Voice of the jungle

Updated: Aug 18, 2019, 07:45 IST | ekta mohta

MC Mawali doesn't just rap about nature, but is an avid trekker as well. And, he's ready to offer you an introduction to the Western Ghats, too

Voice of the jungle
MC Mawali. Pic/ Atul Kamble

The first music we make, long before we learn of cries, howls, lullabies and nursery rhymes, is the beat in our heart. As we draw in air, the heart kicks in, improvises and relaxes into a steady tempo, which stays with us till the end of our song. In this, all of humanity, all birds and animals and insects, all that lives and breathes and moves, is one, like a chorus. So, why is a 25-year-old Marathi rapper from Mumbai-69 ringing the alarm bells? Because we want the Metro so much, we're willing to sacrifice Aarey for it. Because we want to save time, we're willing to gamble away our time on earth.

When we meet MC Mawali (Aklesh Sutar on his birth certificate) at a park, rain is in the air, waiting for its cue. His squad, a bunch of dreadlocked, scruffy, too-cool-for-school kids, is in the background, practising handstands and high kicks. An old soul in the frame of a stick figure, Mawali is one of the co-founders of Swadesi, a hip-hop crew and a trekking group. Under the former, he releases protest rap like Laaj Watte Kai (2014), an anti-rape song; with the latter, he maps the Sahyadris on foot. His two burning passions came together in February in the track, The Warli Revolt, with folk singer and tribal chieftain Prakash Bhoir. It's a clarion call to save Aarey's 2,238 trees, which the government wants to axe for a Metro car shed. Its hook sums up their ask: "The jungle is our mother/To save her, we'll lay down our lives." At 25, Mawali has cottoned on that fighting for tribal rights is fighting for the natural world; to be a Dalit Panther is to be a green panther.

With hair like the roots of a banyan, a 2Pac tattoo peeking from under a wristband, he says, "People who have spent time in nature have understood life differently. I was born in Kolhapur, a proper village, and I lived there for two years. So, my basic conditioning is of the village. My first step was on a floor made of cow dung, not tiles. So, I have [always had] that connection." A "Std XII fail" from a school where even the teachers didn't know English and all his classmates were slum kids, Mawali grew up in different chambers of Andheri East: Rambagh, near Mahakali Caves; Chakala, "where [rapper] Divine stays"; JB Nagar; and this writer's hood, Gundavli. A student of devotional music, Carnatic and konnakol, he's been a poet since Std VI, a time when he "didn't even know what rap was." After hanging out with a few b-boys and breakdancers, he discovered the spits of Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-One, Rakim, Tupac Shakur and Guru Gang Starr. "Old school hip-hop."

Mawali's first recorded number with Swadesi, Laaj Watte Kai, has the swagger of an anthem and the finesse of a home video. "We decided to strictly follow the cause of hip-hop culture. Hip is revolution and hop is taking a step, so taking a step towards revolution. That song showed me the response of people when you speak the truth." Swadesi is a fluid group of about 15 twenty-somethings, in which everyone raps in their mother tongues. "So that our people understand what we are saying. Our songs are not for showing off wordplay. They're about studying and learning new things. If you take any one line from our song and look into its meaning, it opens up a universe. These songs are inspired by people and made for people."

The Warli Revolt, which took 1.5 years to slap together, is a recent case in point. "We combed Aarey, saw what was happening, where they've (Metro authorities) set up barriers, where they're cutting trees, where they're marking borders. After that, we met Abhay Azad, who's running the Save Aarey Project. Through him, we met Prakash Bhoir, who's a farmer. He told us, 'If you want my time, you'll have to help with farming. The time we save, I'll sit with you to talk.' So, we did that [and spoke to him about] his background in Aarey, his thoughts and feelings on what's happening, leopards, everything."

A call to arms, The Warli Revolt is seething with rage. "Fear of losing creates emotion. That song is from the perspective of Prakashbhai, and when you meet him, his condition is like that. When any new developer wants to make an RTO or a Metro shed, he's the first person who gets scared. Because tribal people are there, the jungle is there, and because the jungle is there, tribal people are there." The song packs in all the lived art forms of forest dwellers. The audio is layered with an instrument called tarpa, a tribal saxophone that's the love child of a been and a didgeridoo, and the video is animated Warli art. "A tribal person has his own wisdom. He knows as much as us, but from a different way. Who tells us we are humans? Does a tree know it's a tree? We have done everyone's naamkaran, and we've become pandits. We call ourselves humans, and then we demarcate that this person is not living like a human, because he lives differently."

A country boy in the guise of a gully boy, Mawali has become an active trekker in the last five years and can manage a 6A rock-climbing grade. "Initially, it was just us. We found spots, scouted the area, befriended locals, understood the lay of the land." With Swadesi Treks, he now takes groups to forts in Rajmachi and Ratangarh and jungles in Kokan Kada and Harishchandragad. "My first hike was Prabalgad five years ago, and I was above the clouds. I'd never experienced that disconnection. Until I don't spend time in nature, I won't realise I'm a part of it. I didn't know there's a pentagram in a flower. There's a mandala in it, a mathematical [equation] like the Fibonacci sequence. That's when you understand the difference between artificial intelligence and real intelligence. You see how the sun rises and how it sets. The colour difference between each cloud. How uncertain life is. You get to observe yourself and experience healing sounds: the sound of wind passing through leaves, of early morning birds, the dawn chorus, the sound of water. You see rocks that have been naturally formed, after being shaped by water. So, check your own conditioning: even you've been cut from water."

His roots in nature is the reason he doesn't accept the solution offered by Metro authorities. "How many generations of birds, insects and fungi have taken shelter in a tree that's been living for 200 years? If we cut that tree, and say, 'I'll plant two trees in its place,' that support system and the qualities it has developed over 200 years will also [die]. You can't replace its age and wisdom. So, this is destruction, not development, no matter what pretty words you use." It is degrading the world, not upgrading Mumbai, no matter what they say.

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