The UGA Kalakaar group, including lead singer Shachi Sevak, sang an a cappella song in honor of the Diwali holiday. Those who attended the event were greeted with food, games, singing, dancing and skits all put on by the Indian Cultural Exchange coordinators, Neeraja Rajesh and Annu Verma after three months of work to prepare the celebration on November 11th, 2018 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo: Kate Skeean)

The phenomenon of South Asian a cappella is as colorful as the countries that originate its namesake, proliferating in the United States as a fascinating mix of eastern and western music.

The fusion of South Asian and English language within a cappella is a relatively new concept that has only become popular over the past few years. Penn Masala of the University of Pennsylvania and Chai Town from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were some of the first groups to really popularize the niche genre after their debuts nearly two decades ago. Since then, the contemporary South Asian a cappella community has grown to encompass over 200 groups across the country, and the Association of South Asian A Cappella was created in 2016 to drive growth and give a national platform to the community. ASA was instrumental in creating a competitive circuit, and they oversee the national championship, All American Awaaz, each year.  

South Asian a cappella came to the University of Georgia five years ago when a few freshmen decided that they’d mess around and create a group. Kalakaar was the name they chose, which literally means “artist” or “performer” in Hindi, and it has become the proud emblem that represents who we are.

Since then, UGA Kalakaar has become the premiere South Asian fusion a cappella group at the university, performing at campus events throughout the year and in two national competitions over the past season. With the growth of Kalakaar, we have come to appreciate and realize the importance of what we do and why we do it. The arts have always been a way for people to keep connected with their culture while still relating to everyone else. A cappella, for us, is no different. 

Most of us in the group were born and raised in the U.S., or we have at least been here for a significant portion of our lives. This is our home. However, there is a whole part of our identity that we were not taught in school and to which we did not have easy access. Coming to UGA heightened those feelings.

Although we had so many of the same experiences as our peers, there still was a sense of “otherness” — a feeling caused by the inherent fact that we are constantly surrounded by one aspect of our identity and isolated from the other.

But being a part of a group like Kalakaar makes our university feel a little smaller, and it makes its group members feel a little more connected to the people around us. This is a space where we not only share our love of music but comfortable in our own skins.

Coming to rehearsal during the week is a sigh of relief — each of us is surrounded by people who share similar upbringings, passions and outlooks on life.  The experience we share is uniquely ours. Though not everyone in the group identifies with the label “South Asian” or can relate to all the stories shared, each of us has found a home within Kalakaar. Even when we are just singing, it feels comfortable to express ourselves in an unconventional way without feeling self-conscious about it.

That’s one reason that Kalakaar has been such a gift to each and every one of us. It is a place where we can bridge the gap between our two cultures and celebrate it in one of the richest, most vibrant ways that societies and cultures have practiced throughout history: music.

Through song, we have created memories that will stay with us for a lifetime. Long practices and competitions end up being intense and grueling, yet so rewarding when we win. Even just hanging out in our hotel rooms and doing face masks during competition weekend has brought us closer together and created a family we'll never forget.

When we sing, we connect deeply to our innate musical personalities and seek to share that soulful expression of humanity with those around us. Along the way, we find solace and joy in being able to impart a piece of who we are, where we come from and what we have become.

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