KOCHI: With millions of youth all over the world tuning in, K-pop or Korean pop music has been on the rise over the past decade. Not just music, but with movies such as Parasite and TV shows like Squid Game, the Korean ‘invasion’ of India, too, has reached a crescendo. Kerala, which is quite choosy while picking genres, also has a growing tribe of K-fans, with some restaurants even serving Korean cuisine.
Kerala’s K-tryst probably started with the popular track ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy (Park Jae-Sang). Sivani S Nair, a second-year animation and VFX student at Sacred Heart College, Thevara, got into K-pop culture when she was in Class 5, courtesy Gangnam Style. “The song was catchy. Being a dancer myself, I loved watching the video. My sister and I learnt the choreography by heart. Later, we explored other Korean artists, too,” recalls Sivani.
As she grew older, Sivani started researching the meanings of the songs and found their messages motivating. “Once you start listening to the songs, your interest in K-pop will grow,” she adds. For B-Pharm student Sneha Sanal, of Thiruvananthapuram, it’s been a “therapeutic” relationship between K-pop and K-dramas. “It started during the lockdown. Now, during stressful days, listening to a BTS song helps me. They were the first ones who told me to love myself,” she says.
“Many people questioned why I was listening to music in a language I don’t understand, and that too by boys who wear makeup. To them, I reply, ‘English subtitles are not just for decoration and there is nothing wrong with wearing makeup’.” College student Adwaith Syam, of Kochi, says he has received a lot of “hate” for being a K-fan. “I have been into K-pop since 2017,” he says. “Some of my classmates threw hateful comments at me. ‘It’s a girly thing’ is the usual jibe. But I never cared about them; I do what makes me happy.”
Kottayam-based writer Anish Kuriakose is also an ardent K-fan who believes all the bias is bunkum. “For me, it started with the female band Girls’ Generation. Slowly, I started exploring K-pop. Later, I started watching K-dramas. They offer action, love, thrill and humour,” he says. Ann Mary Simon, a mass communication student at Rajagiri College in Kochi, says K-pop “spreads the message of love”. The young singers, she adds, often address “problems of the youth”. “The messages they convey are relatable for me,” says Ann.
However, it is not just the youth who relate to their messages, says Sindhu Unni, an irrigation department assistant executive engineer based in Kochi. She and her daughter, Nanditha (class 7), are huge fans of K-pop. Nanditha, who started listening to K-pop during the pandemic lockdown, gives a thumbs-up to her mother. “I love their dance moves. It’s super entertainment,” she says.
Sindhu adds, “You can find a community, friends who become your confidants. I have a few BTS Army friends and colleagues, too”.
Fashion & fluidity
The Korean wave has had a major impact on current beauty standards, including gender-fluid fashion. The liking and loyalty toward K-pop have influenced several fans to learn the Korean language (via apps), experiment with Korean cuisine and adopt a Korean beauty regimen. Arifa M, who works with a media firm in Kochi, believes K-stars have pulled off a coup in terms of fashion. “Their changing hair colours, attractive make-up, attires — all break conventional style norms and gender barriers. Idols from boy bands sometimes use outfits such as dangling earrings, skirts, and ‘feminine’ colours such as pink and peppy red,” she notes. Notably, Korean cosmetics have made a mark, especially in the e-market. Kochi-based freelance journalist Keerthi Mohan says it was the “peppy tunes” and the “visual appeal” that got her hooked to K-pop. “It wasn’t long before it got extended to dramas and fashion,” she says. “I love their cosmetics. Most products focus on hydration, and the ingredients used seem gentle.”
“I try hard to find time to watch K-dramas though my days are busy, especially since I have to take care of my two kids,” says homemaker Aruna Ratheesh from Thiruvananthapuram. “There is no age barrier. Everyone can watch these series. K-dramas are my happy place.” Like her, for many, the perfect mix of traditional values and modern sentiments makes the Korean series click. “They stand out compared to Indian dramas, which have very outdated concepts. K-dramas are just 16 to 20 episodes long. The stories get over quickly. They also have a good mix of humour, romance, tragedy, etc,” says Anu C K, who runs an advertisement agency in Kochi. “Some of them, especially the romantic ones, are corny. But, at times, corny is good! There is nothing wrong in enjoying fluff amid all the seriousness in life. And they are generally relatable, unlike, say, the Italian one that I have been watching.” Our in-house film critic Sajin Shrijith notes that Korean shows are “wildly imaginative”. “They dare to take up topics that Indian filmmakers don’t go near. They have rich production values, and the actors are more perceptive and blessed with chameleonic abilities,” he adds.
Arifa says she has been exploring Korean cuisine. “Now, even Korean ramyeon, kind of like our Maggi, is available online. They are very spicy. There are K-pop fans in Ernakulam who make and sell kimchi (a type of pickle),” says Arifa. Korean lunch box cakes are also a huge hit in Kerala, especially in cities like Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, she adds. “I think we all remember Dalgona coffee!” she says. Lakshmi Devi, an electrical engineer from Malappuram, always “relished comprehending different cultures around the world”. Kimchi, japchae (stir-fried noodles) and jjajamgmyeon (noodles with diced meat and a thick sauce) are some of her favourite Korean dishes. “The ingredients are widely available in cities, so I tried making them at home,” she says.
The other side
Keerthi cautions that an increasing number of teens and adolescents are getting addicted to all things Korean. “While it’s easy to get sucked up into the whole Korean wave, being addicted to K-pop and K-dramas can do more bad than good,” she says. “Fans should understand that when K-pop stars constantly vocalise love for their fans, there is a level of fabrication involved.” She also flags the K-industry’s “obsession for body perfection”. “This could bleed into the fans, too, and that’s not welcome,” she says.
Korean boy band BTS (also known as bangtan boys) addressed the United Nations General Assembly as the special presidential envoy for future generations from South Korea last year. On Tuesday, they also visited the White House and met with President Joe Biden — where they commented about anti-Asian racism in the US.
With BTS releasing its new album, after two years of waiting, on Friday, and various instances of rising addiction among teenagers in the state, K-pop has been in the news for both good and bad reasons. TNIE explores the Korean wave and what makes it special