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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

UC Davis a cappella team harmonizes Western and South Asian music and identities

Jhankaar A Cappella creates a sense of belonging through Western-South Asian fusion


By INDRANIL BASU — features@theaggie.org


Jhankaar, UC Davis’s only South Asian a cappella team, fuses traditional South Asian and Western music genres to present a unique blend of music. Founded during the 2009-2010 academic year by three former students, Jhankaar has become a family for South Asian students and a place for belonging on campus within their South Asian diaspora in the U.S. Jhankaar brings together the different South Asian cultural heritages of members through their common passion for music. 

According to Co-Captain Sanjana Aithal, who graduated from UC Davis in fall 2022, Jhankaar is one of the many South Asian and Western Fusion Desi a capella teams across the country and is part of the Association of South-Asian A Capella (ASA) competitive collegiate circuit. They have won numerous awards at various ASA competitions, such as multiple Best South Asian/Western Soloist awards, Best Visual Performance at Mehfil 2020, third place overall at Jeena 2017 and Jeena 2022 at Austin, TX, as well as Best Vocal Percussionist and Best Arrangement at Awaazein, Dallas, TX, 2023. Their most recent performances have been at Anahat in Berkeley and Hellacappella hosted by The Spokes at UC Davis last month.

“Our overarching goal [is] bringing together two distinct musical traditions — South Asian and Western — and creating a unique sound by combining them in a cappella arrangements,” Aithal said. “In our eyes, this fusion allows for creative reinterpretations of popular songs and traditional music from both cultures and results in a fresh and exciting sound that we enjoy innovating every year.”

The team is a gender-inclusive Registered Student Organization (RSO) with a total of 18 members, who all sing and assume various officer roles within the team. Nine of them are elected board members.

According to the board, Jhankaar unites all kinds of people and music, and their fusion diversifies and broadens people’s exposure to music. They are proud to showcase their South Asian music and culture to a wider audience.

“At Hellacappella, members of the audience were amazed at the South Asian culture that we just presented, and that is the biggest moment of pride for us,” Aithal said. “People are amazed and exposed to this whole new world of music because of our fusion, even within a 10-[minute] performance. Opening their eyes to how incredible South Asian music is, to people that would not have seen it otherwise — we take pride in that.”

Jhankaar also plays an instrumental role in helping South Asian students who were born and brought up in the U.S. reconnect with their heritage through music, as well as find cultural belonging with other South Asian students, according to Rithik Sachdeva, the team’s PR officer and a fourth-year electrical engineering and computer engineering double major. 

“I grew up [somewhat] whitewashed, so I wouldn’t say that I had a lot of experience with the Indian side of everything,” Sachdeva said. “My mom and dad tried really hard to get me to, but I’d be like, ‘I’m American; please let me play with my friends.’ [Jhankaar] brought me greater appreciation [of my Indian heritage] by being proud of the fact that we come from this dual identity and that we can stay so as well and show that to the world.”

Fifth-year biomedical engineering and music double major and Lead Music Director Savita Pereira also resonated with this, saying that she grew up “very westernized.”

“Jhankaar is like our own diaspora […] where I finally felt like I belong; this is what I’m doing for my culture,” Pereira said. 

Pereira, who was a captain of the team last year, added, “Members here are so supportive and inclusive.”

The newest members, such as Rayan Narayanaswamy, a first-year mechanical engineering major, also attested to how Jhankaar has helped them find a place on campus and has become like a family to them. 

“Jhankaar had a huge impact on who I was as a person, and it really helped me assimilate to UC Davis’s culture and find my place here,” Narayanaswamy said. “Jhankaar gave me a purpose. It made me feel like I was doing something that benefited our campus in some way. We’re all making music together, but aside from that, we’re all still friends and […] we’re a huge family.” 

Narayanaswamy added that Jhankaar has expanded his music taste and revealed how “creative and beautiful” South Indian culture is. 

Along with singers, like many a capella groups, some of Jhankaar’s members are beatboxers who provide rhythm for their music. 

“It was very interesting to tackle the challenge of how to beatbox for South Asian music just because it’s so different rhythmically, or on a percussive sound level, from any Western music,” said Immanuel Victor, a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major and first-year member of Jhankaar. “So it really challenged me to kind of find those sounds and deliver a different type of beatbox. And I think it really did help me to reconnect with my roots.”

Victor is the vocal percussionist for Jhankaar, who, like Narayanaswamy, also has South Indian heritage and grew up in the U.S. 

“Growing up, I didn’t have a huge Indian culture around me,” Victor said. “So it was nice to find a group of people like me who I could relate to and sort of connect back to my culture with. I’ve learned a lot about my culture along the way, from mundane things like food to music. I didn’t have a background in Carnatic or Hindustani [North Indian classical] music when I joined.”

Pranav Padture, a third-year biochemistry major who has been with Jhankaar since his freshman year and is currently the group’s co-music director, said that the team is very innovative.

 “We’re the only South Asian a cappella team in UC Davis. So I feel like it’s very cool that our team showcases Indian culture within a cappella, which started off as a very Western genre. To have Indian music, but in a Western style, is something very unique. With Jhankaar, one of the biggest things we have always tried to do is innovate, and even within our niche genre, we’ve always tried to mess around with different styles and genres, adding different easter eggs in arrangements and our singing.”

He agreed that Jhankaar offers a sense of belonging. 

“As a South Asian person who was born here, I kind of grew up in American culture, but at the same time, there was kind of that feeling for me to hold on to my roots and really try to find out and learn as much as I could about my own culture,” Padture said. “I feel like that was one of the driving forces for many of the members on this team — just being able to connect and know more about your culture.” 

Padture said Jhankaar’s unique style is also “rather symbolic” of the way the group fuses Western and South Asian music. 

“It shows that music from two completely different cultures can still be mashed up together and sound good together because I feel like music is a very universal language,” Padture said. “And that’s at the core of what we kind of aim to show, that music really has no barriers, has no borders. Music is music, and different cultures have their own music. But at the end of the day, there’s something that everybody can appreciate.”

The majority of Jhankaar’s funding comes from fundraisers at UC Davis events, gigs at weddings that they can be hired for and grants for competitions, according to Sachdeva. Competitions often charge registration fees and entail travel and lodging costs, which Jhankaar generally has to pay out-of-pocket twice a year. Recording, mixing and mastering music, as well as purchasing costumes, also come with significant costs, according to Avani Klinder, a fifth-year cognitive science major and co-captain of the team. 

“We typically fundraise with the goal of putting a little dent in the price of plane tickets as those are our biggest expense if the competitions are far, but the majority of us are paying personally because we want to go,” Klinder said.

Padture said Jhankaar is worth the extensive time members put into rehearsing and competing. 

“I can say I’ve put a lot of hours, especially during the [competitive] season into the team,” Padture said. “But it is very rewarding, especially when we’ve won awards, as it really shows that the time and effort that we’ve put into preparing for this is appreciated, and it really pushes us to really strive to be better, put more creativity and just to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

Jhankaar is currently working on developing a more interwoven alumni network and is in the midst of creating a website and Wiki page, according to Klinder. They currently has between one and three thousand streams on Spotify and up to 3.5K views on YouTube, though they have only been putting videos out for the past two years. The team is working on ideas for more music videos and content. One of its main goals at the moment is to increase outreach to the community.

To learn more about Jhankaar or hire the group for gigs, follow @jhankaaracappella on Instagram or Jhankaar on Facebook. You can find Jhankaar’s music videos on Youtube channel and listen to their music on Spotify and Apple Music. 


Written by: Indranil Basu — features@theaggie.org