait who utilises Dakhni to great effect in his highly popular comedic skits. Sarah Fazal, an RJ, also makes Dakhni skits on Instagram. There are also a number of social media meme pages that utilise Bangalore Dakhni, directly addressing a large local audience that uses the language in everyday life.” Pasha’s name must be added to this short list as someone who is furthering Dakhni in popular culture through rap.

Also read: There’s power in multilingualism

India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) has awarded Pasha a grant for his project titled “ ”, which seeks to “keep Dakhni language and culture alive through the art practice of rap and hip hop”. Said Sumana Chandrashekar of IFA, “With the privileging of certain cultures to the exclusion of many others, there is always the danger of losing sight of the rich multi-textured nature of experiences, narratives, people and languages that collectively form the fabric of this city. From this point of view, IFA is delighted to implement a project with Pasha to explore and engage with Dakhni expressions in Bengaluru’s popular culture. What is special about this project is that it embraces and embodies Pasha’s deeply personal lived experiences with Dakhni and moves on to excavate the deep cultural bond that this language has with the city. For us, the project is not just a celebration of Dakhni as a language but also a reaffirmation of the many cultures, histories and languages that make our city ” Apnich Bol, Dakhnich Bolnamma Bengaluru.

With his rising popularity and the support of respectable patrons such as IFA, Pasha has made the leap from Neelasandra to exclusive music spaces in the city. Looking at his talent and verve, his journey so far seems like the first chapter of a long book. This cocky segment in the collaborative rap piece ‘56’ illustrates his persona and talent more clearly:

Pasha bhi aako hin dekho sabbi jane khamush rhao,Gunna ginne scene ni scene huit’ long uthao,Tada dek’ tadpatin kisse to b uska taaluk rhaoChillar’an ku baazu b ni rakhte, chalo baazuk’ jao.

(Pasha bhai has arrived, everybody pipe down!

A scene breaking out, brandish your swords, strictly

no guns

You’re going to get it good – doesn’t matter who you

know,

Now move, you’re loose change, not worth my time,

now go!)

—Translated by Sahar Adil

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