K-Pop in India: Sriya Lenka’s success has been a long time in the making

The term “Hallyu wave” seems misplaced now — it’s an entire ocean. The “waves” have been flooding the world and specifically India since the ’90s — a world before BTS formed their ARMY or Seventeen had their Carats cheering for them. The effect wasn’t immediate; it came in small bursts till the late 2000s before it took the country by storm. So, it was just a matter of time before India got its first K-Pop star in Sriya Lenka.

There is a historical context to the Hallyu fascination – it was part of the attempt to reconstruct a country that was in financial shambles. The “wave” was born out of the Asian financial crisis that hit South Korea in 1997. The country was drowning in debt after borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, and had to use the money to restore its depleted foreign currency reserves. Amid severe distress, President Kim Dae-jung realized that the entertainment industry could serve as an economic engine. The Ministry of Culture was restructured, and funds were injected into the Korean film council to propagate pop culture while ensuring that universities churned out talent. Several government ministries, including food, foreign affairs, sports and tourism invested heavily in the entertainment industry.

K-Pop began to take shape. The debut of Seo Taiji And The Boys in the early ’90s, and their towering popularity, and encouraged Korean companies to follow the trend and by the mid-1990s, the Korean music industry saw the rise of bands such as HOT and Sechs Kies, who began to build intense fandoms – similar to the ones we see today. These bands left behind the formulas for the K-Pop groups to follow, music that blended elements from Korean pop culture to different beats from the West, packed with alternate-universe storylines and overwhelming visuals.

Manipur had embraced the Hallyu wave a decade before the rest of India. In 2000, after Bollywood films were banned in the state, consumers found solace in Korean dramas and music. The K-dramas and films were smuggled in from neighboring countries and the word spread to other states in the Northeast. The doors were opened for the Hally wave in 2008 after Nagaland organized the first Indo-Korea music festival. Indian outlets reported how over 7,000 people “poored” into the streets at the event where Korean musicians were on stage while the political leaders of the state watched. The two performers, Isak and Ilac, associated with the South Korean TV channel Arirang, performed at the festival. K-Pop culture began to gain more steam after Mizoram’s youngsters began winning at various K-Pop competitions held across Asia. The band Immortal Army came second at the K-Pop World Festival in 2017 at Changwon, South Korea, which is an annual music and dance competition organized by South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The following year, 18-year-old Juchy came first in the vocal category at the grand finale of The Changwon K-POP India 2018. By 2018, the Korean band, MONT performed at the Hornbill festival. Another concert was held in Manipur, and a fan meet was conducted in Delhi.

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PSY’s Gangnam Style in 2012 was crucial to the growing fascination for K-Pop in India. The power of the song could not be denied; it became the most streamed track on YouTube, and even spawned several parodies and memes. And then, along came the Bangtan Boys, bopping to everything in their way. The K-Pop juggernaut BTS – which started as seven boys from South Korea struggling to make it big in 2013 – came to be known as the flagbearers of the genre. The septet has been credited with transforming the K-Pop scene and their several accolades, including two Grammy nominations, stand as proof. BTS’s ability to blend hip-hop and R&B in their music videos found a strong fan base in India and they even graced the Rolling Stone cover in 2017 and 2020 — spurring the Hallyu wave to become the ocean it is today.

President Ram Nath Kovind’s speech in 2018 stands as a testament to the popularity of the genre in India. He said, “Korean popular culture has also charmed us. From Gangnam Style to Korea’s band ‘BTS’, our youth are captivated by the tunes of these iconic pop groups — even if many of them have never visited Gangnam.” Along with BTS, other K-Pop groups found ardent fandoms in India, including Blackpink, Girl’s Generation, EXO, Monsta X, and Red Velvet. The covid-19 pandemic brought South Korea closer home. Spotify’s 2020 data showed that BTS was the fourth-streamed boy band in India. In 2021, the Desi ARMY was partly responsible for the records that the BTS summer single “Butter” smashed, it became India’s biggest Spotify debut.

In 2021, there are now several online K-Pop contests organized by the Korean Culture Center India. The K-Pop rage is evident in the fact that over 3,000 teams participate in the contest.

It was just a matter of time before India got its first K-pop star. Sriya Lenka is the first, but definitely not the last.

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