India knows about EXO, BTS: It’s time to acknowledge, K-pop is here to stay

By now, thousands of fans in India know top Korean bands, EXO & BTS.
Finalists of the 2017 India K-pop Contest in Talkatora Indoor Stadium in New Delhi on July 29.(Korean Cultural Centre)
Finalists of the 2017 India K-pop Contest in Talkatora Indoor Stadium in New Delhi on July 29.(Korean Cultural Centre)
Updated on Nov 24, 2018 05:43 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

“The maknae of the group is 13 years old. Send me the streaming link, palli palli. Unnie, we need to win the daesang this year.”

This is not Pidgin English, which is spoken in some corners of the world. It is a secret language thousands of young people in India use in WhatsApp conversations. Beyond school textbooks and office chores, people all over the world use it to bond over one common interest — K-pop.

Korean popular music or K-pop is the contemporary music form exported to the world from South Korea, an Asian nation better known for its cars.

A K-pop song is typically performed by a group combining popular styles like pop, rock, hip-hop, rap, jazz, electronica and techno. K-pop bands are also known for their immaculately choreographed dance routines.

In India, where Bollywood and English music dominate, the rise of K-pop and the emergence of its fan base is a journey worth following.

Fans gather to attend the K-pop India Contest in Talkatora Indoor stadium in New Delhi. (Korea Cultural Centre)
Fans gather to attend the K-pop India Contest in Talkatora Indoor stadium in New Delhi. (Korea Cultural Centre)

The Korean Wave

K-pop is part of the larger oeuvre of Korean entertainment and popular culture that includes Korean dramas and movies. Collectively termed as the Korean wave or Hallyu, the phenomenon dates back to late ‘90s when vast swathes of China, Japan and southeast Asia were swept by an exotic romance of South Korean movies, music and television serials. Today, with Hallyu content easily accessible online, it is a subculture that has penetrated almost every region of the world, and India is no exception.

The country’s first major brush with Hallyu can be traced to the northeast in the late ‘90s-early 2000s. The airing of Korean channels in states like Nagaland, Manipur as well as availability of pirated CDs through porous borders in the northeast introduced the region’s households to Korean entertainment.

Nagaland’s tryst with Hallyu was so intense that in 2008, the first ever Korea-India Music Festival was held in Kohima, under the joint partnership of the Nagaland and South Korean governments.

K-pop enthusiasts during the K-pop India Contest at Talkatora Indoor Stadium in New Delhi on July 29. (Korean Culture Centre)
K-pop enthusiasts during the K-pop India Contest at Talkatora Indoor Stadium in New Delhi on July 29. (Korean Culture Centre)

The Crazy K-Pop Fan

Today, the popularity is no longer confined to the region, but an entire generation in India is under its spell. And in 2017, being a K-pop fan is not merely about having a playlist of Korean songs or knowing the song lyrics by heart, which is just the baby step in the fandom.

Every K-pop fan is a geek who is acquainted with the history of various bands, also called ‘idol’ groups, and artists, the way the South Korean entertainment industry operates, and also the current political and international ties of the Asian nation.

A K-pop enthusiast from Mumbai, Ritika Maitra says, “The relations between South Korea and China have turned sour. Since, China is the biggest revenue source for the K-pop industry and currently the artists can’t perform there, I hope they turn to India for a new market.”

This is still the tip of the iceberg.

Once within the K-pop universe, fans gravitate towards particular bands and undertake various projects like charity work on artists’ birthdays, drawing fan art and writing fan letters. Regular interaction with global fans via social media to participate in mass streaming sessions of their band’s songs and voting for awards is part of the secret life a K-pop fan.

How popular is K-pop in India

In 2012, in a small auditorium in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, 37 contestants participated in the first official K-pop contest in India attended by 300 people.

Six years later, the total number of participants swelled to 898 and the venue of the ‘K-pop Contest India 2017’ on July 29 was the swanky Talkatora Indoor Stadium that saw a turnout of over 2,000 K-pop fans.

Organised by the Korean Cultural Centre, a wing of the South Korean embassy, the event has become the mecca for K-pop fans in India. Such is the popularity of the contest that regional rounds had to be held in 11 cities, including Chennai, Patna, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, Bengaluru to select participants for the main contest.

