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Hooray for Bollywood
Over two afternoons of a weekend in early September, six returning members of Shaan, the newest a cappella group on campus, held auditions in the O’Connell House music room, an elegant parlor with intricate molding, a fireplace, and a somewhat gritty grand piano. Having lost seven members—five to graduation and two to attrition—the coed ensemble, which numbered 15 performers last year, was looking for new vocalists, “especially a tenor and a bass,” said Priyasha Chaturvedi ’14, Shaan’s president, its music codirector, and a soprano. It was a scene likely mirrored at auditions going on across campus for Boston College’s nine other a cappella groups, except for one question on the Shaan audition sheet: “What’s your favorite Bollywood song?”
Shaan, which means “pride” in Hindi, is Boston College’s first South Asian a cappella group. To the doo-wahs and vocal beatboxing of standard collegiate a cappella, Shaan adds the rhythms, melodies, and Hindi lyrics of popular Bollywood songs, sometimes entwined in mashups with popular western tunes—”Kabira” (Encore), from the 2013 generation Y romantic comedy Yeh Jaawani Hai Deewani (This Youth Is Crazy), paired with Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors,” for example.
The group was founded in fall 2010, as an offshoot of the South Asian Student Association (SASA) and made a splash at the SASA 2011 Culture Show the following spring, when the vocalists performed an arrangement of “Jiya Jale” (My Feelings are Rekindled), a fast-paced lilting tune from the 1998 movie Dil Se (From the Heart). The group has opened for Voices of Imani, the University’s gospel choir, and for a Bollywood-themed theater department production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream staged at the Robsham Theater in April 2012. Now a registered student organization in its own right, Shaan performed at Acappellafest on September 14 and will sing at the Arts Festival in the spring, the men dressed in white tunics over maroon pants with maroon-and-gold scarves, and the women wearing maroon tunics over white leggings with white and gold scarves. The group’s performances are fist-pumping, hip-swaying exuberant, even while shying from the flamboyant choreography of Bollywood shows.
The Shaan auditions attract students with a range of musical backgrounds. “Some are people who come to college with choral experience and know they want to continue singing,” said Jessica Leong ’14, a soprano in her third year with Shaan. “Some have never had the opportunity to sing with a group and want to explore that in college.”
Sourabh Banthia ’17, a bass, was first to audition. He didn’t have any sort of formal music background, he said, though he had recently joined the marching band as a cymbal player. Learning that Banthia had arrived from India for the first time less than two weeks earlier, Chaturvedi, a native of Masachusetts, encouraged him to attend a SASA gathering the next day. “There are going to be samosas,” she promised.
When it came time to sing, Banthia looked nervous, shifting back and forth from foot to foot. “We’ll warm up along with you,” Chaturvedi said, and Shaan’s members, seated in chairs lined up along the window, joined him in ascending oooh’s and descending aaahs’s. Chaturvedi listened for the limits of his range, and reported to codirector Mat Thomas ’14 that “the F sharp was too low, but the G worked.” Next, she told Banthia, “Mat will sing a note, and you should try to match his pitch and volume, blending so you sound like one voice.” Finally, the group sat back and listened as Banthia performed his audition song—”Tum Hi Ho” (It Is Only You), an earnest, slow-paced ballad from the recent Bollywood blockbuster Aashiqui 2.
Shaan’s secretary, John Thompson ’14, a bass who is also from Massachusetts, was positioned at a table outside the music room, greeting visitors with audition sheets and a package of chocolate chip cookies. When the next candidate turned out to be another international student, this time from China, Thompson observed to a companion, “By default, we’re the most international a cappella group on campus.” When he tells people he performs with Shaan, he said, the usual reaction is, “‘Do you speak Hindi?’ But honestly, I don’t know what I’m saying.” “I’m here,” he says, “because I just love to sing and I like new and different things.”
When there are Hindi lyrics that everyone needs to learn, Chaturvedi emails a phonetic version to the group. As Leong describes the experience of singing with Shaan, the words may not be familiar to her, but “I’m making the right sounds.”
If the soloist doesn’t speak Hindi, Chaturvedi says, she usually works on the pronunciation one-on-one.
Most of the student auditioners—there were 15 in all—opted for a solo in English. Andrew Lee ’16, a tenor from Massachusetts by way of Seoul, Korea, and Los Angeles, noted on his audition sheet that he had spent two summers singing opera in Italy. After apologizing for his scratchy voice (“Don’t worry, we’re all sick too,” replied Chaturvedi), he belted out Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes off You.” Afterward, Leong asked Lee, “When you first walked in, you said you really wanted to join this organization. Why?”
Lee explained that he had missed the group’s recent performance at an a cappella showcase held for freshmen in the McMullen Museum, “but my friends said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to join that group—that mashup was so sick.’
“I said, ‘But I’m not South Asian.’ My friends said, ‘It’s OK, there was a white guy there.'” The members of Shaan cracked up, and all eyes turned to Thompson, who just grinned.
Though South Asian a cappella may be new to the Boston College community, it’s been part of the collegiate scene for almost 20 years, with the 1996 founding of Penn Masala at the University of Pennsylvania. (There is no tradition of a cappella in India.) An invitational showcase, Sa Re Ga Ma Pella (after Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, the name of a singing competition on Indian TV and the pitches in an Indian musical scale), was started at the University of Michigan in 2010 and has since been hosted on several campuses.
When they were starting out, Shaan’s members looked to more experienced groups for inspiration, watching their performances on YouTube (Chaturvedi also consulted a cousin in Michigan’s Maize Mirchi). Now Shaan generates its own repertoire. The group votes on a list of song prospects, and codirectors Chaturvedi and Thomas work out arrangements of the top three or four picks.
And how have more established musical groups on campus reacted to the newcomers? “They’re great,” says Terry Gelsi ’15 of the Dynamics. “Most people here haven’t heard traditional Bollywood, let alone it mixed with Coldplay. They bring a much-needed cultural component to a cappella at BC.” Shaan’s visibility on campus will likely increase with the release of its first album, due out this winter.
With auditions concluded, Shaan numbered 13 members (11 singers and two beatboxers). Lee and Banthia both made the cut, as did three altos: freshmen Haesoo Yoon and Lucy Xu, and Kayla Costigan ’15.
Shannon Hunt is a Cambridge-based writer.