It begins with only a single voice. Just a single beat, a simple six-beat dadra breaking through the silence. Then another. And in a matter of seconds, the song emerges in full force, a Bollywood-pop rhythm that’s smooth and yet hits all the right notes. So engrossed am I in the voices reverberating from my Youtube playlist that I almost entirely forget that there were no instruments present in the entire song. No omnipresent bass to emphasize a beat drop. No layers of autotune to smother the melody like fabric. Just voices, raw and powerful, somehow so American and yet unabashedly Indian at the same time.
That was my first peek into the world of Penn Masala, a group of a capella singers from the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past two decades, the group has skyrocketed to fame, garnering millions of views on Youtube and other platforms for their creative Bollywood mashups. They’ve covered everything from Guru Randhawa’s smash-hit Suit to Justin Bieber’s chart-topping Let Me Love You, and can seamlessly pivot between classical melodies, jazz riffs, hip hop, and much more. Beyond the screens, they’ve worked with some of Bollywood’s best. A few of their live performances include sharing the stage with Ayushmann Khurana and A.R. Rahman. In 2015, they were a part of the Anna Kendrick-starrer Pitch Perfect 2, and somehow found the time to slide in performances for Sachin Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar, and Barack Obama.
It’s quite the formidable resume, all right. And a resume about to be altered with their eleventh studio album, Musafir. To discuss this latest addition to their discography, I had a chat with Penn Masala, where they harkened back to the group’s humble beginnings.
Penn Masala was started in 1996 by a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to use this art form to bridge the gap between their heritage and the culture they lived in, explained Sahit, a group member. I think that message still resonates with all of us and is one of the main things that drew us to the group. I don’t think our founders realized where the group would go when they started it back then but we feel so lucky that our music and our message has made it so far.
He then went on to discuss the a capella world, a powerhouse for entertainment on college campuses and beyond. Before Penn Masala, UPenn was already home to a number of successful groups, who not only sung as one, but lived and studied alongside one another, sometimes maintaining these friendships for the rest of their lives.
While the a capella industry had already seen all-female or all-Jewish teams dominate the stage, there was a gaping void in the recipe. Then they added the masala.
..Our founders felt, many Indian American kids have a whole separate side of their identity that this form of expression may not have been able to capture in the past. I think a cappella’s versatility and organic nature makes it especially conducive to different styles as well. In our experience, it’s been really interesting and fun to incorporate Indian sounds such as tabla and sargam into the traditional a cappella repertoire.
With Musafir, Penn Masala went above and beyond their previous a capella pursuits, forging soulful medleys from Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’s Illahi and Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill. They bounced between styles while still matching one another in technique and vigor. On the surface, Musafir seemed like yet another Masala blockbuster. But the group mentioned how this album crosses more serious frontiers, on both a personal level and for the South-Asian community as a whole.
In this album, we came to realize that we had a platform in the Indian-American community, and that there were issues that meant a lot to us that maybe have not been explored as much as they could be. These included mental wellness, South Asian identity, and linguistic diversity. We put a lot of thought into the song selection and visuals so that they could most authentically convey our experiences. Beyond the ideas that we explored in this album, we also pushed ourselves musically by exploring a whole new range of musical styles and languages that Masala has not covered in the past. In creating these mixes and in conceptualizing the videos, we spent a lot of time reflecting together on our own experiences.
Penn Masala makes good music. They always have, and another album with effortless transitions and Bollywood pomp would not be a surprise. What has changed is how their concept has come of age over the years, where they act not merely as a college-wide a capella group, but as a cross-cultural liaison in new musical territory. They are evidence of the Indian entertainment industry at the height of its globalization. And so the album begins with a music video for the Illahi mashup, which serves as a heartfelt tribute to the Indian-American student life. As a Desi student myself, I was delighted to find pieces of myself in the video, which includes Bollywood movie sprees, tadka dal, cricket — staples of the brown lifestyle. Even better is the Desi Regional Medley, a mix that unifies India’s rich linguistic history while beautifully highlighting the differences.
This is an album that does not shy away from appearing “too Indian”, but rather marinates in its own masala.
Music is often most beautiful when the expression is unfiltered and authentic, the group concluded. And Penn Masala has lived up to that ideal, offering us a chance to find our own inner Musafir. We hope that listening to this album allows our fans to similarly [reflect on their experience], and how music can be used to express it.
Much like the Desi identity, Penn Masala is in a constant state of metamorphosis, leaving its imprint on every continent, keeping its roots, and yet finding its voice. Musafir closes on a lingering crescendo, a fitting end to a beginning.
To listen to Musafir, the full album can be listened to on YouTube here and an abridged version can be streamed here.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
“I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very very curious.” – Albert Einstein.
Parenting is tricky business. My mother might not necessarily agree with this statement, maintaining that in her time, people did whatever came to them intuitively, without the deliberation and discussion that goes into raising children in this era. But all said and done; parenting, is nevertheless a challenge. I’m sure she’d agree on that at least!
