International music channel Vh1 India experienced the might of this ARMY two years ago. It asked viewers for song requests via social media platforms for a programme. “We started noticing requests for BTS’s songs. They were incessant to a point where we thought these fans were trolling us on every post we made,” says Ferzad Palia, head of youth, music and English entertainment at Viacom18 India. The channel was quick to notice the popularity of Korean bands in India and soon launched a dedicated programme. Music streaming app Gaana has seen the consumption of K-pop among Indian users grow three times in the last one year itself.
It is not just Korean pop, widely called K-pop, that is being lapped up by Indians. TV dramas, movies, beauty products and food have also become hot imports from South Korea. Together, they form a wave of cultural exports that the foreign ministry in Seoul has been promoting to the rest of the world since 1999. According to the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange, these cultural exports helped the Korean economy earn $8.2 billion in 2017, 6.9% more than what it made the previous year.
The west has been influenced by this Korean wave, also called Hallyu, over the last decade or so. Celebrity chefs often mention Korean food in their food videos. Korean-American families are increasingly playing the lead in mainstream global releases — Sony Pictures’ “Searching” and Netflix’s “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” being some of the recent examples. This year, BTS became the first Korean band to be rated at the top of the musical charts of Billboard Artist 100 in the US.
While Hallyu is prevalent in 16 countries, India is perhaps the last South Asian country to experience the Korean wave, says Kim Kum-pyoung, director of India’s Korean Cultural Centre, a network of non-profit institutions aligned with the South Korean government to promote the region’s culture and facilitate cultural exchanges. “The country of diverse cultures is still conservative to foreign cultures.” Indians have just started understanding Korean culture, he adds.
Picture Credit: Chandni Gajria
It all started with K-pop. The music form gained popularity in the Northeast first, particularly in Manipur, which is often called the starting point of Hallyu is India. A ban on Indian entertainment content in 2000, courtesy the state’s political wing, pushed Manipur to look towards the Far East for cultural content. “A racial affiliation with the Mongoloids and similar family values drew them closer to Korea,” says Kima de Mizohican, a Mizoramborn and Mumbai-based K-pop fan. Soon, the rest of the six states followed suit, he adds. In 2012, the rest of India also started dancing to K-pop tunes, thanks largely to Psy’s viral video “Gangnam Style”. Slick K-pop videos and lyrics peppered with a smattering of English started resonating well with teens. There are at least 100 accounts and pages of K-pop fans across Twitter and Facebook in India.
“Music is a universal language anyway,” says Supriya Joshi, 32, an ARMY girl herself. The Mumbai-based standup comic finds inspiration from a BTS song called Epiphany which focuses on loving yourself even if you’re imperfect or your society misunderstands you. This finds resonance with youth in India. “Not to mention the artistes look gorgeous and dance really well.”
K-pop indirectly became the launch pad for other Korean cultural exports in India. In 2013, when Innisfree, a Korean cosmetic brand from the house of Amore Pacific, set shop in New Delhi’s Khan Market, few knew of a concept called K-beauty, an umbrella term for Korean skincare products. “When you start watching K-pop videos, the YouTube algorithm invariably leads you to related items such as K-beauty,” says Joshi.
In no time, thus, K-beauty ambassadors became all the rage here, says Mini Sood Banerjee, senior marketing manager for India at Innisfree. The brand has grown from one to 14 stores in five years. Not all K-beauty products do well in India because some customers are put off by a prominent ingredient, snail extracts. The facial mask sheets, however, are a hit with customers. Online cosmetics marketplace Nykaa, for one, has found selling K-beauty products lucrative. “Earlier, skincare contributed to 20% of the revenue. After we introduced Korean brands, it grew to 30%,” says Nykaa founder Falguni Nayar.
K-beauty rode on the natural-cosmetics wave that hit India around 2013-14. It did for high-end skincare what the sachet model did for shampoos, says Nayar. Nykaa has 500 K-beauty products, including those from Innisfree and The Face Shop. Joshi hopes they get more. Nayar says negotiations are in the pipeline.