“We have traditional and contemporary culture but mostly youngsters from all over the world enjoy contemporary music. When we started this contest, it was a very cosy event. Since then every year, the number of participants and audience are growing,” says Kim Kum-Pyoung, director of the Korean Cultural centre.

EXO-L in India

One of K-pop industry’s reigning boy bands, EXO has a massive fan base across India. EXO-L (the official name of EXO fans) India interact over 20 WhatsApp groups divided on regional basis (because only 256 people can be added in one group). The communication level is ceaseless, so much so that an EXO-L from Mizoram is well acquainted with the one from Delhi.

In May 2017, to commemorate the group’s fifth anniversary, EXO-Ls raised 58,000 and donated to Ummang Foundation, an NGO that works with underprivileged children in Mumbai.

“In an age of digital streaming, K-pop is the rare music industry where sale of physical album copies is still prevalent. The sales contribute to the profit of artists directly. From India, we ordered 350 physical copies of EXO’s recent albums ‘The War’. We also collaborated with EXO-Global and contributed 12,000 for a food truck during their Encore concert in Seoul,” says Ritika Mitra, an admin of EXO-L India.

In Manipur, 139 EXO-Ls booked a cinema hall to together watch a recent EXO concert last month.

BTS’s ARMY in India is no joke

K-pop band BTS or Bangtan Boys catapulted into the global music scene after winning a Billboard Music Award, where they beat pop music giants like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez in the social media category. However, their ARMY (BTS’s official fandom name) had a presence in India much before they captured international fame.

The Bangtan ARMY India was formed in 2014, a year after the group debuted. “On July 28, the group created a Google database to assess the number of ARMY in India. We got response from 2,300 people in four days,” says Twinkle, an admin of Bangtan Indian ARMY Facebook page, which has over 6,700 likes.

“After BTS’s mentioned India in the interview in Rolling Stone’s magazine, Indian ARMY started trending #IndialovesBTS on Twitter and it reached No. 2 on worldwide trends,” says admin Oitrika Biswas.

How K-pop fans fell down the rabbit hole

Nishi Mhapankar, a software engineer from Mumbai, stumbled into K-pop through her interest in anime — Japanese animation films in 2009. “Once a K-pop fan enters this world, the interest doesn’t disappear — it stays,” claims Nishi who now runs a K-popfan-club called India-Korea Friends Mumbai (IKFM).

IKFM is now recognised by the South Korean government.

“I have a full-time job. I organise IKFM activities for my sheer love for K-pop. We are trying to make K-pop mainstream so that the stigma attached to liking it is eliminated. People bully K-pop fans, we want people to see things through our eyes,” she said.

Youth in Nagaland are second-generation K-pop aficionados.

“My mum is into K-pop. She loves Shinhwa, Super Junior and EXO. I knew about K-pop as a kid through her,” says Ezon Houtsog, 19, who flew to Myanmar to attend his first EXO concert this year.

“It was a dream to see them live. You always stream them on YouTube, so when I was there, I kept thinking ‘Am I really here’?” he says.

A fashion designer from Delhi, Kanika Agarwal explains, “Their music is so catchy and groovy. You can feel it.” She jetted to Singapore to watch an EXO concert last April. “People were crying and fainting everywhere. The girl next to me passed out even without the band on stage,” she says.

Unlike other singers, K-pop artists are scouted at an early age by entertainment agencies and are made to undergo training for several years before making their debuts. They act in Korean dramas and films, and often appear in talk-shows.

“You watch the K-pop idols on variety shows, and knowing about their life stories. They are so hard working, it gives me patience, I get inspiration from them,” says Elizabeth Longjam from Manipur, whose 80-year-old grandma is a big fan of the drama ‘Boys Over Flowers’.

K-pop is a self-contained universe in itself where artists are at the centre and lives of fans revolve around them. It is a phenomenon, a form of subculture with its own eccentricities.

So to conclude, the three sentences at the beginning of this article simply mean: The youngest member of the group is 13 years old. Send me the streaming link, hurry. Sister, we need to win the music award this year.


    Monami Gogoi works as a content producer at Hindustan Times. She works with the online team and writes on current events.

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