The launch of the international music streaming app had sparked considerable excitement in India. But Spotify was greatly taken aback by one aspect of the Indian response. “My number one surprise was how big K-pop was in India,” the director of its product growth, Owen Smith, had said last March, referring to Korean pop music. “I had absolutely no idea.”
The magic that South Korea wields in India would still surprise many, a year after Spotify’s launch, even though its hallyu (or wave) movement had first made its presence felt at least a decade ago. It started with a fascination for Korean television soaps in the North-East. It has now spread to music, food, fashion, cinema, skincare products, dance — and everything else you can think of.
A walk down Majnu ka tila, a Tibetan refugee colony set up in the ’60s in north Delhi, near Delhi University, can be a guide to the Korean craze. Take a left from the central gate and you will bump into a one-of-a-kind supermarket for Japanese and Korean pop culture. KoJa, the name is a mash-up of Korea and Japan, stocks products that are influenced by the latest trends in the two Asian countries. “Asian cultures don’t clash with each other and there’s a lot of give-and-take between neighbouring countries in the region,” store owner Bryan Tseda says.
An entire section of the store is devoted to Korean beauty and fashion products — ranging from collagen eye masks to hair accessories inspired by K-pop bands and dramas. The aisles behind it are dedicated to stationery embossed with images of stars from the music industry, their favourite quotes, nicknames and other trivia. Another part spills over with soft toys and neck pillows shaped like the animal emojis inspired by the popular Korean band Bangtan Boys (BTS). The BTS, according to Spotfiy, is the fifth-most popular band in India, and the only non-Indian among the top five. Gaana.com, another music streaming app, lists it as the second most popular band (after UK’s One Direction) with 50 million streams so far.
Tseda is happy with the sales the store has generated since it opened a few months ago. “We have kept in mind that the area is popular with students, and the teen population everywhere is greatly taken up by Korean pop culture,” says Tseda, who spent a part of his childhood in Taiwan and witnessed the hallyu wave there. “Coming back to India, I noticed the popularity of Korea’s pop culture and, along with a business partner, decided that the time was right for such a store in the country.” KoJa plans to open stores in Mussoorie in Uttarakhand and in other Himalayan states, including in the North-East.
It was in the northeastern states that people first caught the hallyu fever. The young in these states had begun identifying with new cultures, especially Korean and Japanese, and were moving away from the earlier American way of life some 15 years ago. “The North-East, perhaps because of its proximity to Korea and interaction with other Asian countries, had long been exposed to Korean culture. The rest of the country has only now been catching up,” Tseda adds.
Sandip Kumar Mishra, professor at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out that the hallyu wave in India can be divided into two phases — the influence it had in the North-East in its earlier years, and the subsequent impact on the rest of the country in recent times.
But why has hallyu swept Indians off their feet? There are several reasons for it. In parts of the North-East, Korean culture is not greatly alien to the region. Two, with the coming of South Korean companies in India — according to some estimates, there are over 600 small and large Korean companies in the country — restaurants offering Korean food have opened up in different cities. The emphasis on grilled food, served with various kinds of sauces, is something that the Indian palate can appreciate. And the success of its cinema across the world has piqued interest in some sections too.
“I feel that their products are new and quite refined when it comes to quality compared to Indian dramas and even pop music, and hence have gained popularity among the youth. There’s a language barrier, otherwise the influence would’ve been even greater. I know some youngsters, even among the ones I teach, who seek to learn the Korean language so that they may be able to follow the shows and music better,” Mishra says.
The immense popularity of BTS is one reason for the hallyu wave’s spread across India in recent times. At $5 billion, the Korean music industry is South Korea’s biggest export. Its soft power was in full display at the 2018 Winter PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea, where athletes marched to the tunes of K-pop. The BTS’s contribution to this is not insignificant. According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the band generates an annual 5.6 trillion won ($4.9 billion) for the economy. PSY, whose horse-dance-and-song Gangnam Style became a global rage in 2012, brought in 1 trillion won.
Tseda points out that people from other cities visit Delhi and his shop in search of BTS-related items. “Only last week, we had a girl who came from Kanpur to buy just BTS merchandise,” he says.
Pop is popular
K-pop first came into the mainstream in India in 2012, with Gangnam Style , the global hit song that spawned a thousand versions and parodies. Then there was N-Sonic, the first Korean band to come to India. It toured the country in 2014 and judged the annual Korean pop India music festival — already in its third year — with the finals taking place in New Delhi.
Six years on, K-pop is one of the most loved genres of music in schools and colleges. Festivals are regularly organised for fans, and BTS remains the most popular band, followed by others such as EXO, Chloris and Black Pink.
Korea’s boy band EXO, too, has a huge fan following in India. “Their fans are the only ones in the world who still buy original albums and photo books,” says Ritika Mehta, the admin of a fan page called Team EXO India. “We have crossed sales of 20,000 physical copies of EXO albums ordered from India. Our group alone has ordered 5,000-7,000 copies in the last two years.”
Places such as Busan — a restaurant in Majnu ka tila that serves Korean food — organise fan celebrations of their idol’s birthdays. Fan pages buzz with activity on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. “If you tell someone that you’re a fan of K-pop, they’ll immediately know what you’re talking about. There are older fans, too, some of whom are in their 40s and 50s,” Mehta says.
