Meet Akhilesh and Thavasi, the kids from Mumbai’s Aarey whose Tamil rap went viral

Activist-musician Elijah Emmanuel, along with musician Shedwin, has been conducting hip-hop classes for the children of Aarey under a Banyan tree, since the onset of the pandemic.
Aarey based kids Thavasi and Akhilesh whose Tamil rap video went viral
Aarey based kids Thavasi and Akhilesh whose Tamil rap video went viral
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This is how nine-year-olds Thavasi Kannan and Akhilesh spend their time after school hours — they stroll along the streets of Aarey forests, which is nestled in the heart of Mumbai, and break into music and dance with other children from the neighbourhood. November 20 this year was no different when they broke into an impromptu Tamil rap performance at a local eatery in the area. But that day, someone at the eatery recorded the performance of the two Tamilians in Mumbai. And little did they know that their rap would go viral in the subsequent days and social media users from across the country would indeed listen to the ‘Chinna Pasanga’ (young boys) — as they call themselves — in the video. 

Naa inga maatuven, kuruka vandha udaipen. Bad trips kudukadha. Drinks panni varadha. Amma pechu kekala, Appa pechu kekala, adu periya thappu illa. Chinna payan solran nu nenaikada. Nee periya manishana inga nadakaveila (I will bring in change, if you stand in between, I will kick you off. Don’t give bad trips, don’t come in our hood. We don’t listen to our mom and dad but that’s alright because we are not doing anything wrong. Don’t think I am just a small kid asking these questions because you people have not acted like adults),” Akhilesh is heard rapping, while Thavasi is seen beatboxing in the viral video.  

After the video went viral, the comment sections have been flooded with both praises and eager questions, the most common being, “How did the kids learn rapping and beatboxing?” Thavasi and Akhilesh have been attending hip-hop classes conducted by activist and musician Elijah Emmanuel, along with his friend and musician Shedwin. Both Elijah and Shedwin are part of the ‘Save Aarey’ movement. They have been conducting hip-hop classes in Marathi, Tamil, Hindi and English for the children in the Aarey region since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lyrics that Akhilesh is heard rapping in the viral video were penned by Elijah, and it centred on the need to protect the Aarey forest.  

In a video call with TNM, an excited Akhilesh shared that his friends and parents were happy about the video going viral. When asked what he made of the lyrics, the Class 5 student, with his effervescent eyes and a wide smile, spoke about the need to save trees and protect the Aarey forest. He even read an excerpt from the rap song. “Maari vaa junior gang enga rap song style kula swag. Underground Cypher, mundhiri maaram, ala maaram. Apna gang seyyum yellam rightu. Apna hood tree plant, save Aarey, sollum Kadhai ellam ketu paaru (Bring about change. We are the junior gang and there is swag in our style. We have our own underground cypher. We gather around the cashew trees and banyan trees in our neighbourhood to perform freestyle rap. Our gang is in the right. We talk about plants and saving the Aarey forest. Listen to the stories we narrate).” 

His friend Thavasi, who nonchalantly beatboxes as Akhilesh changes the pace of the rap in the video, said, “Going to the Aala Maram (Banyan tree) is my favourite part of the day.” His eyes light up whenever he talks about how they spend hours practising rap in different languages, singing along and learning new things every day.  

The Banyan tree that Thavasi fondly recounted is the ‘secret’ spot” — a lush surrounding, tucked away from a bustling megacity like Mumbai. This is where the children in the neighbourhood gather to spend their evenings, learning music from Elijah and Shedwin Selvaraj, two Tamil Nadu natives. 

Elijah Emmanuel, an underground artist and an active participant in the Save Aarey movement, quit his full-time job as a musician in 2020, and gathered the children in the neighbourhood during the lockdown to teach them music. His students call themselves the “rap rowdies.”

“There are many people involved in the Save Aarey movement who are contributing to the cause in their own ways. Since my mother is a teacher and I am from Aarey, I chose teaching as my path. We started the classes during the pandemic since most of the children who go to government schools, did not have access to online classes,” Elijah Emmanuel tells TNM.  

The children’s "secret spot," or rather their classroom, is only five to 10 minutes away from their houses, but since it is deeper into the forest, they only go there when they are accompanied by adults. “Learning music alongside the sounds of the forest is a holistic and enriching experience,” said Elijah, who travels across Aarey as well as other areas in Mumbai to teach hundreds of children from different age groups, starting from four to five years old.  

The lyrics of all their songs discuss everything from forest and wildlife conservation to inequality and discrimination. Elijah said he believes that teaching music will sow the seeds of social change that the children would later reap when they understand its true meaning and purpose. “Hip-hop also embodies knowledge-sharing. I think music will help these children to realise the importance of protecting nature or the need to promote harmony among all the communities, including Maharashtrians, Tamilians, indigenous people like the Warlis and Katkaris, among others. They would then choose their journey and carve a path for themselves later,” he said.   

Apart from learning hip-hops, underground artists, educators and activists from the ‘Save Aarey’ movement have been organising a number of workshops and classes like plantation activities, crafts classes and permaculture training, where the children learn about wildlife, understand the native varieties of plants, their natural habitat, sustainable lifestyle and a lot more. 

Unlike traditional classrooms, the classes under the Banyan tree are not structured. Some took classes in Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, music and acrobatics) when a practitioner of the martial arts from Hungary was staying in Aarey. “Some also learn how to play the guitar and percussion instruments. We observe the behaviour of children who join us for the classes at Banyan tree and attempt to channelise their energy and mould them in the right direction,” said Elijah.


A post shared by Rap Rowdies (@rap_rowdies)

Celebrities like Vishal Dadlani, Hip Hop Tamizha’s Aadhi and other bigwigs from the mainstream music industry, too, shared positive responses after the video went viral.

Now that they are mini-celebrities, what does the future hold for these rap rowdies? While observing that Akhilesh and Thavasi, as well as other kids training under him, are free to choose the route they want to take, Elijah told TNM that he is focusing on not letting their art get commercialised along the way. “We are looking forward to participating in street performances and officially recording a few songs. I’d really like these children to grow up nurturing this cycle of learning and use their art to connect or reconnect with nature,” he said. 

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