Culture

How Hip Hop and Breakdancing Changed the Lives of Two Deaf Boys From India

The journey of b-boys Jatin Tiwari and Ubaidurrehman Sayyed, from being societal “outcasts” to earning self-esteem, respect and a platform to express themselves.

by Shamani Joshi
08 November 2019, 7:54am

All Photos by Shamani Joshi

The first time I met Jatin Tiwari, 20, and Ubaidurrehman Sayyed, 23 was at a park in the suburban district of Borivali in Mumbai. They were in the middle of a breakdance—contorting themselves into gravity-defying shapes as they twisted and turned to catchy beats, before finally leaping into a headstand and swivelling their bodies using their heads as pivots. In a way, their attire complemented their personalities too: Tiwari, also known as b-boy Trick Power, whose warmth and enthusiasm you can feel at the first instance, wore a bright, floral shirt, while Sayyed was clad in patterns that paired well with his sombre shyness. And while it’s not unusual to find young boys breakdancing in several public spaces around the city, these two best friends stand out. These two smooth breakdancers are deaf.

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23 year-old Ubaidurrehman Sayyed is one half of the magnetic duo, and was the first of the two boys to pick up b-boying moves, often practising mid-air flips even before he had formal training.

Breakdancing is an athletic style of street dancing that was born from the hip hop movement, and those who participate in it are referred to as b-boys, b-girls or breakers. This form generally requires the dancer to groove to the rhythm and beat of the song and is often done in the competitive environment of a cypher. Breaking has been a burgeoning scene in India over the last few years, especially as a form of escape for boys coming from low-income or underprivileged backgrounds, whose exposure to hip hop music is what leads them to this dance style. But while there are a few crews around the world who do accommodate deaf or partially deaf dancers, it’s usually unheard of as most competitions take into account the participants’ responsiveness to the rhythm of the music. Here, it’s crucial for the steps to align with the beats of the music. But rules were meant to be broken.

For Tiwari and Sayyed, things weren’t easy while growing up. Even though they studied in a special education school in Mumbai, the sense of alienation, in school and in society, remained. Today, they study at the Public Charitable Trust for Training Disabilities in Malad, where Tiwari is in the 9th grade while Sayyed is in 12th. “People in our school couldn’t understand us or talk to us, so it was always difficult to make friends or even have anyone else who could relate to us, so we always felt like outcasts,” they tell me in sign language. The feeling of being outsiders, reinforced by years of bullying and mockery by peers, went on for a while. Then, they stepped into the world of breakdancing.

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20 year-old Jatin Tiwari is a bright and enthusiastic guy with a zealous spirit that has kept him going, despite being bullied and pinched by his classmates growing up.

“Five years ago, we were messing around on YouTube, when we stumbled upon a random breakdancing video,” says Sayyed. “We were mesmerised. In that moment, we decided that this was the missing element in our lives, and wanted to be as great as the b-boys in the videos who had just blown our minds.”

It started with practising at a park near their homes in Kandivali. They watched as many YouTube tutorials as their internet connections would allow, followed with tons of practice. But things took off only when they met Sujal Pandey, who’s a part of Street Dance Family, a local crew that has been around for half a decade and whose members have even gone on to set records in the Limca Book of Records for their headspins and halo spins. A commerce student working part-time at a call centre at the time, Pandey was a self-taught b-boy, and they caught him doing mid-air flips in the park. They implored him to teach them. He’s also the one interpreting what the boys are saying, for me.

“They were watching me continuously as I was practising my breaking and finally asked me to teach them my moves,” Pandey, who learned sign language to help the duo out, tells me when I meet them all later. “I agreed, though it was really difficult and disorienting at first since they couldn’t understand the beats or follow the rhythm of the music, which is really important in breakdancing. Initially they felt that because they couldn’t understand the music, the crowd wouldn’t understand them. But then I started learning sign language and used that to mentor them effectively.”

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It was only when the boys began to practise under the guidance of Sujal Pandey that their skills truly began to shape up, which helped Pandey develop his own abilities as a b-boy and learn new steps to teach the boys.

For their performances, Pandey uses his fingers to indicate the different counts that represent a certain step. For instance: holding up one finger for top rock, a stylistic foot movement; two for the Indian step, a freestyle addition introduced in India; three to show them they have to twist their hips; four for them to turn sideways; and so on.

deaf hip hop breakdancer
Pandey has developed a system of counts to help the boys dance without needing to follow the beats of the music, and in the initial days, would stand on the side and surreptitiously indicates the steps to the boys.

The two also had to keep this new-found love a secret from their families. The pair would bunk school and sneak off to the park to work their moves. Once, though, they were spotted by some of their parents’ friends, who reported them instantly. “Their parents were very strict and not supportive at all in the beginning,” said 18-year-old Nitish ‘Tau’ Pandey, another b-boy and a close friend of the duo. “When their parents found out about them breaking with us, they would come to us and say things like, ‘Mere bacche ko aise mat bigado (don’t ruin my child’s life with this).’ But even though we were scared, the persistence of the boys made us stand by them.” Then one day, the boys decided to show their moves to their concerned families who were taken aback at how talented their kids were, alongside being relieved that the pair wasn’t just whiling away the time.

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Tau is a longtime friend of the pair and has even learnt sign language so he can chat with them on video call and help them develop their dancing abilities.

It’s taken Tiwari and Sayyed countless hours of hardcore practice and more than 50 breaking competitions at school annual functions and local festivals, to have not only earned the parents’ support, but also reassure themselves that this is what they were meant to be doing. This year in September, their efforts were wildly appreciated at the Breezer Vivid Shuffle, a national-level breakdance cypher and the biggest stage they’ve been on yet.

“It was really scary being in front of so many people,” Tiwari and Sayyad tell me. “But we were encouraged by Sujal and the rest of the crew so much that eventually, we put ourselves out there and enjoyed every minute of it.”

Over time, Pandey has seen the boys’ transformation from being on the receiving end of bullying to become the “cool kids” that other young people flock to. Does this help them score dates too, I ask.

Tiwari awkwardly smiles and tells me a story about a girl who once came and complimented him after his performance and was trying to talk to him, but he was far too shy to carry on the conversation. Sayyed, though, feels that girls can become a distraction and wants to focus on his career, despite the ample female attention he receives.

“Don’t be fooled by their shyness, though, because these boys are the biggest pranksters in our group,” interjects Tau. “They give us wedgies and are always trying to make us trip on our feet. But we’re all very close. Now, we video-call each other and talk in sign language whenever we want.”

In India, the gap between those with disabilities and those without remains large, mainly hampered by the fact that we don’t have adequate systems and infrastructure in place to include those with disabilities in the society. This leads to a wide chasm, one that perpetuates stereotypes on the lives of people with disabilities, and an inability to reconcile ourselves with the idea that what we actually need is a more inclusive society for the benefit of us all. Pandey recounted an instance where a crew in Malad they were breaking with three years ago for a local dance-off refused to compete with the boys due to them being hearing-impaired. “But they still didn’t accept defeat, stayed up and practised the whole night, and the next day, killed it. We beat almost everyone else and came in second place.” Going forward, the boys have big dreams and want to shake things up to win big at international competitions.

As the afternoon sun slowly begins to set, the two boys break into yet another performance, and it’s clear that breakdancing is more than just a dance form for them. It’s a way of life. “Breaking has been nothing but good for us,” the boys tell me through Pandey. “Not only does it gives us an insane rush of energy, but it’s also been a major confidence booster, helped us develop a sense of self-esteem and given us a great platform for us to express ourselves without needing words or language.”

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