The Korean cool, from popular culture to food, travels from the Northeast to the rest of India
Two years ago, I travelled to a remote village in Mizoram. After having taken two different flights to get to Aizawl airport, followed by a 12 hour-long journey in a jeep, a night’s rest in an abandoned circuit house, and another journey of two hours across a river, I reached a settlement of about 150 homes. This was Theiva, a village of the Mara tribe, in the southernmost tip of Mizoram, connected to the rest of the state and country through a narrow paved road. Around the village were thick forests, and on the other side, Myanmar.
Several years ago, a girl had gotten lost in the jungle as a four- year-old. She had now been found 38 years later, feral and somewhat autistic in nature, on the fringes of the forest. I had come to write an article about the woman, Ng Chhaidy, and her return to Theiva. Here in this edge of India, the electricity was erratic, people hung the entrails of animals for consumption, and nobody spoke any language other than Mara and Mizo. They lived harsh lives, but never complained. Chhaidy’s parents, just like the other villagers were warm and hospitable, but as the evening descended, I found them increasingly less inviting. They did not seem to want to talk and preferred watching TV instead. As I sat in this green wooden house with aluminium sheets that served as walls and a roof and began to consider what might have suddenly dawned upon my hosts, I absent-mindedly began to follow the proceedings on TV. The characters were pale-skinned. The setting seemed to be urban and foreign. And then it occurred to me. “But…” I stood up, unable to contain myself. “This is not Mizo.” The characters were speaking in a dubbed Mizo voice. One of the two individuals who was accompanying me from a nearby town to help out as a translator, and who was also watching the show with Chhaidy’s parents, said, “It’s Korean. Didn’t you know?”
That’s when I stumbled upon something I had always heard of, but never observed firsthand—the Korean wave or hallyu, the gamut of TV dramas and films and K-Pop from that country sweeping through the Northeast. It was not just Chhaidy’s parents. All the villagers, like the rest of the state, watched Korean films and dramas that were being telecast on TV by local cable operators. On my return to Aizawl, this phenomenon was even more noticeable. The largest collection in all the shops that sold CDs was those of Korean film and TV dramas. Outside on the roads, young boys walked in elaborately moussed and gelled hair, some of them even having dyed their hair blond. The girls wore hot pants or short skirts, with large leather boots. Exactly like how many members of Korean boy and girl bands did.
But now it appears, the K-wave is not restricted just to the Northeast. Gradually, a nascent wave is also building up with youngsters in other Indian locations.
In the 1990s, South Korean culture began flourishing in other east Asian countries. South Korea became the Hollywood of East Asia. Actively promoted by the government, their dramas and films, with its contemporary settings and the espousal of a traditional value system around the importance of family and friend ships found a large fan following. They did not contain the violence and overflowing sexuality portrayed in other mainstream media. The pop songs, with a blend of Eastern and Western sounds, had catchy and repetitive choruses and synchronised dance routines. Boy and girl bands that began to disappear in other music industries became popular here. The media began to refer to this wave as hallyu. The release of Psy’s Gangnam Style only raised the global profile of the K-wave.
It is said that it first began in Manipur, where after separatist groups banned Hindi films, TV shows and music, the youths started taking to Korean fare. This quickly spread to other parts of the Northeast, where the youths did not just consume these products, they also began to dress and style themselves like South Korean actors and musicians.
Now it is picking up in other parts of the country. There are fan clubs devoted to certain Korean actors and musicians on Facebook, groups of youngsters catch up in coffee shops and each other’s homes to discuss the fad, and conversations are peppered with Korean phrases like annyeong haseyo (‘hello’), kamsahamnida (‘thank you’) and sarang haeyo (‘I love you’). Some memorise and sing Korean songs without understanding their lyrics. And some are even learning the Korean language to better appreciate the culture.
Jeet Dasgupta, a Mumbai-based assistant brand manager in the marketing department of Bajaj Corp Ltd, was introduced to the Korean wave through films. Then followed a deep passion for K-Pop, and since last year, he has also started publically performing Korean songs, although he does not understand the language. So far, he has performed at a Mumbai mall, in an event organised last year by the Korean consulate in Mumbai, and at the K-Pop Festival in Delhi this year, an event organised annually by the Delhi-based Korean Culture Centre and whose winner is sent to South Korea to compete at the K-Pop World Festival. Dasgupta emerged the winner of the Mumbai round of the festival, and third at the national competition. “I write the Korean songs out in English and memorise them,” he says. “I used to be very afraid of getting the diction wrong. But I listen to the songs as much as possible and learn the meaning of the songs to get the pronunciations and the sentiments right.” Dasgupta organises Korean movie nights at his house every few weeks where he screens movies for friends who also enjoy Korean films, and uses his karaoke system, which contains a few Korean songs, to sing with his friends. He is currently preparing a duet for an event later this year that will be organised by the India Korea Friends Mumbai, a fan club devoted to the Korean Wave in the city. “Usually, all of us Indians who sing Korean songs are so involved in getting the diction right that we don’t dance while we sing. Hopefully I’ll be able to do so this time. Also this song (Now by the group Trouble Maker) contains some rap elements, which will be tricky,” he says.
