New Delhi: If K-pop was an Olympic sport, then Sriya Lenka would have been India’s first gold medallist. For the last six months, the 18-year-old from Odisha has been living in Seoul training for her debut in a K-Pop — the more popular terminology for pop music originating from South Korea — band Blackswan. But four of the six members, Lenka included, hail from countries such as Brazil, Senegal, and India.
Blackswan is an example of how South Korea has been actively promoting its most lucrative export across the world — pop music. In an attempt to market K-pop to other countries, bands like Sriya’s are embracing diversity and seeking out members who do not conform to the classic stereotype of K-pop band members. But is it still K-pop? While such bands fuel the dreams and hopes of their international fan base, acceptance in their home turf is not a given.
Industry experts claim that this was the ultimate goal of the endeavour. “From the start, the goal of K-pop was globalisation,” said Lee Soo Man, one of the pioneers of the K-pop industry who is credited for kicking off the massive music phenomena, at a Stanford University conference last month.
South Korea actively promotes this industry in India, which has a massive K-pop fanbase. Every year, thousands of Indians participate in the annual ‘K-POP India Contest’, conducted by the South Korean Embassy. Last year, 3,664 singers and dancers applied online for the event that culminates at a mega stage in South Korea, where winners from various countries compete.
If the numbers are any indication, the next K-pop idols from India are busy practising their dance moves, working on their vocals and applying for countless auditions online. It’s the route Lenka took for her shot at fame.
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Becoming a K-pop star
Lenka got her break competing in online auditions conducted by agencies in search of the next big K-pop idol. In one such audition held by record label DR Music, she beat 4,000 participants from all over the world to earn her place in the six-member K-Pop girl group Blackswan.
For the last six months, she’s been living in a shared apartment in Seoul following a schedule that is as rigorous as that of a professional athlete with over 12-hour long sessions. Her days and nights are packed with Korean language classes, workouts, dance and song classes and live practice sessions. “If we start practising from morning 9 am, we end at 9 pm, sometimes 10.30 pm. After I reach home, I study Korean till 2 am and sleep for four to five hours,” said Lenka over a video chat. But she knew exactly what she was signing up for.
The multi-billion-dollar K-pop industry with its glitzy, slickly-produced videos, catchy music, perfect choreography and visually appealing band members is built on hard work and discipline. “K-pop idols are as close to elite athletes as you will ever get in music talent,” according to Dafna Zur, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University. “They are incredible dancers…They know how to speak to the camera… They maintain squeaky clean images. Their behaviour is held up to extremely high standards.”
Breaking Korean stereotypes of beauty
Aside from youth being a defining parameter of what makes a K-pop idol, there is an overt emphasis on beauty and physical perfection in the industry. A fact that is often left unsaid in the various audition calls in the industry. It idealises smooth pale skin, double eyelids, symmetrical faces, perfect jawlines (especially for male singers) and so on.
Lenka, with her dusky Indian features, does not conform to South Korea’s rigorous standards of beauty. But Blackswan aims to shatter these stereotypes, she said. “We are trying to do something different in K-pop history.”
The group has a diverse line-up. Blackswan boasts of having K-pop’s first African idol, Fatou Samba, who grew up in Senegal and Belgium, an Indian (Lenka), two Brazilian and two Korean members. “We have a saying in Hindi “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ meaning the world is one family. Blackswan is a group that is not defined by skin colour, nationality or age but by talent and uniqueness. We are trying to unite with the countries, connect to them and make the world one family,” she said.
Samba, who is the main rapper and lead dancer, was more forthcoming about her experience as an ‘outsider’ in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. She spoke about how out of place she felt during her visit to Seoul. “I could not see any people like me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m sticking out so much,’ People would look [at] you [and] stare,” she told the interviewer.
K-pop in India
K-pop’s growing popularity across the world has put its rigid idea of beauty in the spotlight with calls for more diversity. In India, a few ardent fans have also attempted to cross this barrier. Before Lenka shot to fame, two other Indians — Priyanka Mazumdar and Siddhant Arora — also made headlines for being the ‘first’ Indian K-pop idols in 2019 as part of the bands Z-Girls and Z-Boys, which were by Singapore-headquartered COZMIC Group, now rebranded as Divtone Entertainment.
However, the two groups have released songs only in English and haven’t appeared in any weekly Korean music show, a rite of passage to achieve K-pop glory. Blackswan has already performed on Korean shows but that was before Lenka joined them. Her debut video with the group, which has yet to be announced, will most likely be in Korean. “It will happen soon,” said Lenka.
The hunt for the next big thing
Outside of Korea, most K-pop agencies routinely conduct global auditions to scout new faces. Lately, more and more agencies are producing groups such as NiziU and NCT’s subunit WayV with no Korean bandmates. The attempt is invariably tied to making inroads into overseas markets.
K-pop auditions in the US, China and Japan have become routine. The popularity of the Korean wave in Southeast Asia has made countries such as Thailand and Malaysia a pitstop for hunting K-pop talents. For now, Indians have to settle for online K-pop auditions and those conducted by the South Korean embassy here.
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India’s first K-pop girl group — a cautionary tale
An attempt was made to make an indigenous K-pop group in India. In 2019, hair care brand Livon teamed up with Indian music channel 9XO to form the first Indian K-Pop girl group.
After auditions, five girls (two from Arunachal, one from Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mumbai) were selected to form the all-girl band 5 High. They released a music video (MV) — a cover of a K-pop song ‘Piri’ by the band Dreamcatcher in 2021. Their arrival on the K-pop scene was similar to their exit – unremarkable. Trolls also overwhelmed the comment section of their MV.
The MV was no match to the superior production quality of K-pop videos produced in South Korea. And although the girls have been winners of previous national-level K-pop contests, rigorous training for a few days can’t be matched with months and years of practice that trainees like Sriya Lenka undergo in Korea.
Most K-pop fans nurturing dreams of becoming an international idol know that their time is limited. Blackswan itself has been through multiple iterations with new faces. The question remains — will it still exist in the same avatar in a few years?
Lenka is busy living in the now. Back home in Jharsuguda, a small town in Odisha, her parents are tracking her success with pride but have come to understand that this is the world of today’s Gen Z. “K-pop is not part of television but covered on social media and is popular mostly among the young generation. She has chosen a different line. Maybe, she will one day become a role model for others,” said her father, Abinash Lenka.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)