Sunday, April 01, 2007

"For young Sikhs, the turban is old hat"

By Amelia Gentleman
Published: March 29, 2007
in the International Herald Tribune

AMRITSAR, India: The day 14-year-old Jugraj Singh abandoned his turban and had a lifetime's growth of hair cut off, he collected the tresses from the barber shop's floor and packed them into a plastic bag. Then he threw the bag into a river flowing out of Amritsar, the spiritual home of the Sikhs.

"It was my parents' idea to float it down the river; they thought it would be a display of respect to the hair I had cut off," said Singh, now an 18-year-old business student. "For me it wasn't an emotional moment."

Like many young Sikhs, he found the turban a bother. It got in the way during judo classes. Washing his long hair was time-consuming, as was the morning ritual of winding seven meters, or more than 20 feet, of cloth around his head. It was hot and uncomfortable.

"In the end," he said, "it was a question of fashion. I felt smarter without it."

Sikh spiritual leaders voice dismay at the rapidity with which a new generation of young men are trimming their hair and abandoning the turban, the most conspicuous emblem of the Sikh faith.

While there are no hard data, Jaswinder Singh, a lawyer and leader of a "turban pride" movement, estimates that half of India's Sikh men now forgo the turban, compared with just 10 percent a couple of decades ago.

"The problem is very severe," he said, from the basement headquarters of his organization, Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj, or Army of God, here in Amritsar, in the northern state of Punjab, where most of India's 18 million Sikhs are based. "We are going to have to battle hard to turn back the tide. Otherwise another 20 years will pass and India won't have any more Sikhs in turbans."

Since 1699, about two centuries after the founding of the religion, Sikhs have been prohibited from cutting their hair. At that time every Sikh man was given the surname Singh - lion - and was required to wear a steel wristband and long cotton underwear, carry a short sword and a wooden comb. The turban was conceived as a statement of proud individuality, intended to make Sikhs easily identifiable in a crowd.

But, these days, not every young Sikh wants to stand out so boldly.

The dwindling numbers of turban wearers reflects less a loss of spirituality than encroaching Westernization and the accelerating pace of Indian life, Jaswinder Singh believes.

He puts the start of rapid decline at the mid-1990s, as India began liberalizing its economy, more people began traveling abroad and satellite television arrived in the villages of Punjab. Working mothers are too rushed to help their sons with the arduous task of mastering turban-wearing, he said, and increasingly just shrug and let their children cut their hair.

"Everyone is working harder to buy themselves bigger cars," Singh continued. "They don't have time to teach their children about the Sikh heroes. Boys take film stars as their idols instead."

Twenty-three years ago, when the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard led to the massacre of thousands of Sikhs across India, some abandoned the turban in self-defense. But changes wrought by globalization have had a far greater impact on the number of turbaned Sikhs than the oppression of the 1980s.

"There is this terrible, misplaced urge to merge with the rest of the world," said Patwant Singh, a historian and author of "The Sikhs" (John Murray, 1999).

In addition, since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Sikhs traveling abroad have complained of being confused with members of the Taliban and harassed at airport security. This, too, has contributed to the desire to shed the turban.

Outside the Army of God offices is a turban clinic offering free classes for boys in how to tie up their heads with finesse - one of a series of new Sikh revivalism programs.

Standing before full-length mirrors, an instructor shows teenaged boys in baggy jeans and sports shoes how to twist the cloth into neatly layered folds on one side and smooth the pleats into sharp lines with a hooked silver pin, which is then concealed beneath the hair at the back of the head.

The fumbling attempts of young beginners must receive only praise, the tutor stresses. "Learner turban-wearers," he says, must not be discouraged.

A "Smart Turban 1.0" CD-rom offers step-by-step instructions in constructing fashionable looks and guides new turban-wearers on how to choose the most flattering style according to face shape.

In sheer desperation, Sikh leaders have also started holding "Mr. Singh International" pageants (contestants are judged by looks, moral character, knowledge of Sikh history and principles and turban-tying skills) in an attempt to promote the turban as a high fashion item.

The sixth World Turban Day will be celebrated on April 13 with a march through Amritsar by thousands of turban-wearing Sikhs in a display of unity.

India has no shortage of powerful Sikh role models, like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Lieutenant General Joginder Jaswant Singh, the army chief of staff. But they are hardly style icons and their prominence has done nothing to stem the disaffection of a younger generation with the most important symbol of the Sikh faith.

For that, turban promoters turn to the Punjabi pop star Pammi Bai. Grinning through clenched white teeth, his canary-yellow turban at a jaunty angle, he sings of the glory of wearing the turban in a single released this month as part of the campaign. Images of the prime minister and the army chief flash behind him as he dances in the video version.

"I try my level best to gear up the youngsters," Bai said in an interview, absentmindedly pulling a pin from his turban to dig out the battery from his mobile phone. "They've adopted bad European habits - fast food, pubs and clubs. They want to show they are modern. They are forgetting their own culture." The album containing the turban song has sold 100,000 copies so far.

Are these efforts working?

Not according to Namrata Saluja, manager of the Colour Lounge hairdressers in central Amritsar, which turns away young Sikh men every week who want to get their long hair cut off.

"Kids come in groups - there's a lot of peer pressure," she said. "But we won't unturban them here. We don't want to be responsible for that upheaval in their families."

Instead the barbers advise the boys to cut their own hair at home and come back for styling.

"It's usually college-going students who are more worried about looking good than about their spiritual identity," she said. "It's a thrilling moment for them. You can see a flush on their faces. Taking eight or nine meters of cloth off your head releases a certain amount of pressure."

But while it's good for business, as a religious Sikh she feels ambivalent about the trend. "At the end of the day it is a bit hurtful," she said. "It means one more identifiable Sikh is missing."