Kids Corner

Above photo: courtesy, Ajay Verma/Reuters. Below: first from bottom - Recent winner of "Mr. Singh International" competition.

Ishmeet Singh



Postcard from Punjab


Ever since 18-year-old Ishmeet Singh won the glitzy American Idol-inspired Voice of India contest on Star TV last month, the phone hasn't stopped ringing at his family's home in Ludhiana, the busy industrial hub of Punjab.

But the kudos are about more than Singh's impressive singing prowess; he has earned them by the fact that he is a keshdhari (turban-wearing) Sikh. "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 Gurparab, the anniversary of the birth of the founder of Sikhism. And he has been honored by the Akal Takht, the highest seat of Sikh temporal authority.

Founded by Guru Nanak in northern India (current-day India and Pakistan) 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. It later incorporated the teachings of nine other Gurus, or teachers, which are collected in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book revered as the final and eternal Guru.

The religion claims 25 million followers today, 90 percent of whom live in the Indian state of Punjab. Although they comprise only 2% of the wider Indian population, they are a close-knit and prosperous community, with a strong cultural affiliation.

But the battle to preserve the turban may well be the toughest facing the Sikhs since they were first rallied as a nation by their tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, in 1699, to fight the oppressive Mughal rulers of India. A rehatnama, or book of ordinances, dating back to this period enjoins Sikh men to wear their hair unshorn and sport a turban. But Sikh scholars estimate that in some regions of Punjab  -  home to 60% of India's 22 million 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.

Dr. Rajesh Gill, a sociologist at Panjab University, whose 18-year-old son sports a turban, speaks for many Sikh parents when she says, "A turban is a Sikh's pride, and I don't want my son to shear his hair once he becomes more independent".

Cutting one's hair is not new among Sikhs, but the number of turban-less, 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, "Women aspire to marry men who look like Bollywood stars, and men aspire to look like the men these women want. 'The look', unfortunately, doesn't include a turban".

As young people travel far for work, they feel less obligated to adhere to the demands of their faith and culture. Jitender Singh Sandhu, a young management professional who hails from Punjab and now lives in Bangalore, cut his hair following a head injury four years back. He has since kept his hair short. "It's great not to have to tie a turban every morning and maintain long hair", he says, "It helped that I didn't have to deal with disapproving looks from my family and neighbors".

Convenience is a huge factor for Sikh mothers, too  -  young, working mothers have no time for the elaborate, early-morning practice of tying turbans and washing boys' long hair on weekends. Moreover, community leaders feel, efforts to preach their values to young Sikhs have lagged. "In India, education has become so secular that even Sikh schools do not preach Sikhism", says Dr. Kharak Singh, editor of the journal Abstracts of Sikh Studies, "As a result, 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. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, always seen with a spiffy turban, is an obvious example, Sikh leaders also hail pop culture icons such as the "turbanator"  -  cricket hero Harbhajan Singh  -  and popstar Daler Mehndi, whose glittering turbans are said to have inspired many a short-haired Sikh to take to the dastaar.

Sikh organizations from Vancouver to Melbourne are renewing efforts at prachar, or preaching, to the three million-strong Sikh diaspora. Schools to teach young Sikhs how to tie a turban have opened in many cities, and an organization called Akal Purakh Ki Fauj has brought out "smart turban software" to help users identify the style of turban that would best suit them.

Turban-tying competitions are held across Punjab on Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year, and a Mr. Singh International contest is held for turbaned Sikhs every year  -  as all Sikh men use the surname "Singh", which means lion  -  in which participants get points on how well they tie their turbans. Sikh elders are to meet this week for an annual convention at which their battle plans will be refined in the escalating culture war to restore the turban to its place atop the head of the Sikh male.

December 13, 2007

[Courtesy  -  Time]


Conversation about this article

1: Ravinder Singh (Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A.), December 13, 2007, 10:45 AM.

I want to add that women too are enjoined to keep their hair unshorn, not only men. It's a cultural phenomenon that basically mandates only men to do so and wear a turban. Both males and females are a part of the Khalsa, so there are no rules that differentiate them.

2: Manjit Kaur (Maryland, U.S.A.), December 13, 2007, 12:25 PM.

It is amazing how Ishmeet Singh's stardom has brought the Sikhi roop in the forefront, but whatever works for the youth is always good. The Sikh youth living in the western world are much wealthier in Sikhi than they are in India, just as the article suggests. This may be due to the parents educating their children on a one-to-one basis and, of course, the sangat. No doubt, it is tougher for Sikh males in this society, but not only do they survive well, but they also become powerful in their faith. I personally feel Sikh males are extremely handsome and presentable in a dastaar; it is their crown, which makes them royal figures who then truly deserve a Kaur/princess.

3: Jagdeep Singh (London, England), December 13, 2007, 3:39 PM.

The worry is that as these 'culture wars' escalate, certain factions will feel that Sikhi is so embattled that it leads to a 'fundamentalist' backlash which channels rage and a fear of the loss of 'Sikh pride' against the entire modern world, and begins to specifically target for persecution those Sikhs who dissent from the mainstream. This could be a 'civil' fissure within Sikhs, and contribute to a sense of resentment and victimhood amongst hardliners, which in turn can lead to narrow thinking about modernity generally, and a recourse to even narrower, more fundamentalist interpretations of religion and practice.

4: Rajinder (U.S.A.), December 16, 2007, 11:55 PM.

There's a need for a Sikh media outlet, by the Sikhs, about the Sikhs. I was in India in Dec. 2004, being a classical music lover I went to the Pune and Jallandhar music festivals. I was pleasantly suprised to see a Canada-born 14-year old Sardar boy doing an hour-long solo tabla recital. He was incredibly good and having been trained by Ustad Zakir Hussain didn't hurt. Later, I read articles in the newspaper about him. I haven't heard about him since then. We need role models like him, who practice Sikhism and are in the public eye for their education, talent & success. We need to make our kids proud of their heritage, not just bhangra.

5: Bhupinder Singh Ghai (New Delhi, India), December 20, 2007, 4:30 AM.

There is an urgent need to instil self confidence among Sikh youth. By the time we have role models in every field, we can just try and remove the negative images perpetuated in the media and films, particularly in India. Finally, I would like to say that a Sikh without maryada is the same as a Mercedez without the star, or Chanel without the double C's. You guessed it ... a cheap imitation!

6: Kanwar Nijjer (Canada), March 02, 2008, 5:16 PM.

It is the parents' responsibility to teach their kids the importance of the turban. Parents should be the first role models. It helps kids to grow up with a positive self-image. For this, parents need to be open with their children, so that there is an open line of communication. I am serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. I have recently started wearing a turban. I feel proud, and I love it. And, it adds to my spiritual life. I tie my turban in front of my co-workers. It helps them to understand what a turban is. It protects my hair, and makes me feel like a leader. Sikh leaders should spend community money in educating our pracharaks and establishing necessary scholarships to further these goals.

7: Jai Singh (Edmonton, Canada), March 02, 2008, 6:47 PM.

Very nicely structured article looking into Sikh values of men, but not much is said of women. It would be interesting to read an in-depth article on Sikh women too.

8: Jaspreet singh  (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 25, 2009, 8:34 AM.

I am very happy because of the pride this brings to Sikhs the world over.

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