Coronavirus: Migrant worker finds stardom rapping about the plight of India's poor

Duleswar Tandi's searing lyrics excoriated India's widening income inequality as well as the indifference to the plight of the poor. PHOTO: DULESWAR TANDI

NEW DELHI - A countrywide lockdown which lasted for more than two months from its imposition on March 25 has been merciless on millions of India's migrant workers. But it is amid the despair that Mr Duleswar Tandi found his voice - and the elusive fame he had coveted.

The 27-year-old Tandi returned home to Odisha's Borda village ahead of the lockdown, giving up his job as a table cleaner at a restaurant in Raipur, the capital of the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh. He would earn around 4,000 rupees (S$75) per month, besides food and lodging.

Back home, Mr Tandi soon became angry and dejected at the turn of events that forced the poor like him to give up their livelihoods and fend for themselves. With little to do in his village, the chemistry graduate directed his disillusionment and anger into writing a hip hop song.

His searing lyrics excoriated India's widening income inequality as well as the indifference to the plight of the poor. Mr Tandi uploaded a video of himself performing his song on his Facebook page on April 21 and went to bed with little idea about what was to ensue.

His phone did not stop buzzing the next morning. "I got so many calls from friends telling me my song had gone viral," he told The Straits Times.

Mr Tandi had toyed with his passion for hip hop for several years but failed to hit the right note. That opportunity finally arrived with the focus in his music on the bitter experience of the lockdown that he shared with other itinerant workers, who have now embraced his songs as their anthems.

His rising stardom soon drew the attention of Odisha TV, a local television channel, which reached out to him for a feature. "I got really scared wondering what it was that had made them call me," he added in jest. Footage of a subsequent programme profiling Mr Tandi and his music on Odisha TV's Facebook page has accumulated more than a million views since it was posted on June 14.

Wider national fame followed this month when the People's Archive of Rural India, a website dedicated to news and features from India's hinterland, tweeted a video of him singing his most popular song. "Government, answer this, answer this... Why is the pregnant woman returning; Walking thousands of kilometres; Step by step, barefoot; With a baby in her womb?" he sings, his arms flailing and his eyes lined prominently with kohl.

His videos are shot on his Xiaomi smartphone and have a certain rawness that reinforces his rebellious subaltern voice.The backdrop of the rough-walled hut lit by bare bulbs is humble and one can often see sunlight peeking through the gaps in the mud-tiled and bamboo roof. Mr Tandi lives in Kalahandi district, one of India's most impoverished.

Mr Tandi lives with his 53-year-old mother, Pramila, a firewood collector. PHOTO: DULESWAR TANDI

His songs, available on his YouTube channel Rapper Dule Rocker, are sung mostly in Kalahandia and Hindi. They have become especially popular with youngsters looking for outlets to vent their anger provoked by issues that he writes about, such as corruption or discrimination against the poor and weak.

Mr Tandi, a Dalit, one of the most marginalised Hindu caste groups, says there should be no inequality on the basis of caste, gender, religion or class. "Whenever and wherever I see such injustice, I will raise my voice. Today is an age when we talk about living together. This is what hip hop says and this is why I chose hip hop," he told ST.

Messages wishing him greater success have reached him from across the country, including from some in Bollywood such as composer Vishal Dadlani, who promised on Twitter to help him record and launch his music. "Check this fire out," Mr Dadlani tweeted on July 9, tagging some of his industry colleagues.

His music has even earned him plaudits from abroad. "There are names of countries I can't even pronounce. Yesterday, a lady from the US sent me 5,000 rupees into my account," Mr Tandi said. "Earlier, people would give me no attention, consider me mad but now I get love from everywhere."

He lives with his 53-year-old mother, Pramila, a firewood collector who receives a monthly widow pension of 500 rupees. His father, Nilamani Tandi, a farmer and local police station personnel, died in 2016, after a prolonged illness that forced his son to move away in search of work.

He continues to spurn offers from local recording companies that are now after him to record romantic songs, a genre he has tried to stay away from as much as possible. "If I say yes, I can own a car and a bungalow in a matter of a few days. They will pay me so much money," Mr Tandi said.

"Music for me," he added, "is a way to improve society."

Things could change in a few months with the professional recording and release of his songs, thanks to, he said, support from other established singers that he idolises. One of them is Mumbai-based rapper DIVINE, his key source of inspiration.

It is one of his hits that Mr Tandi has set as his connecting tone on the phone. "I don't have a song of mine available yet (on the phone network)," he joked. Given his meteoric rise, the day when one of his songs will be available for callers to listen to while telephoning others may not be far away.

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