Nakkyun Chong, a Korean expat in India, is also in the midst of negotiations. The 56-year-old former business development manager with an MNC plans to launch an online marketplace for all things Korean in India by next year. The demand for these products has encouraged him to leverage on the popularity.
Groceries like Korean ramen noodles and seaweed are popular among non-Koreans, too, says Lee Yukyoung, director at Brics India Trade, which runs online grocery store koreanshop. in. Of the 40-odd orders the shop gets daily, 35 are from Indians, she says.
Indians seem to have taken a liking for Korean flavours. Korean ramen is spicy and has a strong taste that appeals to Indians, as opposed to Japanese ramen which is relatively bland, says Kim Gung, owner of Gung The Palace, chain of South Korean restaurants. 70% of customers at Delhi restaurant are Indians, he says. Koreans eat early. “By the time they finish, Indians start pouring in.” The restaurant gets a footfall of 60-70 every day.
There are more than 30 standalone Korean restaurants in the country right now, mostly in cities such as Chennai, Delhi & NCR, Pune, Bengaluru and Mumbai — where there are Korean students or a number of Korean expats working in LG, Samsung, and Hyundai.
Sahil Khan, a Pune-based UX designer, loves the flavours of the cuisine. “There’s a Korean hostel close to my house where they serve food to visitors also. If you’re lucky, you can get outstanding food some days,” says the 29-year-old.
Korean dramas merge all aspects of K-culture. In one of their popular teen dramas, “Boys Over Flowers”, protagonists squabble over who gets more ramen — while slurping their existing noodles with chopsticks — for three consecutive episodes. If that does not make you hit the nearest noodle bar at once, what will? Another 2014 drama, “Let’s Eat”, deals with dining out amid the loneliness in a metro.
A lot of K-pop artistes act in K-dramas as well, thus their music fanbase often follows their acting portfolio, too. Beauty is a recurring theme in several dramas that touch upon topics like makeovers and plastic surgeries.
The cultural similarities between the two nations fascinate Saniya Thasmaishree, 16. “For instance, they have a lot of respect for elders, like us, which is beautifully depicted in their dramas,” says the Bengaluru-based Kdrama fan. It doesn’t end there. Their hugs are as effusive as our “jaadu ki jhappis”. They, too, fold hands when apologising profusely. They laugh and cry from the gut, like most of us.
Though K-dramas came to India through Manipur, where local cable channels have been dubbing episodes in Manipuri for almost a decade now; other regional channels have also capitalised on their popularity.
In 2017, Hindi GEC Zindagi dubbed version of famous K-drama “Descendants of the Sun”, before becoming a digital-only channel. Tamil general entertainment channel (GEC) Puthuyugam TV aired dubbed versions of at least 20 Korean dramas between 2014 and 2016. “These shows last for 16-25 episodes at best and have a wow factor attached to them what with the fashionable clothes and decor, which makes them all the more appealing,” says Shankar B, CEO of Fourth Dimension Media Solutions, a part of the SRM Group that owns the channel. The screening stopped only because the Korean Broadcasting System Network, realising the shows’ popularity, wanted to increase syndication charges. “Those were early days to convince advertisers to bet big on this genre,” recalls Shankar. These days, teenagers like Thasmaishree watch their favourite K-dramas on video streaming sites.
Advertisers have started waking up to the opportunity this genre offers. Livon has partnered with Vh1 for their K-pop programmes. Amazon has seen orders for K-beauty products rising from cities such as
Kanchipuram, Vadodara, and Bhubaneshwar, besides the metros. The retailer has made its association with the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency stronger.
There are video parlours in the Northeast that sell Korean movies dubbed in local languages. This trend has begun to travel to pockets of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well. OTT players are expanding their K-drama and movie library for India, while Korean restaurants are planning a slow but steady expansion to cities beyond the top five.
Every fan of K-pop in India starts off with one video, either through reference or out of pure curiosity. “One month later, you know about the singer’s entire life history, their sun sign, food habits the works,” says Joshi. This seems to apply to everything K-culture has on offer. The more you find out, the more you want to know.
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