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Viva – India’s first girl group that sang feminist anthems in the early 2000s

At the dawn of a new century, India had an all-girl band whose members were outspoken, didn't shy away from risque fashion and were unapologetic about their behaviour.

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New Delhi: In early 2002, Channel [V] India ran a forty-five-day search across the country to look for contenders who would fit the profile of an all-girl Indian pop group.

The hunt came to a close on 11 April 2002. The music channel had found its “chosen 5” in Pratichee Mohapatra, Neha Bhasin, Mahua Kamat, Anushka Manchanda, and Seema Ramchandani. Together they formed India’s first mainstream girl group ‘Viva‘ – closely resembling a desi avatar of Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child.

The girls were the winners of Channel [V]’s Coke V Popstar – the official Indian version of the British reality TV show ‘Popstars’– and were put together into a band by the show’s judges.

For early ‘90s kids – who had entered a new millennium only a few years ago – it was their first brush with reality music shows, that featured the audition process and interviews of contestants.

Humble beginnings

All five girls in the band had grown up with musical influence and were trained in music, which helped them pass the gruelling auditions and secure a place in the band.

Manchanda, an 18-year-old at the time and the youngest of the group, had put her studies on hold to pursue a career in music. Kamat, 20 then, was formally trained in Hindustani classical music and interested in R&B and hip-hop. The divergent music interests and training allowed her to be one of the more dynamic members of Viva.

Bhasin, who was 19 at that time, was pursuing a degree in Sociology. She was pitched to the public as the more mature one of the group. Ramchandani had come from a musically-inclined family and was big on a career in the industry. The oldest of the five, Mohapatra, had trained in Classical music for six years. Much like Ramchandani, Mohapatra was also pitched to be a fun-loving and carefree member.

“We may be from varied backgrounds, but it’s our unity which is crucial if we have to succeed as a band,” the group had told The Hindu in 2002.

After selection, all members were groomed by music director Sandeep Chowta, singer Shubha Mudgal, model Sushma Reddy and fashion designer Manish Malhotra. Over the course of eight episodes, these girls underwent rigorous music training and a makeover to fit the pop star image.

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Viva’s hit discography & progressive lyrics

Their debut album titled ‘Viva!’ was also out in the same year. Released under the Times Music label, the album featured compositions by eight music directors – including Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy and duo Jatin-Lalit – with lyrics by Javed Akhtar.

Their debut track ‘Hum Naye Geet Sunaye’ became their trademark song and the band continued to be associated with it for years, long after they’d called it quits. Composed by the trio of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, the song was first released as a single and later added to the album. Viva also released other catchy numbers including ‘Jahan ho Pyaar ka Mausam’ and ‘Jaago Zara’ – arguably a feminist anthem.

Their first show, which was held in Mumbai on April 2002, created a new Limca Record with 50,000 attendees. However, their popularity wasn’t due to their music alone. Viva’s entry into the mainstream Indian music industry brought a much-needed breath of fresh air for listeners. For years, the country hadn’t witnessed a band as vivacious and daring as them.

At the dawn of the new century, the girls became female youth icons in the Indian pop culture scene. They weren’t shy of risque fashion and trends like wearing metallic eyeshadows and halter tops, and were celebrated for being outspoken. They were unapologetic about their behaviour and were making waves, for all the right reasons.

And their music amplified what they stood for. The girls were singing about smashing patriarchy and the importance of having a ‘girl tribe’. Their ‘Jaago Zara’ was about reclaiming your life and decisions and a reminder to fight oppression and question societal norms. Along with ‘Jaago Zara’, their debut album featured ‘Kali Mai Diya Salaai’, a song on women empowerment that rejected bigotry and the absurd expectations that patriarchy lays on women. Ironically, this song is no longer available on YouTube.

At a time when boy bands like A Band of Boys, Euphoria, and Pentagram were ruling the Indian pop music scene, Viva successfully contested their dominance and staked their claim.

Disbanding of Viva

However, cracks within the group soon surfaced. Only six months into the band’s rise to stardom, Ramchandani decided to part ways.

“I don’t know whether she’s received offers to go solo, but the reason she has left Viva is so that she can follow the Art of Living course, which she is very attached to and wants to complete a teacher’s training course in,” their manager, Lydia Fernandes, had said on Ramchandani’s exit. Post her departure, the band continued to produce music and tour as a 4-member group. As of 2013, Ramchandani was still an Art of Living teacher and continued to pursue her passion for singing.

The girls went on to release a second album ‘VIVA-Reloaded’, but their journey came to an end in 2003. The band split and the other four members went their own way to pursue solo careers in music. For the longest time, there was no official statement on why the band had broken up. However, in an interview in 2014, they said they had disbanded because “they were uncomfortable having to meet unattainable beauty standards”. They also claimed that they were constantly body-shamed and lived under a scanner.

In 2020, fans saw a mini reunion as the four members came together to sing ‘Jaago Zara’ on Instagram. When asked about a potential reunion, Mohapatra told Hindustan Times in 2021, “Maybe a concert will happen someday. Who knows!”

Today, Manchanda is a singer and actor. She has acted in the film Angry Indian Goddesses and continues to create music. Bhasin is also a popular Bollywood playback singer, with hits such as ‘Asaalam-e-Ishqum’ in Gunday and ‘Dhunki’ in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Kamat is also a singer, having sung for movies including Dev and Force. She is, however, mostly seen posting covers on Instagram. Mohapatra has also had a successful playback career in Bollywood and dabbled in acting.

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