By Neha Cariappa
South Korea’s pop culture wave (or Hallyu) is making its mark in India. As recently as five years ago, Indians would have only recognized singer PSY and his hit song “Gangnam Style.” Now, the K-pop genre has become more “mainstream” and it’s not unusual for Indians living in cities to express interest in K-pop and other Korean cultural content. In a survey conducted by the Korean government about how people in other countries saw Korea, almost 92% of Indian respondents answered that K-pop was the most agreeable initiation to Korea and its culture.
To explore the kind of influence that Hallyu is having on young Indians today, I conducted an online survey of Indian fans of Korean cultural content. I received a total of 142 responses with 95% of them identifying as female and the rest identifying as male. The imbalance in the respondents’ gender may be attributed to prejudice against listening to music that is not Western or South Asian or the prevalent stereotype of Korean men being “feminine”. Despite this, K-pop has now seeped into the lives of Indian Zoomers, with teens being more accepting of previously unconventional music as well as of global cultures. There were 81 participants in their 20s, 59 participants in their teens, and 2 participants over the age of 40. Through the survey, I was able to critically analyze and observe the various aspects of daily life of Indian fans that are influenced by Korean culture. Two notable aspects stood out—fashion and beauty.
The Korean Fashion Ensemble
An increasing number of Korean celebrities are being invited to global fashion shows, and have made an impression in the fashion world. For instance, Vogue named the Korean boy group EXO’s youngest member Sehun the at Louis Vuitton’s fashion shows in 2018 and 2019. As fan sites for K-pop idols multiply alongside hundreds of pictures showcasing their style, fans all over the world are paying greater attention to the fashion sense of these idols. According to an article published by Vox, a representative of K-Style Files – an online database of K-pop fashion – noted that “many [fans] aspire to imitate their favorite K-pop idols by dressing like them, so they use fashion search engines…to buy or seek inspiration from the exact pieces their idols are wearing.”
Nearly 95% of the respondents in my survey claimed that their personal style in fashion was influenced by Korean content, with many finding inspiration from outfits worn by their favorite idols, as well as by those they see in K-dramas. In my survey, the male respondents stated that they were influenced by specific male celebrities whose fashion sense appealed to them. In the case of female fans, many of the respondents claimed to follow the fashion of both male and female idols. The most common choices were BTS members Jungkook and V, and Black Pink members Lisa and Jennie, whose looks resonated the most with this sample of Indian fans. “I find their sense of fashion effortlessly good. They make anything look good and comfortable,” as quoted in my survey. In this case, it is not just their fashion sense that charms the fans. The inherent aesthetic sense of style portrayed by the Korean entertainment industry captures new viewers not only through its fashionably styled outfits but also the visually appealing music videos.
The Hallyu Beauty
In the case of India, fans seem to be averse to getting any plastic surgery. 90% of the respondents in my survey asserted that they wouldn’t want to get plastic surgery. At the same time, around 25% of them added that they accept and respect the fact that their favorite idols might have undergone surgery. Some even revealed that they didn’t like their darker skin color, but would never get surgery to change it. This attitude may itself be influenced by a specific boy group, BTS. Indian fans from my survey seem to be highly influenced by BTS’s mantra of “Love Yourself”, with many of them emphasizing this as their reason for learning to be content with one’s own unique attributes. One particular respondent said: “I wanted to get plastic surgery…but I changed my mind because of BTS as they taught me how to love yourself as you are.”
In an interview with Prerna Tiwari, the Admin of Korean Culture India Fan Club, I asked about her experience with Indian fans. According to Tiwari, “Indian Fans are a bundle of energy and enthusiasm when it comes to attending and hosting events such as celebrating the birthdays of idols and the anniversaries of groups, as well as acting as volunteers and supporters in Korean cultural events.” She placed particular emphasis on the impact of statements made by BTS on issues like body positivity and self-confidence, which is potent among younger Indian fans.
Given the focus on skincare in contemporary Korean culture, many Indian fans in the survey were encouraged to try Korean brands in the pursuit of what they called “flawless skin” of Korean personalities. Korean celebrity endorsements for Korean skincare and makeup products have encouraged more Indian fans to purchase them. Viki, a global streaming site with subtitled TV shows from various countries all over the world, realized that viewers were commenting in real-time about the makeup and fashion that actors and actresses were using in the K-dramas. With this data, Viki began to offer products highlighted in comments on their own shopping platform.
When it comes to skincare brands, Indian fans tend to use Innisfree, The FaceShop and Mediheal the most. Innisfree is the most readily available Korean skincare brand in India, but they only have stores in big cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, and Chennai. Some of the survey respondents even expressed disappointment about not being able to use Korean products either because it is expensive or because it is not accessible to them. But even then, they try to use at least one Korean beauty product to feel more closely connected with their idols.
Nykaa, India’s most popular online beauty business was the first to make Korean beauty products more easily available. While Korean products were introduced to India in 2013, demand for their products began to grow around 2015. The popularity of Korean products cannot be attributed solely to the widespread recognition of Korean pop culture. A spokesperson of another popular Indian retail company, Flipkart, claimed that Korean beauty brands are sought after thanks to “the right balance between value, variety, and trendiness.” Their easy skin regimes and a wide range of sheet masks have added value too. Innisfree, Laneige, and The Face Shop are now among the most popular Korean brands in Indian markets.
As a result of all these factors, K-beauty brands are received favorably in India. Indian beauty websites and journalists also continue to write articles about Korean skincare regimes, and where to order Korean products. In addition, famous makeup artists on YouTube, like Pony, continue to attract more fans of Korean makeup.
Hallyu in India
As the K-pop industry continues to captivate global audiences with their dazzling outfits and artistic music videos, young citizens of India, and their peers in other South Asian countries, continue to grow as a target market for Korean cultural products. As of December 2019, the number of Indian tourists to South Korea since December 2017 grew by almost 36%. And while Indians may still consume American and other English content, Korean music is spreading in India as more and more people are eager to learn the Korean language, eat Korean food, and visit Korea. With such a large young population, there is no doubt that India has the potential to become an appealing market for the Korean entertainment industry.
Neha Cariappa earned an MA in Asia Pacific Studies from the University of San Francisco. Her research focus is on Korean culture and the feminist movement in South Korea.
Picture from flickr user Republic of Korea