It is a lazy Sunday morning, and Bengaluru city is still bleary-eyed. The previous night, city dwellers were up late grooving to K-pop at India’s first open air festival dedicated to Korean food, music and culture. While K-pop has a huge following in the country, fans at the festival had another reason for their frenzy―one of their own was performing: Indian K-pop idol, Aria.
THE WEEK met Aria at her hotel room. As the door swings open, a chirpy voice greets us: “Anyohaseyo” (“Hello” in Korean). Seeing the blank expression on our faces, the lovely girl before us switches to Malayalam, her mother-tongue. Aria―the first Indian K-pop star to perform onstage―hails from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Sitting across us, dressed in lounge pants and tee, Aria has a girl-next-door innocence about her. One might not think that she is home from her first overseas tour as part of the five-member Korean girl band, X:IN, exactly a year after she set out to pursue her dream. Or that her fan base extends even to China and Pakistan. The rest of the band members flew back to Seoul a few hours ago, but Aria, 20, stayed back to spend some time with her family, who had arrived the previous day.
“I am happy to be able to perform here this soon,” says Aria. “I missed my family a lot, and now I got to see them all. I missed our food, too. Now that I have come, I want to visit again often.”
Korean music caught Aria’s attention in 2017. “After school, I used to watch songs on TV,” says Aria. “One day, I turned on the TV as usual, and was going about my chores when I heard music in an unfamiliar language. It was fun to hear, and much more to watch. I sat fixated by the TV. Later on, I realised I was listening to the song ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’ by BTS. It changed my life.”
She got an opportunity to visit South Korea two years later. After studying in Thiruvananthapuram till standard five, she moved to Mumbai with her parents and brother. The founder of the school Aria joined there was of Korean origin. As part of a cultural exchange programme, she travelled to Seoul in 2019. She loved it there, and two weeks later she returned to Mumbai reluctantly. Says her mother, “Amy (as she is fondly called by her) kept on saying she misses Seoul and the food.”
Since then, Aria pursued her K-pop dream doggedly. Closeted in her room, she would practise Korean music by herself for hours. Not being trained in music or any musical instruments, she taught herself by watching videos on YouTube. Then, she sent applications to Korean entertainment agencies. Usually, these agencies conduct auditions in three stages. They first invite recorded songs. The shortlisted candidates would be interviewed over Zoom. Afterwards, the selected few would be invited to South Korea for an in-person audition. But Aria was the exception. After the Zoom call, the entertainment agency―Escrow―asked her to report for training in Seoul at the earliest.
Asked about her memory of her first trip to Seoul, Aria giggles. “I am an avid sleeper,” she says. “I slept throughout. There was a layover in Vietnam. I slept there, too.” But what awaited Aria at Seoul was many sleepless nights of hard work. As soon as she showed up, she was informed that she would be part of X:IN’s debut line-up. She was nervous, as there was much less time to pick up both the music and the language. Nevertheless, she was determined to work hard. Upon seeing how quickly she learned Korean, the CEO of Escrow Entertainment was impressed. “You don’t even need a tutor,” he said.
Still, it was hard, training under unfamiliar conditions in a foreign land far from home. She was terribly homesick and cried a lot. Her parents had told her to quit if she wanted to, but Aria was determined not to. What got her through those difficult days was BTS’s song, ‘Tomorrow’, which she listened to constantly. “Follow your dreams like a breaker,” the lyrics went. “Even if it breaks down. Don’t ever run backwards, never!”
Six months after she reached Seoul, the band’s pre-release single, ‘Who Am I’, came out on March 12―Aria’s birthday. She wanted to use her nickname, Amy, as her stage name as well, but since it sounded similar to the collective name of BTS fans―the ‘BTS Army’―she had to choose another name. She came up with Aria, which means ‘solo’ in opera performances.
Then, in April, X:IN performed for the first time in Seoul. Their K-pop single, ‘Keeping the fire’, set the stage on fire. Aria, the band’s rapper and vocalist, is also its youngest member, and thus referred to as ‘Makne’, the Korean term for the youngest member of K-pop groups.
All the X:IN members live together in a house, and take turns to do the cooking and other household chores. They are together almost throughout the day. In the evening after work, they get a little time to themselves, when Aria goes for strolls at a nearby park, with her headset on. The other band members are very fond of Aria, who had brought them gifts of chocolates and jhumkas (earrings) from India.
Before K-pop, Aria had worked as a child actor in Malayalam movies like Madhav Ramdas’s Melvilasam (2011). She has also acted in other serials and documentaries, but took a break after the film Thank You (2013), when her family moved to Mumbai. For now, Korea is her first love. She is the brand ambassador of the Korean cosmetic brand, Mixsoon, and is in the final stages of being cast in a Korean drama by an OTT platform.
In a way, it feels as if the universe conspired to make her dream come true. Aria’s mother still remembers the day she found her daughter’s journal in which it was written, ‘To the future K-pop idol, Amy.’ “It almost felt like she was predicting her future,” says her mother. “I still get goosebumps as I recall it.” Due to the strict rules of Korean entertainment companies, her parents cannot celebrate their daughter’s success in public. And Aria cannot name her parents in the media or the school where she studied. Still, her folks are brimming with pride. “She did it all by herself,” says her mother. “This joy is indescribable.” Aria only has a few hours left before flying back to Seoul the next morning. A lavish lunch at Restaurant Chef Pillai is on the agenda. No better way to leave the country than with a last taste of home!