She feels that Korean bands strike a chord in India because fans relate to their lyrics, and the members’ lives. “They feel more human — we know about their life’s struggles, their feelings. Even the lyrics are so much more relatable because they are about everyday life.” EXO’s song Promise, for instance, is dedicated to its fan base.
But BTS, clearly, is far ahead of the K-pop curve in India. The group hit the No. 1 spot in the US Billboard 200 chart for the first time in 2018 with the album Love Yourself . In 2019, with the release of their EP Map your Soul: Persona , it was once again on top of the charts.
Not surprisingly, Delhi schoolgirl Kunsang Lhaze Zhampa’s room is full of posters of BTS. The avid K-pop fan has collectibles such as the BTS army bomb, a light bulb that fans hold up during live concerts. Zhampa even managed to catch the BTS 5th Muster Magic Shop Concert in South Korea last year.
“It was definitely the high point of the year. I got a lot of attention in school and everyone kept asking me how it was,” she says, adding that her friends are all fans of Korean music. “We discuss K-pop stars and their lives all the time. It’s what we do in our free time. We love how they are,” she says.
Drama all the way
Before the music craze spread its web, what caught the fancy of the people was South Korea’s television fare. Popular K-dramas such as Winter Sonata have been great hits in India. “We shut our eyes to anything that is Asian, forgetting that we are a part of Asia ourselves,” says Guwahati resident Mira Barua*, who has been watching Korean TV shows for almost 10 years now. She was introduced to Korean culture through college festivals, and to soap operas thanks to a ban on Hindi channels in parts of the North-East, and the easy availability of content from across borders.
Barua is now studying the Korean language, as her fascination for it grew along with her interest in all things Korean.
Often, an interest in any another Asian culture sparks awareness about Korean shows and dramas, too. Mumbai graphic designer Sreya Majumdar’s fondness for Japanese live-action anime led her to Korean dramas. The plots, she holds, are changing with time. The regressive stereotypes (poor but likeable girl falls in love with a rich and dominating guy, and they end up together) are now giving way to psychological thrillers and mysteries.
“Shows such as Signal can give American TV a run for its money,” she says. “I like the slow build-up that the shows have, the fact that they take their time in building the plotline and establishing the nuances of character.”
Korean films by auteurs have always been celebrated by film enthusiasts. But the larger acceptance of its cinema is a recent development.
Take Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite , a dark comedy which won six Oscar nominations this year. “We have no guns in our country. Our gangsters use the knives that sushi chefs use. That’s actually scarier and more extreme,” the director recently said about Korean drama. He feels that Korean dramas have a universal appeal because they don’t stick to genres but tell human interest stories. “Because we live in such dramatic times and have such a tumultuous history, we can’t help but be emotionally impacted by our realities.”
Fashion and beauty
If stars rule, can beauty be far behind? The glass skin beauty myth has been the biggest trend in the past two years — and Indians have been lapping it up. Korean skincare companies have successfully marketed a nine-step beauty skincare regimen, on the domestic and international fronts. While some have protested the oppressive routines that put pressure on people, mostly women, to strive for perfect skin, others are delighted by the effective and often affordable skincare range and innovation that Korea has to offer. Nykaa beauty, an online makeup and skincare digital marketplace, reported that 40 per cent of its domestic sales last year was driven by Korean skincare brands.
Fashion is going the Korean way, too. Since music and fashion are often interlinked, Korean musicians have spawned fashion trends in India. K-pop has popularised both bubblegum and edgy fashion — from pastel hues and pleated skirts to the grunge look. Some K-pop groups have experimented with androgynous dressing as well, and have been lauded by LGBTQ communities for their alternative fashion choices. Athleisure — or athletic leisure — is a part of the trend as well, but with more fitted garments, crop tops and bright prints, as well as colour blocking (pairing of colours that seemingly do not match).
“K-pop fashion is also a part of the scene, with people dressing like their idols. I personally prefer accessories that the girl groups wear, such as nose rings and other jewellery,” Mehta says.
Flavours of the East
Once a trend catches on, there is always focus on food. Sangpo (who goes only by one name), a resident of Majnu ka tila, gave up his job in exports in Gurugram to open a Korean restaurant in the Delhi colony. “It was my dream to do so. I did a lot of research before jumping into the business, even though I don’t have any background in the food industry. I was inspired by all the food that you get to see in Korean movies and dramas,” Sangpo says. “I wanted people to actually taste that food, instead of just imagining what it would be like.”
His chef, who worked with Korean families for 20 years, is a trusted hand. “I have Koreans who come from across the city for my food,” he says. The restaurant is known for its Korean barbecues, and only plays K-pop. It is a popular meet-up place for aficionados of K-pop groups in the city.
From food to films, TV shows to music, and from fashion to skincare, it seems that Korea has something for everybody. But will it hold in the coming years? After all, there was a time when young Indians were greatly influenced by American culture — by its fashion, music and food.
Hallyu , Mishra believes, is a phase in a youngster’s life, fading out once they graduate into jobs. “Korean culture has a strong hold among teenagers. But as they grow older, they end up losing touch with it,” he says.
Barua, however, believes that the wave is here to stay. “The Hallyu wave has been in India for some time, but it was never so obvious,” she says. “It has something for everyone, but we need to see where it goes from here. A Hallyu 2.0 has already begun here.”