A little over two years ago, Rupanjali Mahanta, a Guwahati-based housewife, freaked out one morning when her son just wouldn’t open his bedroom door. She recalls hearing “weird sounds” coming out of the room. After an hour, when 21-year old Dev Darshan Mahanta finally opened the door, he told her exactly what he was doing—vocal exercises for the upcoming India Beatbox Championship in Kohima, the first national-level platform for beatboxing in the country.
Mahanta, widely known as Spyro in the beatboxing circuit, recalls this incident with as much amusement as seriousness today. The latter comes with the loaded acknowledgment that in a few days, he will be participating in his biggest gig till date, representing Assam at one of the biggest beatbox events in Bengaluru, organised by BBX India, an Indian platform for beatboxers. The event, to be held between December 14 to 16, 2018, will see tough competition from beatboxers from Rajasthan, Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Karnataka. Additionally, the championship will lead to a nomination for the World Beatbox Championship in Berlin to be held next year (details are awaited).
Beatboxing, which finds its contemporary roots in the hip-hop subculture of the 1980s in America, has been gaining ground in India over the last few years. And a strong love for it has gripped quite a few in the northeast region. In fact, the India Beatbox Championship in Kohima in 2016, was the first successful attempt to highlight this movement. “The focus on the beatboxing culture in this region got an international focus only after this event,” says Otto Yeptho, one of its organisers.
Mahanta, who started beatboxing during his school days as a hobby and is currently enrolled in a BA course at Guwahati University, is part of this throbbing movement. He specialises in fluteboxing, in which the artiste plays the flute while simultaneously creating baseline, drum kicks and snare from his mouth. “Musicality in beatboxing is my strength,” says Mahanta, who was selected in the top-16 for the Goa Beatbox Battle last year, but couldn’t attend due to his college exams.
Mahanta is not alone. “We have seen beatboxers as young as 13 to 25 from the region, who have really made a mark,” says Ayushman Sinha, also known as Beat Panda, founder of the North East Beatbox Community (NEBC). While the beatboxers from the Northeast are united within their own states through their individual social media handles (Nagaland, Assam, and Mizoram, for instance), NEBC—a 150-member fraternity of beatboxers from the Northeast region—is one of the biggest platforms that unites artistes across that side of the Chicken's Neck. “Here, members upload their beatboxing clips and encourage each other to improve their skills and technicalities. Our community is growing because of word of mouth,” says Yeptho, a member from Nagaland. “Joining this community is mostly through invites. One artist will refer another from his or her area.” Beat Panda adds, “Young beatboxers have great energy, but when they create music all by themselves, they lose out on the promotion aspect. I felt that a common platform is required to encourage the art form, which inspired me to create this community.”
From college canteens to school classrooms, all the world’s a stage for these young beatboxers, most of whom are self-taught, says Yeptho. “Also, earlier, it was just for fun and to impress our peers. But now, things are changing. Guys are taking it seriously. They want to turn their passion into a profession,” he adds. Social media is a big mediator, especially for those from far-flung corners of the states. “Youths from the interiors of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram are connected with other beatboxers through WhatsApp,” says Sinha, “They send us their beatboxing videos on the NEBC WhatsApp group, while the senior members give them tips, if required, to improve their skills. We learn from each other.”
However, while the Northeast is known for its flourishing music scene, beatboxing is still a community-level form that needs to take the centre stage. “Beatboxers are still just fillers. We are rarely considered an act by ourselves. This notion needs to change, and it will change slowly,” says Mahanta. Every addition to the community is a boost. “It’s great to see many new beatboxers joining the community. I am hopeful that we will make it big someday,” says Zonimong Imchen, an influential 18-year-old Naga beatboxer, who featured among the top 8 beatboxers in India at the Kohima championship. Raj Kamal, or Raka Vee, an IT professional-turned-musician who is organising the Indian Beatbox Championship in Bengaluru, adds, “It would be interesting to see these artists grow and take this up as a full-time career.”
Jams and battles throughout the year are stepping stones to something big. “Regular meet-ups are very encouraging. It gives us a chance to work on our techniques and improve our skills by looking at each other's style,” says Gavin Lotha from Mizoram. For now, though, the region looks towards Indian Beatbox Championship to create a much-needed impact. “I promised myself that if I win the championship, I will change the beatboxing scene in the Northeast. Beatboxers deserve a mainstream stage. It shouldn’t remain an underground music movement anymore,” Mahanta signs off.