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Meet Sriya, the First Indian K-pop Star

From Odisha to the world, Shreya Lenka – who is set to make her mark in the billion-dollar K-pop industry – is going places

Divyansha Dongre Aug 03, 2022

Sriya. Photo: Courtesy of DR Music

Like many K-pop fans, it was love at first sight for the now 18-year-old Shreya Lenka. Not only did “Growl’s” complex choreographed routine and booming soundscape mesmerize the Odisha-born-and-bred dancer, but it also instilled a sense of purpose, empowering her to dream bigger. As she mirrored Exo’s iconic 2013 release, she set herself on a trek millions commence but only a handful complete. A couple of dance covers uploaded on YouTube and countless hours spent perfecting her craft later, Lenka (who now goes by her stage name Sriya) has become the first-ever Indian K-pop idol and is all set to debut with the K-pop girl group Blackswan. It’s a dream very few have managed to take from a mere vision in their minds to breathing reality. 

Formed in 2011, Blackswan (formerly known as Raina) has undergone several line-up changes. Up until July 31st, the group’s official lineup consisted of Youngheun, Fatou, Judy and Leia, with trainees Sriya and Gabi scheduled to debut with the group (more on this later.) However, in an official statement released by DR Music (Blackswan’s label), it was announced that Youngheun and Judy have officially graduated from the group. “Blackswan has been operating by [an] introduction and graduation system from the initial planning stage,” the label stated, explaining that this system is why new members Gabi and Sriya have recently joined the group. “We are happy to continue presenting various talented people from [the] globe to you through these projects.” 

Sriya. Photo: Courtesy of DR Music

The road to becoming a K-pop star (or idol) is long, tedious and challenging. It’s one that requires razor-sharp focus, a resilient soul and, of course, taking the first step – auditioning. For residents living in South Korea, potential trainees can audition for labels in-person during their annual, monthly, or weekly audition calls. Take BTS’ V for instance – the only participant to clear the first round during BigHit Music’s regional auditions in Daegu – or NCT’s Haechan who cleared SM Entertainment’s Saturday Open Auditions, one of the most challenging and toughest nuts to crack. For some, the golden ticket comes in the form of label representatives who street-cast future idols. Such is the story of BTS’ Jin, who caught the attention of a BigHit employee as he was getting off a bus. Others are handpicked during local talent shows, public performances or even through social media.

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Today, with K-pop’s global appeal and the need of having idols who speak multiple languages, labels have expanded their radar and introduced global auditions. Open to all nationalities and ethnicities, the global auditions (like other auditions) require participants to demonstrate their preferred skill – be it singing, rapping, dance or production. Global auditions are generally hybrid. Online and offline versions take place annually, with thousands battling for a spot in-person or virtually. This global approach has in turn yielded fruitful results for labels such as SM Entertainment’s 23-member group NCT, which boasts idols of varying nationalities, and even Blackswan – home to K-pop’s first Senegalese idol, Fatou. 

Instead of waiting around, Sriya took matters into her own hands and started sending in her audition tapes via global online auditions. “I used to give a lot of auditions,” she tells Rolling Stone India over a Zoom call. “So at that time [when she would be sending in her audition reels], my feelings were always like 50-50. Will I get selected? I have worked really hard, but there was always a feeling. I used to try my best to give my best and show them that I can do anything.” And as fate would have it, Sriya’s perseverance, caliber and attitude stood out amongst the 4,000 applicants, securing her and fellow Brazilian trainee Gabriela Dalcin (stage name Gabi) their spots as D.R Music’s fresh new trainees.

Organized by D.R Music, the audition program called Cygnus was active for a period of six months, to search for the next Blackswan member. Upon clearing the auditions, Sriya and Gabi flew to Seoul, where the training period ran for a solid month. During this time, both artists fine-tuned their vocal and dancing abilities, built their stamina and perfected their Korean. On May 26th, Sriya and Gabi were announced as part of Blackswan’s official line-up. 

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Before Sriya, India had never seen its very own K-pop idol. It’s worth noting that two Indian artists, Priyanka and Siddharth, debuted with the groups Z-Girls and Z-Boys respectively in 2019. However, they were not K-pop idols, but a brand-new breed called Z-pop idols (Gen Z-pop) who trained under the K-pop system and were marketed in a traditional K-pop format. Currently, the K-pop industry is rich with foreign talent – Blackpink’s Lisa (Thai), Drippin’s Alex (Korean-German), P1Harmony’s Keeho (Korean-American), Aespa’s Giselle (Japanese), NCT’s Mark (Korean-Canadian) and the list goes on. It’s safe to say that the foreign line is dominated by idols from Southeast Asia, Japan and America. In an industry, where Indian representation was well, nil, how did Sriya figure out her way? Did the lack of Indian representation sway her determination and make her second-guess her chances of getting in? “I used to feel like that [chances of not getting in] like 70 percent [of the times] maybe. It was very difficult… when I used to watch every idol get in,” she confesses. ” I too wanted to get in and try the training, and have my own music and stages. But there was always a negative feeling that maybe I won’t get in. But [my] thanks to D.R Music for creating and giving us this opportunity. I’m so grateful to be here and because of them, I’m actually over here and my name is now shown. I can have my title now.” 

In a conversation with Rolling Stone India, Sriya opens up about her training period, aspirations for the future, how Stray Kids’ Bang Chan and Exo’s Kai inspire her, the pressures of being the first Indian K-pop idol, and which Indian savory snack and sweet was a hit at her label. Watch below.

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