Hip-hop, Bollywood music, Indian classical – US-based a cappella group Penn Masala can do it all. For the uninitiated, Penn Masala was formed in 1996 and rose to prominence as the world’s ‘first Hindi a cappella group.’ The group currently consists of 10 members — Ajay Vasisht, Shaunak Kulkarni, Anvit Reddy, Anirudh Bikmal, Harsh Meswani, Kushal Modi, Dev Shaurya Singhal, Aveek Ganguly, Shrivats Kannan and Partha Rao. The band has released ten studio albums and is looking forward to the release of their upcoming album. Over the years, the group has collaborated with artistes such as Jonita Gandhi, Benny Dayal and has performed in movies like Pitch Perfect 2.
In an interaction with Indianexpress.com, Penn Masala talks about their upcoming album, influences and more.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Let’s begin with the beginning. How did the name of the group come about?
Shaunak: Penn Masala was started by four college students at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. They wanted an outlet to reflect their identities as Indian-Americans and bring a new style to Hindi music. As for the name itself, we don’t know its specific origins, but it combines the name of our school “Penn” and an integral aspect of South Asian life.
The group is said to be influenced by both eastern as well as western music. However, if you had to take a few names who inspired you to do what you are doing right now, who would they be?
Ajay: We draw a lot of inspiration from icons in Bollywood and Western music such as Arijit Singh, Shreya Ghoshal, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran among others. We, of course, also draw inspiration from the stewards of increasing South Asian representation in the Western media, such as Hasan Minhaj and Lilly Singh.
Post your appearance in Pitch Perfect 2, you were away for a while. What was the band up to in the last 4-5 years?
Anvit: We have actually been busy! Since Pitch Perfect, the group has been on successful international tours to India in 2016 and 2017, where we performed sold-out shows in prestigious auditoriums such as Shanmukhananda Hall and Siri Fort Auditorium. Musically, we released two albums, Resonance in 2016 and Yuva in 2017, as well as an EP titled Vol. 1 in 2018. We have also collaborated with famous playback singers such as Jonita Gandhi and Benny Dayal. We have also had some particularly exciting performances such as the Gaana Music Festival in California, where we performed alongside Bollywood stars such as Arijit Singh and Ayushmann Khurrana, and international performances in London and Toronto.
What can you tell us about your upcoming album?
Anirudh: We still haven’t released the name, so stay tuned for that! What we can share is that this album engages with a lot of themes that are really salient issues in South Asian communities around the world. For example, we have reflected on ideas such as mental wellness and our own identities as South Asians. We hope that our tracks allow our listeners to reflect in the way that we have and help us engage in these meaningful issues together.
Is there a specific career trajectory that you are following? Is there a ‘plan’ in place to figure out what should be done in the coming years? Has there ever been one?
Shaunak: While there is no set “plan”, the members of the group are always thinking about how to push the limits of what our group can do. We are excited to pursue more collaborations with various artistes and continue to grow our presence in both Bollywood and the US. We have goals that we regularly set for ourselves, and we strive to achieve them. A few that we are currently pushing for include being featured in a Bollywood film as well as doing tours in new and exciting places we haven’t visited before.
And while you are all accomplished musicians, so many years into the industry, do you still have an option, a way out, if the success and popularity don’t hold?
Kushal: We are actually all full-time students at the University of Pennsylvania, studying a wide range of things from finance to computer science. The group loses members as they graduate from the university and gains more as others enter, so it’s constantly changing and evolving with the times.
What made you realise that you are popular? What was that one thing that made you go, ‘We’ve made it finally.’?
Anvit: I don’t know if there was an “ah-ha” moment like that per se. We have always been blown away by the opportunities that we are fortunate enough to have. We want to take the group to new heights. We are thankful to have the fans that we have. They are easily some of the greatest in the world. During our Chennai show, a fan came up to us and showed us a tattoo she had gotten of the Masala logo. That just shows the kind of support we have, and it means the world to us.
Any plans of touring in India?
Shaunak: Stay tuned! We have some plans in the works.
And finally, any advice/suggestion that you would like to give to people who are looking to make a living out of music?
Ajay: I think the biggest thing is to always keep in mind what you love about music and why you decided to pursue the career in the first place, which can motivate you when the going gets tough. It also helps to have people around you who support you unconditionally and can push you in terms of your musical growth, which is a dynamic we are lucky to have with Penn Masala.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines