Ishmeet Singh’s emergence as the Star Voice of India in a high eyeball gathering Indian TV channel reality singing talent contest, coupled by the increasing awareness about identity among the ethnic minorities in an increasingly globalized world, and the high profile 300th year celebrations of the Guru’ta Gaddi Diwas. All these have somehow combined in making the Sikhs realize that they must take care of the one symbol that has caught the imagination of the world. The Turban.
Instantly marking out the Sikh from a crowd of a million, a turban has done for the Sikhs what takes communities many many years and efforts to achieve.
See the last issue of the famous Time magazine (India ‘Idol’ Launches a New Turban Legend) which features the 18-year-old Ishmeet Singh and calls him as winner of the “glitzy American Idol-inspired Voice of India contest on Star TV last month.” It wrote: “(T)he phone hasn’t stopped ringing at his family’s home in Ludhiana, the busy industrial hub of Punjab. But the kudos is about more than Singh’s impressive singing prowess; he has earned it by the fact that he is a keshdhari (turban-wearing) Sikh.”
The Time article continues: “It is his sabat-surat [appearance conforming to the Sikh ideal] that has brought him where he is today,” says his proud father Gurpinder Singh. “He has shown other Sikh boys that they don’t need a trendy hairstyle to attain stardom.” At a time when more and more young Sikh men are relinquishing the turban — considered the very core of a Sikh man’s cultural and religious identity — community leaders have hailed Singh’s win as, literally, a godsend. Sikh blogs have been pointing out that Singh was declared a winner on Guru Nanak Jayanti, the anniversary of the birth of the founder of Sikhism. And he has been honored by the Akal Takht, the highest seat of the Sikh clergy.
The event also gave the Time the opportunity to explain the Sikh faith to a wider world audience. On Sikhism, it wrote: “Founded by Guru Nanak in northern India during the 15th century, Sikhism drew from Sufism, Islam and Hinduism, but rejected what it saw as their worst traditions, such as the Hindu caste system. … The religion claims 23 million followers today, 76 percent of whom live in the Indian state of Punjab…But the battle to preserve the turban may well be the toughest facing the Sikhs since they were first rallied as a martial nation by their tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, in 1699, to fight the oppressive Mughal rulers of India.”
Such efforts help the Sikh community in explaining to the world that they are a unique nation and cannot be confused with people of Middle East origin, something the average American is prone to do, as symbolized by the many hate crimes against the Sikhs in the United States in the wake of 9/11.
The Sikhism’s norms enjoin Sikh men to wear their hair long and sport a turban. But Sikh scholars estimate that in some regions of Punjab — home to 60% of India’s 14.6m Sikhs — as many as 80% of Sikhs no longer comply. And that may reflect the generational conflict in many a Sikh household, between conservative parents and children who want to break free. The Time magazine quoted the Chandigarh based sociologist Dr. Rajesh Gill, whose 18-year-old son sports a turban, and said she spoke for many Sikh parents when she said, “A turban is a Sikh’s pride, and I don’t want my son to shear his hair once he becomes more independent.”
The number of turbanless, clean-shaven Sikhs has grown astronomically in the last two decades. “Thanks to the onslaught of satellite TV, there’s a drive towards mainstreaming,” says Gill. As young people travel far for work, they feel less obligated to adhere to the demands of their culture. Some cite convenience as a factor since, as per this argument, young, working mothers have no time for the elaborate, early-morning practice of tying turbans and washing boys’ long hair on weekends. What kind of argument is that to cite for a mother who brings the children into this world? That she assumes no responsibility to transmit the religious, cultural values and will merely feed well and send the kids to a good school? Efforts to preach values to young Sikhs have lagged. Even Sikh schools do not preach Sikhism, the Time article said quoting a Sikh scholar, who added that as a result the children don’t realize the philosophy behind wearing a turban.
The euphoria over Ishmeet Singh’s victory reflects the need of the Sikh community’s elders to find turbaned role models. “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, always seen with a spiffy turban, is an obvious example, but cricketer Harbhajan Singh is no hero. Daler Mehndi only to a certain extent, he does not put “Singh” in his name. “Sikh organizations from Vancouver to Melbourne are renewing efforts at prachar, or preaching, to the 3 million-strong Sikh diaspora,” the Time said, adding the “how to tie a turban” schooling is part of the initiatives.
Even on Baisakhi, the Sikhs, increasingly aware and worried about the younger generation’s attitude towards the religion and much concerned about their outer identity symbol of the turban, celebrated the festival simultaneously as the International Turban Day.
In Amritsar, as part of the Mr. Singh International, Sikh models walked down the ramp and were feted not primarily because they were beautiful or had perfect attributes of the body but because they had all that but were also Sikhs, or at least sported all the outer symbols of the religion — the hair, the turban, the untrimmed eyelashes, a perfectly tied turban and an impressively styled beard.
At a time when the human body has started to pre-empt all other measures of value in the West, the effort by certain organizations to ensure that the sabat-soorat Sikh also remains in the race, and in fact, becomes the in thing in fashionable circles are being appreciated by the community.
Social isolation is a dreaded state and the turban must not be allowed to become a symbol of that in a world where the clean shaven hair styles are being marketed as fashionable. Contests like Mr Singh International and efforts like that of Ishmeet Singh have made a contribution in this regard upon which the community must build further.
A string of successful Sikh modeling contests will lead to similar pressures closer home. It makes our youth take a pride in a stylishly worn turban.
The majority of children between three and twelve in the United States spend more time in front of a screen – television, computer, video-game, mobile phone – than with their parents, teachers or their friends: on average more than five hours a day, as against four with teachers, less than three with friends – and scarcely more than an hour with parents. In these conditions, the transmission of customs and values that was once assured by the family is not happening. The imaginative and moral distance between progenitors and their offspring is growing. In such circumstances, the child or our youth will learn more from what goes on in a modeling contest or on a TV reality show than the traditional channels of value transition. It is necessary that the community learns how to hog that space. Ishmeet Singh is helping us. Initiatives like that of Jaswinder Singh, the SGPC member who has been a prime force behind many Sikh modeling contests, are to be appreciated. The turban wearing achievers must be celebrated.
That is why the fact that the Time magazine features Ishmeet Singh in a thorough report instead of dismissing the Idol-ization in a passing reference should be celebrated.
But while we must do that, we must also remember, as the WSN had pointed out earlier also many a times, whether we have indeed thought through all the implications of celebration of the youth, of the human shape, of the Sikh modeling contests, of the images that will beam eventually in gurdwaras after any Ayur Herbal Sikh Value-laden Turban Tying and Eyelashes-preservation Contest? We must ensure that our youth realizes that even while it celebrates turban, it is necessary to understand that the gurbani hymn being played in the background of the modeling contest is commensurate with value system that they have in their lives.