Vikram Gaja, 18, is not taking classes to prepare for exams, or fretting over a career like many urban teenagers in India. Instead, he spends his time teaching hip hop to youngsters in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, participating in nationwide “dance battles”, and supporting his parents with the income he earns as an instructor. “He is one of the best B-boys [breakdancers] from Dharavi,” says Sunil Rayana, co-owner of SlumGods of Mumbai, a collective of hip-hop artists in the city. This easy-to-build bamboo house could solve Asia’s slum problem Gaja joined SlumGods in 2013 after he met its founders Vicky and Akash Dhangar. The siblings began teaching hip hop to youngsters in an open area of the slum. The name is a spin on the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire, filmed partly in Dharavi, where up to one million people live in an area of about 216 hectares [535 acres]. “I watched them for days but couldn’t muster the courage to ask if I could learn with them,” Gaja recalls. His parents were not keen on him joining because they wouldn’t be able to pay his medical bills if he broke a bone, and they were concerned he might end up mixing with the wrong crowd. “It is quite common to find young boys chewing tobacco, smoking or doing drugs in Dharavi,” Gaja says. Then the Dhangar brothers noticed him hanging around, and asked if he was interested in learning. The rest is history for Gaja. SlumGods was launched the same year as the release of Slumdog Millionaire, in part to give children living in Dharavi a chance to pursue a hobby and channel their energy in a positive direction. “Dharavi is not only about poverty and crime, as is the common perception,” Rayana says. “We found the name of the film derogatory.” The SlumGods founders wanted to showcase these children “who may not have money, but a lot of talent and a hunger to learn”. They respect what they learn and will pass their lessons on to the next generation, like Gaja is doing, Rayana says. Hip hop has been a blessing for Gaja. It keeps him challenged and focused on his goals, and has helped him tide over hard times. “I rehearse my moves whenever I get a chance; that’s the kind of effect hip hop has on a person,” he says. In Dharavi – once Asia’s largest slum – children grow up in an environment where hobbies and entertainment are a luxury. Most attend overcrowded, low-cost schools where dignity and respect are hard to get from their teachers and peers. In their tiny one-room homes, there’s barely space to stretch and sleep, so playing is not an option. What can be done to help the residents of Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums? Children are expected to run errands or do household chores in their free time, giving them little time to pursue a hobby or follow their aspirations. A number of organisations have opened in Dharavi to serve such children, creating free or low-cost arts and culture programmes, and social interventions to tap their talent. SlumGods is just one of the collectives that started out informally, but has developed a fully-fledged, free after-school training programme. Called The Dharavi Project, the programme now has around 75 children who attend. Since 2016, with the support of Qyuki Entertainment – music director A.R. Rahman and producer-director Shekhar Kapur’s company – and Universal Music, a permanent space has been rented in the slum for The Dharavi Project. Trainers are paid and youngsters are able to travel across the country for battles and competitions. After-school classes for beatboxing, rapping, breakdancing and street art – all core elements of hip hop – take place every evening. Not far from SlumGods’ training centre is the home of Narayan Pundalik Lad, a small-time film actor and assistant director, who runs dancing and acting classes at Five Star for children from the community. Like youngsters across the country, many in the slum also dream of breaking into Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry that’s based in Mumbai. Lad is their teacher and mentor, and casting crews from production houses reach out to him when they need young actors. The children learn to dance, act, play fight, model and do power yoga every Sunday for a small fee, or free of charge if their families do not have the means. Lessons in flavour and frugality from home cooks in Dharavi “Acting classes by eminent directors in Mumbai are highly priced and these kids from poor families can’t afford them,” Lad says, which is why there is a huge demand for his classes. Lad has been running them for more than 30 years at his home in Dharavi, with 60 to 70 youngsters turning up. “Sir treats us like his family,” says 20-year-old M.S. Radha Kumari, who has been taking lessons with Lad for more than six months and dreams of becoming an actress. Independent artists Himanshu S and Aqui Thami are also popular with the children who regularly attend classes at their NGO, Dharavi Art Room, to learn drawing, painting and photography. “The children are happy when they are with us and we are many more times happy with them,” Himanshu says. With just a nominal registration fee of 50 rupees (US$0.70), children aged between six and 16 take part in various activities at the Dharavi Art Room. There is a library, storytelling sessions and picnics on weekends. How Bangkok is struggling to protect its slums from flooding “Children love the outdoors because they rarely get a chance to go out, except to their relatives or religious places,” Himanshu explains. He and Thami spend five to six hours on any regular day with the children in what they consider a “safe space”. “Both of us have had messy childhoods, and understand that the availability of safe spaces and the presence of the right kind of people and resources can work wonders for children, as it has done for us,” Himanshu says. For children from dysfunctional families with tight finances, time spent at the art room helps them learn to observe, understand and gain the confidence to express themselves, he adds. Filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan, founder of the Dharavi Diary: Slum And Rural Innovation Project, agrees that the difference between a confident and unconfident child could be the opportunity to learn. Ranjan’s work includes teaching coding to the Dharavi children. In 2014, he returned to Mumbai from San Francisco, where he had been teaching undergraduate students, to give back to the community. Inhabitants of this India slum live and die in a ‘plastic hell He noticed that every home in Dharavi had a smartphone, which the children used for playing games. “So I thought, could I give them a bit of learning through the phone, which they could use for problem-solving?” he recalls. Ranjan used his savings to buy laptops and books, and to build the infrastructure at the three-storey building he rented for his centre in Dharavi. “I wanted to work with girls first, as they are the ones who are always left out,” he says. The innovation project started with 15 young women who learned coding on computers using an open-source development tool. Four girls from Dharavi, with their team, canvassed the community and created prototypes for four mobile applications: an alert for the municipality to collect piled-up garbage; a safety alarm for women; language learning; and alerts for availability of water from a public tap. “The aim is to enhance their life skills using technology and make them ready for the future,” Ranjan says. The centre also has instructors for after-school study support, where students can learn, interact and understand sustainability issues in a simple and enjoyable manner. Millions of empty homes in India, but unrentable for migrants Ansuja Madiwal, 17, is a university student who created the “Women Fight Back” mobile app at Ranjan’s centre. She says she used to be an introvert who never went out alone and lacked the confidence to interact with new people. Not only has the experience of learning to code, and the recognition it has brought her, boosted her confidence, but it has also changed her parents’ mindset. “Now my parents don’t send my brothers along with me when I go out. I can go alone,” she says. Her friend Zaberi Ansari, the brains behind the “Clean and Green” app, finds that her parents value her study time more. “Now, it’s not just me; they ask my brothers to help with chores, too, which gives me more time to study,” she says with a smile.