Kids Corner


Turban Cool



This piece could well have been called ‘Sexing up the Turban'.

It's not - in deference to fellow feeling and general goodwill, and perhaps, just perhaps, in fear of the clan's warrior protectors. From the time that the turban was globally seen as something all Indians were born with, thanks to Air-India's Maharaja and the nth orientalist caricature, to an age where it evokes responses ranging from undisguised panic to truthful salutations, this unique piece of headgear has wrapped itself around our lives in ways nobody ever expected.

Suddenly, it's everywhere.

In the U.S., the turban is undergoing another moment of assertion, as Sikhs agitate for their right to wear it in service of their country and its army. This, in a country where a turban-clad Sikh peering at New Yorkers from an NYC Transit Authority poster in a subway sent them scrambling down the stairs in alarm.

In France, it's the very law of the land that disapproves. In countless other places, it's reason enough to stop and stare.

In India, meanwhile, the turban is on a high. It is riding atop a cool crest of acceptability in the wider public arena, breaking moulds of Hindi cinema heroes, storming ramps at fashion shows and bobbing up in colourful splendour in all sorts of black, white and grey headcounts.

Most visible is the turban's appearance on that vast colourscape that saturates Indian senses like nothing else, the cinema screen. For years, film after film has projected India as a land of jolly families that are given to hugging each other breathless, expressing themselves in the highest decibels known to humankind, and dancing the gidda with lassi-in-hand abandon.

But the heads were always short of cloth. However, with the giddy success of Singh is Kinng has come a new coronation of sorts in the mass market. You can expect to see more turbaned heroes ahead.

In more exclusive circles, it's the fashion industry that's playing wave maker. A couple of seasons ago, Signor Armani had sent out models wearing turbans in an all-Rajasthan-inspired collection, thus knocking this element off the fashion no-no list for the first time since Gloria Swanson.

The latest breakthrough is courtesy of a name, initially not yet very well known, but now celebrated around the world - Sonny Singh Caberwal.

This 30-year-old Sardar, who has already been crowned the first Sikh Supermodel of the World, was instrumental in setting the ball rolling. First, by appearing in an ad for Kenneth Cole, and then a fashion shoot for GQ's German edition, touting pink and sunflower yellow turbans with black-and-white dinner jackets.

Sonny had his first brush with fashion when Cole's attempts to find a turbaned Sikh model for the label's 25th anniversary ad campaign turned up a blank.

Sonny was persuaded by his brother-in-law to mail his picture, and that was it, he was on.

Much credit for the turban's rising cool quotient must go to New York-based Vikram Singh Chatwal. He's the closest the turban has to a global brand ambassador, according to fashion designer J.J. Vallaya who lives in Delhi and often wears a turban himself.

"He's done movies with the turban on and off," says Vallaya, "he's modelled with it, and he's made it a point to flaunt it." No doubt, it helps that Vikram is rumoured to have dated Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen, his wedding was widely showcased as the Big Fat Sikh Wedding, and he and his group of friends are at the heart of the subcontinent's foray into Global Cool.

Even on the subcontinent, turbans on runways or fashion spreads are no longer seen as someone's idea of comic relief, even if it has taken awhile to get here.

When Vallaya used turbaned models for one of his shows some 15 years ago, it won applause as a cameo. But now, an entire troupe of turbans walking down the runway to the strains of Rabbi Shergill's music would be just another day at a glam-fest. In an industry that thrives on standardised notions of beauty, desirability and glamour, this is quite remarkable.

The turban may have stepped into the arclights from the sidelights, but some popular stereotypes have not yet faded away; that it somehow suggests flashy loudness, that it signifies a sense of style that's only good for a few laughs.

This is unfair, says Vallaya. "Sikh maharajas have been some of the finest royalties and patrons of Cartier and Louis Vuitton," he says, "Some of the biggest polo families are Sikh, as are some of the classiest military officers."

To an extent, stereotypes can be blamed on persistent cinema portrayal down the years. For a long time, the turban was used simply as a cue for some slapstick comedy routine. Or, more charitably, for a good samaritan (pronounced ‘smart-ian', no doubt) in the form of a good natured cab driver or something. Until Kinng came along.

And though Vikram accuses the blockbuster's hero, Akshay Kumar as Happy Singh, of pandering to the same deadpan stereotype of the happy-go-lucky dim-wit in a turban, its director Anees Bazmee insists that his purpose was to showcase a "cool, good looking Sardar". The film is an all-turban affair. It is also a laughathon that depicts some crazy/clever jockeying/non-jockeying for power/love (whichever way you see it), among a gang of adorable goons.

The point, says Bazmee, is that an old Bollywood fear has finally been overcome - that of risking a Sikh as the hero of a film aimed at India's mass market audience.

"Akshay could have played a Sardar in Namaste London too," he says, of an earlier release, "but apparently it was a risk no one wanted to take [back then]." All in all, helped along by a hummable soundtrack, Kinng seems to have repositioned the turban in the popularity stakes as something more than just a statement, as something to reckon with.