Given all the “how-to”‘manuals and blog sites dispensing advice, you would think that it might get easier. But nope. I have the privilege of discovering for myself, the evolving reality show called “parenting.” And one of the main headlines in that game, seems to be about determining whether or not your child is getting a “wholesome” education. It’s not just about academics anymore. Helping your child connect to their innate talents/gifts is also what parents seek to accomplish. If you look around, you will find as many ‘gifted’ programs as there are children. Each have their own claim to fame.
Meanwhile I am slowly discovering more wrinkles in the fabric of my own vision of what I must try to aim for as a parent! While my child shows a definite proclivity towards music, and piano in particular; I can only hope that she will stick with it long enough. Is she ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’? That’s the question of the hour!
There are confusing definitions which describe terms like ‘Gifted’, ‘Talented’, ‘Genius’, ‘Prodigy’ and ‘Savant.’ Simply classifying each group by IQ test results does not seem like the best solution. Many ‘gifted‘ people/children seem to exhibit amazing overlapping capabilities for certain types of functions – be it academic, musical, artistic, or linguistic, to name a few. Often times a child’s precociousness can be taken as ‘gifted.’ Since parents are most often concerned with the ‘educational’ aspect of their children’s’ lives, let us begin there.
“Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”
The FAQs provided some answers but also highlighted many myths about gifted children. However one statement in particular stood out. “Gifted does not connote good or better; it is a term that allows students to be identified for services that meet their unique learning needs.”
P. Susan Jackson, Founder of the Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted, located in British Colombia, Canada; produced a documentary in 2011 titled, “Gifted Children”. The documentary is intended to dispel prevalent myths about profoundly gifted people, especially school-age children. It also attempts to provide a clear description of the word ‘gifted’. In the sensitively presented documentary, various children spoke about their life experiences. And one thing stood out, their passion for living their life, doing what they do best.
The first challenge for such children is being correctly identified. Another challenge is living in a world where their unique gifts are misunderstood or often poorly understood. This frequently causes difficulties at home and school. They often need help from their families, doctors, and educators to better channel their talents/gifts. Their families, educators and friends need to be made aware of their specific needs. Awareness is once again – the key ingredient.
In Ms. Jackson’s words, “When properly supported, their boundless enthusiasm and appetite for all that life has to offer, insatiable curiosity, empathy, and energy unlock wellsprings of matchless potential. They are driven to learn, to live fully in accordance with a heightened awareness of who they are, and to make a positive impact upon, or contribution to, the broader world.”
All kids love to finger paint. Their attempts are just that – ‘attempts’ at mark making. Colorful, and bold, they are highly cherished by their parents and loved ones of course. We have all, at one time or another made or received art like that ourselves.
Not true for 4 year old Advait Kolarkar, currently making his home in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. This pint-sized wonder, gives the word ‘gifted’ his own vivid definition! Born in Pune, India; Advait began painting at 8 months of age. His older sister Swara found herself ‘sharing’ her paints and brushes with her sibling. Barely able to properly hold a brush, he nevertheless gave vent to his enthusiasm for colors and showed amazing focus for a child who was not even a year old.
Advait’s mother Shruti Kolarkar, recognized that her son was creating at a level beyond what was expected at his age. “He was not just thrashing the brush around randomly. He was actually “painting.” And he was showing this ability even before attempting to talk.” Shruti was working as a commercial artist, with an MFA degree from Nagpur University, India. Her artistic training gave her the awareness to identify her son’s gift.
Engaging her child in his obvious love for colors, Shruti encouraged his free-form exploration. When he started talking, his vocabulary revolved around colors. This interlude with colors was a wonderful way to keep his toddler tantrums in check. Slowly his creativity took on new and exciting proportions. Eventually Shruti took her son’s creations to a local gallery. The curator was intrigued but also wanted to observe his creative process in his own home. The visit resulted in Advait’s first solo exhibit at Art2Day gallery in Pune. He was 2 years old at that time.
He has clearly come a long way since. In his new home, Saint John, he has found new and varied expression to his talent. His recent work has been termed variously as ‘kaleidoscopic’ and ‘phantasmagoric’ by turns. They are, to the viewer’s eye, an explosion of color and textures! Tracing his creative graph, you can clearly observe his growth from early exploration to a more sophisticated – but by no means ‘controlled’ – painting style. If anything, they can be described as ‘fearless!’
“We find it difficult to control his talent”, admits father Amit Kolarkar, “instead we recognize that he needs to channel his energy into his art. So we give him space and time to explore.” Giving me a Skype tour of Advait’s studio, Amit pointed out how the walls and floor carpets have been covered over by sheets of plastic and drop cloths. Stacks of canvases are leaning against the walls, ready to take their turn under his direction. And there are paint specs all over – proof of prior moments of creative ‘big bangs.’
I was curious to find out where the little artist derived his inspiration. “Advait is interested in many things. Dinosaurs, Space, Nature… they are all a fascination to him. He dreams vividly and when he wakes, almost the first thing he wants to do is paint. So we let him,” says his indulgent father.
Since moving to Canada in 2016, Advait has been granted a solo show titled ‘Color Blizzard’ at the City Gallery in Saint John. His work was also chosen to be part of the Art Expo, New York in April 2018. He is the youngest artist to date, to have shown his work. His compositional prowess and color technique has been talked about by both Canadian and American art experts. And he is often in the news.
How do they help him deal with all this exposure? The Kolarkars admit there are bound to be risks involved with over exposure, and it might affect his development. They are careful to mainstream him in school and have him engage in normal, every day peer interactions. His teachers are aware of his gift and have been very supportive, working with the family to keep things on an even keel.
Advait did not care to comment on his work during our Skype conversation. Instead he was busy horsing about playing with his older sister Swara. But he did show off his favorite brush before exiting the room! A normal, well-adjusted, active, precocious, talented, and truly ‘gifted’ little boy… who also happens to be a prodigious artist.
The first time I watched Rochit Gupta work magic with his keyboard, he was about 12 years old. His little frame stood out among the older musicians in the group. And we all marveled at his easy musical grace. Now a young professional techie, living and working in San Francisco; Rochit has developed a ‘therapeutic’ relationship with his music, which he says did not consciously exist before. It has helped him deal with academic and professional stressors, and shaped him into who he is today. Music has given this young man an interesting ride for much of his life.
Rochit’s parents, Virad and Raka Gupta, have always surrounded themselves with music in their home. So Rochit and his sister Suchita grew up amidst informal house concerts and musical events. Rochit showed an affinity for the creative things, “He never shied away from anything creative, music, dance, art, drama,” says Raka. At the age of 5, recognizing that he clearly seemed to enjoy music, his parents introduced him to the piano. And that was the beginning of the journey.
Rochit remembers he was constantly, “singing, humming, banging on something.” He recognized early that music and rhythm are different from noise. He was intrigued by the layers behind the music, wanting to know why he reacted differently to different types of music. Piano brought ‘structure’ to his casual exploration, which he found ‘grounded’ him. “The teacher was just as important,” he emphasizes. When his teacher moved further away, his parents drove him back and forth so he could continue learning with her.
When he was in 9th grade, Rochit wrote sheet music for the piano, providing western notations for Hindi songs . Later he wrote sheet music for Bollywood songs for the Shankar Mahadevan Academy of music, a popular online music academy for Indian music.
Along the way his musical curiosity led him to explore various instruments, and different styles/genres of music. “It is very important not to box in creativity”, says Virad Gupta. Rochit tried his hand at tabla, harmonium and guitar, enjoying the process of trying each one. He also studied Hindustani Classical vocal music with renowned singer and teacher, Shubhangi Sakhalkar. In school he played the classical trumpet in the Jazz style, “That was really interesting for me,” he remembers fondly. Exploring different cultural aspects through the language of music was another important factor.
One of the programs that he credits with building up his self confidence is the Stanford Jazz Workshop. The program is famous for its jazz curriculum and faculty, and offers students a chance to immerse themselves in the understanding of jazz. Apart from improving performance skills, it gives them a sense of community, and reinforcement from peers. For Rochit, the experience was intense but fun and rewarding at the same time.
This intense immersion in music through high school, which required time, focus and practice must have made for difficult peer interactions, and I was curious about that aspect of his life. “Sports offered me a chance to balance my high school experience and make friendships outside of the music world,” says Rochit. While academics and sports took center stage, associating with various music groups, and playing with older musicians – allowed him to understand human relationships. “It gave him much needed balance,” says his mother.
Creative, gifted individuals often tend to be very hard on themselves, setting the bar impossibly high. Performing music brought with it different challenges. “Rochit was always very critical of himself, a perfectionist!” remembers his father. Because things come easy, with their talents, they have to try harder to overcome the hurdles and inevitable ‘humps’ along the way. Failure can be unsettling. “Working with them, coaxing them and encouraging them to find their own way around such issues is the challenge for us parents!” laughs Virad. They have done a remarkable job, given that their daughter Suchita is also a talented Kathak dancer!
Rochit choose to attend college at the University of California, Berkeley. He majored in Computer Science and minored in Music. The choice offered performance-based classes, and rounded out his musical experience. A Capella – group or solo singing without instrumental accompaniment. Indian classical music does not have harmonies. Participating in collegiate A Capella was thrilling, and gave him a chance to push his musical boundaries.
One event in particular is close to his heart – the Annual U.C Berkeley Men’s Octet Spring Show. This was his last performance as an undergrad. Rochit arranged music, and was the lead vocalist for one of the songs, “I See Fire” to much success! The song, “I See Fire,” is from the movie The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug. His initial arrangement left him feeling it lacked something special. So he decided to add an Indian classical influence in the middle of the song. His mother Raka wrote the lyrics that matched the overall feel of the song and the movie. Rochit composed the melody and chords in Raag Deepak. His passion for music and a cappella shines just as bright as the fire that bursts forth from the Smaug’s underbelly!
Having come this far in his journey with music, one must wonder what comes next for this young man. What’s the next stop?
With disarming honesty he replies, “Finding my musical voice! I’m still working on it!”
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.