Hip-hop in Kolkata’s underbelly 

Soham Gupta’s Desi Boys series creates narratives that navigate the caste and class divide, democratisation of information and its effects on Kolkata’s marginalised youth

November 28, 2022 01:03 pm | Updated 08:56 pm IST

With every click of his Nikon D750 camera, 33-year-old Soham Gupta validates music’s propensity to permeate society’s collective subconscious in his new series Desi Boys. The Kolkata-based documentary photographer zooms in on the emergence of desi hip-hop music culture among the city’s subaltern youth, reflecting a shift in its socio-cultural paradigm.

His signature style — the sooty-textured nocturnal backdrops, which dominated his Angst series portraits exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale — now engages with the hip-hop movement-inspired sartorial choices of his subjects who hail from some of the most impoverished areas and minority communities in the city. “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 phone call from Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery where the series is exhibited.

Frames of contrasting realities create a mesh of ideologues and narratives that navigate the caste and class divide, democratisation of information through the Internet and its effects on the marginalised. The portraits of men mostly, in archival pigment, paint ironies with bleached hair, branded clothes, chiselled and tattooed bodies, graffiti on walls, and littered roads fading into the background.

The grassroots hip-hop movement has helped the disenfranchised youth find its voice, despite crippling odds like rampant class and caste tensions, xenophobia and vast income 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.

Though Soham first picked up the camera in 2005, a gift from his father, he started 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. While Soham’s lens embraces the Indianness of the hip-hop culture, he relinquishes the control of his camera on several occasions, allowing his subjects and their peers to take pictures. “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 city’s population resides in the suburbs, Soham says, while stating that it is because of its secularism that many people indulge in the hip-hop movement at 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 till December 2. Photographs are on sale.

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