Such has been the impact that Saif Ali Khan is all set now to appear in Love Aaj Kal with a turban, and Ranbir Kapoor will turn on the same charm in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year; the turban was so integral to this script that Yash Raj Films is said to have committed the Bollywood blasphemy of thumbing down the King Khan himself, Shah Rukh, for the role.

Meanwhile, the Kink Khan, Aamir, who can't do without spiking his roles apart in some way or another, has found consolation in playing a turbaned fan of Tata Sky, the satellite TV service, even if his string of Punjabi endearments (or swear words) ends up playing to the same old stereotype.

The biggest cracks in the cinematic glass ceiling, however, have been caused by a turban in a Tamil film. The release Abhiyum Naanum (Abhi and Me) has Ganesh Venkatraman playing Joginder Singh, an insanely intellectual economist in his 20s with a knack of coming up with just what the Prime Minister needs in all matters of national importance. In Tamil cinema, itself none too good at busting hero stereotypes, this is the stuff of plausible entertainment.

According to Vikram, having an Oxbridge educated PM has been a huge factor in changing the turban's image in places far away from Punjab. "[Manmohan Singh's] being the leader of the largest democracy with a lot of visibility over the years has made Sikhs more mainstream," says Vikram, adding that the global Sikh community now has a distinct identity of its own.

Cool and fashionable now, the turban remains one of the world's foremost symbols of religious identity, comparable perhaps to the Arab kaffiya. Its profile has risen sharply these past few years. If the odd film or glam-fest uses it as a script enlivener or fashion symbol, so be it, so long as it's done largeheartedly.


[Courtesy: Open - edited for this magazine.]

October 31, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Montu Singh (U.S.A.), October 31, 2009, 4:01 PM.

I love the style of turban worn by Sikhs in the Army.

2: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A.), October 31, 2009, 6:21 PM.

Very good article on turbans. Hopeit will stimulate more Sikhs not to discard their turbans anymore.

3: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), October 31, 2009, 7:13 PM.

The article says the turban is flying high in India. This may be a surprise to most of the Sikhs born outside India that even India has a turbaned Sikh as Prime Minister. But still Sikhism is not recognized as a separate religion by the Indian constitution. Even our own leadership does not talk about this. God bless Sikhs for their sacrifices for India, their new home-countries around the world, and for humanity.

4: Parminder Kaur (Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A.), November 01, 2009, 8:58 AM.

It is great that there is a renewed focus on the Sikh Turban. However, we have a long way to go. It is not how people look at us, it is all about how we look at ourselves! I just came back from South Africa after being there for six weeks. The only turbaned person I saw was the Bhai Sahib at the Gurdwara; he said there are about four turbaned people in Durban, the rest do not keep their turbans. Young Sikh men are getting rid of the turban and merging with the main stream. Only those who are educated, watch international news or have come in personal contact with a turbaned Sikh may have some idea about the Sikh turban, but majority of the world does not know what a Sikh turban or a Sikh is. It is great that Bollywood is focussing on the Sikh Turban and a positive image of a Sikh. Maybe people in other states in India and those who see Indian movies will get a better idea. We have a long way to go. If every Sikh starts wearing a smart turban - that is what will be really cool! Chardi Kalaa!

5: Sukhindarpal Singh (Penang, Malaysia), November 01, 2009, 9:40 AM.

Is the sergeant pictured in the article from the SAS? "WHO DARES WINS!"

6: Karandeep Singh (London, England), November 01, 2009, 11:35 AM.

I feel proud to wear my turban, serving the public of London, England, as a Paramedic. I hope the U.S. too will recognize the significance of Sikhs wearing their turbans in public services and armed forces.

7: P.Singh (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), November 01, 2009, 4:03 PM.

Unfortunately, the turban is not 'on a high' in villages across Punjab. While one might spot grandfathers wearing dastaars, the majority of youth do not. Perhaps some Sikhs will draw inspiration from Hindu and Muslim actors, and start wearing turbans as something 'cool'. What a pity - Sikhs now rely on Bollywood for its stamp of approval, and not their own proud heritage. How significant is a Bollywood-inspired turban? If the inspiration is fashion and being 'cool' - these turbans are here while fickle fashion deems them worthy, and gone when fashion finds something else more amusing. How truly sad, that today's Sardars look to the Khans and Kumars of Bollwood to approve of their sardari. Turbans worn as such, are little more than hats - and therefore lack regality!

8: Jessie Parmar (Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada), November 03, 2009, 10:48 PM.

Great article. Keep up the good work.

9: Harinder Singh (New Delhi, India), November 10, 2009, 9:48 AM.

A fabulous write-up. Makes me proud to be a Sikh. The turban is part of our identity - the way Guru Gobind Singh wanted us to be!

10: Arvinder Singh Bawa (Epsom, U.K.), November 10, 2009, 2:59 PM.

Always proud to wear a turban.

11: Jai Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 28, 2009, 5:32 PM.

I feel that every Sikh who is serving his/ her country, be it in the army, police force, etc., should be given the right to wear the turban and the other articles of faith. They portray the spirit of the Saint-Soldier.

12: Yashdeep Singh (Ahmedabad, India), May 21, 2010, 9:50 AM.

Puggh hai saaddi shaan!

Comment on "Turban Cool"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.