The New Sultan of Delhi
Taru dalmia is about the closest thing india has to a zach de la rocha, and in his various projects, this delhi returnee continues to rage against the machine.
When 30-year-old dancehall artist Taru Dalmia toured the United States for the first time earlier this year under his stage name, Delhi Sultanate, he played a juvenile detention centre in East LA. Backed by dub performers Sub Atomic Soundsystem, the crew set up a laptop and some speakers in a small, drab, grey classroom. The inmates were black and Hispanic kids. Dalmia suspects some of them were medicated, “numb” from anti-depressants. The set was only about 45 minutes long. Dalmia performed original tracks without a mic before giving his audience a chance to rap over the beats for themselves. The gig wasn’t a photo-op or covered by the press. Dalmia just wanted to do it.
“Some of those kids really tore it up,” Dalmia says. If this sounds like a bizarre approach for a rising musician to build a fan base in 2012, it is. But not much that Dalmia does fits the mould. To start with, he’s primarily a dancehall emcee. Dancehall employs a Jamaican vocal style tossed over bass-heavy electronic beats that sound like dubstep or up-tempo reggae. But the first time you catch sight of an Indian guy emceeing in a thick Jamaican patois, you’re bound to do a double take. Likewise, while most modern dancehall acts focus their lyrical content on booty shaking, bling, and power, Dalmia uses the form to tell the least fashionable stories of contemporary India – stories about the poor, about those faraway villagers that industrial modernisation has displaced. Whatever the man known as Delhi Sultanate is doing as an artist, he’s doing it his own way.
Dalmia is gaining global attention for his music these days: In April, the gig he played for Delhi’s Tihar Jail inmates with his band, The Ska Vengers, for which he is a lyricist and vocalist, made headlines in the Guardian. Soon after, one of the country’s biggest record labels, Universal Music India, attempted to sign them. But after reviewing the content in Dalmia’s lyrics about corrupt politicians, oppressed villagers and “dirty cops”, the label balked. According to Dalmia, Universal wanted them to rewrite the lyrics. The band declined. Times Music have now picked them up to release their debut album this autumn.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Dalmia’s musical exploits is Word Sound Power, a multimedia project driven by collaborations with Indian revolutionary folk singers of rural protest movements. The not-for-profit venture is an active expression of political solidarity. It was co-founded by Dalmia and American music producer Chris McGuinness in 2010, and has more recently involved filmmaker Kush Badhwar. What binds these three personalities together is a common understanding that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
“India used to have one project: a dam, a mining project over twenty years,” Dalmia says. “Now you have multinational corporations coming in with forty or more going over just a few years. And people like to go about their day here without thinking about what’s really going on in the jungles of places like Orissa. We [Word Sound Power] won’t let them ignore it.”
Dalmia keeps his hair in a crew cut. He’s lean, clean-shaven and athletic. He’s talkative, serious and speaks in clear and complete sentences, like chinks of prose. It’s not enough to say that he’s thoughtful or says thoughtful things in conversation. Dalmia is obsessed by, and accustomed to, engaging in philosophical discourse at all times.
His speaking accent – which offers only the subtlest hints of the Jamaican patois he appropriates as his stage voice – sounds otherworldly and untraceable, a product of his diverse background. He was born in Delhi to academic parents, an Indian mother and a German father, and raised in Germany from age one. He also did stints in Northern California and London.
When Dalmia returned to Delhi in the early 2000s, he moved to a property near India Gate that was owned by his late grandfather on his mother’s side, Ramkrishna Dalmia, one of India’s great Independence-era industrialists. The bungalow, which Dalmia believes dates back to the 1930s, still belongs to the family. The view from beyond the rusty iron gate reveals a palace of hard white pillars shaded by neem trees. Just beside that you can make out another symbol of old world India – a small satellite home that once served as the estate manager’s living quarters. It’s a separate space built to orbit around the world of a much wealthier man. It’s an unlikely place to find someone like Dalmia, who pens acidic poetry criticising the Indian elite.