According to Orlinda Fernandes, a fashion designer who is a co-founder of the fan group, India Korea Friends Mumbai, which has around 260 people, the reason that the K-wave is gradually finding resonance with some Indians is because the content is different and refreshing. “There is a sameness to the music and films produced in India and the US. K-Pop or Korean films and dramas are not just new; they are as slick and well-produced as any top American show or music video. Plus, almost all the artistes, whether singers or actors, are by a rule good-looking.”
The nascent K-wave in India is being promoted by the Korean embassy. The Korean Culture Centre (KCC), which is supported by the South Korean embassy, organises Korean film screenings, classes in Korean language and taekwondo and cultural exhibitions, apart from organising events like the K-Pop Festival. Earlier this year, the KCC signed an Memorandum of Understanding with JU Entertainment, a top South Korean record label, to help promote K-Pop in India and to bring K-Pop artistes to India. While shows from the Korean channel ArirangTV are already being telecast on Doordarshan, and the channel itself is available on some Indian DTH networks like Videocon. Doordarshan and Arirang TV earlier this year signed an MoU to further exchange more content from each other’s channels.
What is further propelling this wave is the presence of a large South Korean population in the country. There are around 600 South Korean companies like Samsung, Hyundai and LG Electronics in India, and along with the factories have come South Korean employees. According to statistics by the Export-Import Bank of Korea, by the end of 2013, South Koreans had invested around $3.25 billion in the country. There are at least around 8,000 South Koreans living in India, according to the Korean Association in India. The largest population is in the National Capital Region and Chennai regions, where most of the companies are located, each of which has at least 3,000 South Koreans. “Most Koreans stay for a few years in India. They bring their families and their children study in Indian schools and colleges, further introducing Korean culture to their Indian neighbours and classmates,” says Ritesh Sharma, the Delhi- based general manager of the Korean Association in India.
A number of Korean restaurants now cater to not just South Korean patrons in Chennai and Delhi, but also to Indians. The popular Korean eatery Gung: The Palace in Delhi, started in 2007, did so well with the Indian patrons that it has now three more establishments. According to Jin Bum Kim, the proprietor of Gung, Indian customers make up for at least 60 per cent of the four Gung’s clientele. Indians, according to Kim, also actively participate in Korean karaoke nights and in a Korean drinking game they call the Hurricane Bomb. In the game, the wet paper napkin that covers a glass of a mixture of Soju, a Korean wine, and beer, is flung on the wall before every drink is consumed. Each drink is to be glugged down at one go, and people are to leave only once the wall is covered with napkins. “People used to think a Korean eatery won’t work in India because Korean cuisine incorporates a lot of different types of meat. But it has. There is a lot of similarity in the two cuisines, because of the reliance on spices, which many seem to have not noticed,” Kim says. He came to Delhi when his father, a diplomat, was transferred to the South Korean embassy, and pursued economics in Ramjas College. “When I first came to Delhi, I used to feel quite odd here. There were very few Koreans and everything, from the people to the culture, was new to me. But now you see a lot more Koreans and K-Pop is slowly getting an audience here too,” he adds.
Otojit Kshetrimayum, a sociologist from Manipur who is based in Delhi, authored an academic paper about the Korean wave in Manipur in 2007. According to the paper, the ban on Hindi movies and songs in Manipur, along with the cultural similarity between Korea and Manipur, both in terms of racial appearance and the presence of clan communities, led to the boom of Korean films and songs in the state. Kshetrimayum, who is currently an associate fellow at VV Giri National Labour Institute, says over the phone, “I used to be surprised by the trend when I used to visit Manipur. Youngsters were using Korean phrases, imitating Korean mannerisms, and even using chopsticks, when otherwise there is no culture of using chopsticks here.” He adds, “But with Korean content available on the internet and Korean shows on Indian TV, one can see this wave coming to other Indian places too.”
Nishi Mhapankar, a 25-year-old graphic designer from Bhayandar in Mumbai, says she scours the internet every day for the latest updates on K-Pop. Her favourite musicians are SHINee, a boy band of five members. Because there are no Korean language classes available in Mumbai, she has been learning the language online for the past six months. “I want to understand the language and the culture better. Next year, I will travel to Seoul to see for myself what Korea is like,” she says. According to her, if her interest in the Korean language continues, she might even consider a career as a translator for Korean firms. And at the end of our conversation, she says, “Kamsahamnida”— Korean for ‘thank you’.