All photos courtesy Sriya Lenka
In the eastern Indian state of Odisha, the town of Rourkela is famous for one of the biggest steel plants in the country. Beyond the shadow of its superstructure, Odisha rarely figures in the national narrative, except when cyclones hit the coastal state. According to a government report, nearly 30 percent of Odisha’s population is poor, well below the national average.
How then did a state, rich in culture but dogged by poverty, produce the first K-pop idol from India? Isn’t singing in the big leagues solely the birthright of rich, privileged kids from the metros, especially when it means assimilating into a culture and its nuances widely different from your own? For Sriya Lenka – the 18-year-old who became the first Indian singer to officially become part of any K-pop band – it was a long time in the making. Sriya has been chosen as the fifth member of the all-girl K-pop band Blackswan.
“When my father first saw me dancing as a child, he believed that I had the potential to really be a performer,” Lenka told VICE over Zoom from Seoul. “He enrolled me in a dancing class, followed by training in Indian classical music. But he was my first teacher, as he taught me how to do even acrobatics.”The singer prefers being addressed by her childhood name, Sriya, also her stage name now – a departure from K-pop stars who usually have a stage name. In her case, she said her decision to retain her childhood name was her way of not diluting her Indian heritage.
She recounted that growing up in Odisha with modest means was not easy. The sacrifices were many, including travelling for five hours every day to learn dance. “I just wanted to be an artist. But I had so many doubts about myself and whether I was really up for it.”Sriya entered the world of K-pop only four years back when a friend shared a music video of the boy band EXO. She was instantly hooked to the vocals that flowed smoothly, elaborately choreographed dance sequences and the comforting swirl of a myriad colours.
“I visualised myself in that place, on that stage,” Sriya said. “This (blend of music and dance) was an entirely new concept to me that only pulled me deeper into the K-pop world.”Sriya soon realised that K-pop was sweeping across the country. Before the Hallyu wave swept through India, it had made its presence felt in the insurgency-hit northeastern state of Manipur. Here, Bollywood films were banned in the early 2000s, and so locals had sought solace in K-pop and K-dramas. Now, though, K-pop is everywhere. According to Spotify’s annual report, BTS is popular among Indian listeners, while a Netflix analytics report revealed that K-drama viewership on the platform in India increased by more than 370 percent in 2020. At the onset of the pandemic, a friend told Sriya about various K-pop bands who were auditioning in India. Sriya submitted videos of her singing K-pop songs but these were not very well received. “I realised that there was a long way to go, so I decided to go to a vocal coach and work on my singing at night because I had school during the day.”But Blackswan was a different beast altogether, and the efforts it demanded went beyond the four months of Indian classical training Sriya had gotten as a child or the popularity she’d gained casually humming K-pop tunes on TikTok and Reels. As a girl group, the band had gone through many iterations since their debut as Rania in April 2011, with members being frequently replaced or added. One of their well-received songs, “Dr Feel Good,” was originally produced for Lady Gaga.
Sriya was selected for the band through an online audition process but the actual training of the selected members was to be in Seoul. “When I actually bagged the gig, my mother was scared for me,” she recalled. “She broke down but I had to reassure her that it was all okay, that I was picked up safely and welcomed with a namaste.” The six month training period to become a K-pop star, starting from the moment she landed in Seoul in January 2022, was rigorous. From doing three sets of 50 push-ups each morning to learning Korean for almost four hours every day to also learning to make her own food – it was relentless. “A huge part of being a K-pop singer also comes with being an all-around performer, not just a singer,” Sriya said. “So, we were made to run in a circle and sing at least four songs of four minutes each in quick succession without losing the stability of our voice or going off-tune. In a way, we were running for 16 minutes every morning and singing.”After a day of vocal rehearsals, running and singing practice, and language lessons, there was also homework that had to be done, even if it meant staying up till two at night. “The homework usually was learning at least three new K-pop songs every week and performing them well. It could be across genres. In my case, I struggled with rap, and still do.” Sriya is aware of the weight that comes with being India’s first K-pop star, the face of a loyal fandom. She picked up the Korean language within six months but the gravity of the responsibility dawned on her when she landed in Seoul. Thankfully, she had a steady friend through it all – Brazil’s Gabrielan Dalcin.
“Only one of us could make it (as a replacement for the band’s oldest member, Hyeme, who left in November 2020),” she said. “So, we worked and prepared together as a team because we were so scared that one of us would be dropped.”The decision to have non-Korean members in K-pop and Z-pop bands has gradually gained traction. In 2019, girl group Z-girls became famous for having a “global” group with members from Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. It also includes Priyanka, India’s first female Z-pop (a reference to the project's target audience, Gen Z) star. Other non-Korean K-pop idols include Tiffany (American) from Girls' Generation, Amber (Taiwanese-American) from f(x), BLACKPINK's Lisa (Thai), EXO's Lay (Chinese), Got7's Jackson (Hong Kong Chinese), and Wanna One's Lai Kuan Lin (Taiwanese). “This is a great decision by music labels,” said Sriya. “The world is coming together and if a singer can truly be a performer, then they can be a K-pop idol, regardless of their nationality.” Eventually, DR Music – the label that first started Blackswan as Rania in 2011 – took the rare decision of signing on both Sriya and Dalcin because they had trained together as a single team and displayed extraordinary chemistry together. How’s it working with the Blackswan members, we ask. A lot of fun, said Sriya. Apart from her, 27-year-old Senegal-born singer Fatou Samba is also now part of the group – the first African to be a K-pop idol.
“Whenever we make mistakes, they just joke about it and we learn and move on,” Sriya said. “What I love about the band is that it’s always been inclusive of people across gender, race and sexuality.”But beyond Blackswan, is the K-pop world as kind to its stars and idols? Sulli, a former member of the popular girl group f(x) was recently found dead in her apartment at 25, reportedly by suicide. In 2017, Kim Jong-hyun (Jonghyun), a member of the popular group SHINee, died by suicide after writing a 47-line note to a friend that detailed his depression.
“The moment I decided to become a K-pop star, I was aware of the pressure that was always going to be there,” said Sriya. “As a K-pop star, everything you do is controlled and you need permission for everything – to go out, what you eat, where you can be seen eating. With my music label, things have been at peace so far because there is the freedom to have our own space for now, and hopefully after we become famous too.” Apart from her training to become a K-pop star and sing in front of live audiences, Sriya is also working on her debut album with the group.“A concert is always like a festival,” she said. “The crowd gives you the drive to keep going for your dreams. What could be better than that? I’d like to give them the inspiration to never, never give up.”If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.Follow Arman on Instagram and Twitter.