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Tale of turbans

Harjant Gill’s “Roots of Love” explores the various attitudes to turbans and unshorn hair among Sikhs

September 21, 2012 07:43 pm | Updated September 28, 2012 04:18 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

A shot from the film.

A shot from the film.

Harjant Gill’s Roots of Love is an insightful and timely exploration of the changing significance of hair and turbans among Sikhs. Through interviews of six men of varying ages, the 26-minute-long film, which was screened recently at the PSBT Open Frame festival, details the various attitudes to turban and unshorn hair.

An assistant professor of anthropology at Towson University, Maryland, U.S., Harjant grew up in a traditional Punjabi Sikh family in Chandigarh. “A few months before migrating to the United States, my dad drove me to a barbershop and had my hair cut… I was quite excited about the change and I enjoyed the transition. However, sometimes I do wonder what my life would’ve been like if my family had not migrated out of India, or my father had not cut my hair,” he says.

Migration is a significant factor in the process of Sikh self-fashioning. Harjant notes, “…the idea of what it means to be a successful man in Punjab today frequently entails migrating abroad and becoming transnational/diasporic citizens. So many of these guys I spoke to are simply waiting for their turn to go abroad. And cutting their hair and giving up their turbans is part of that process of fitting into the transnational modes of masculinity.”

While giving up of turbans affords mobility, Harjant recalls discovering in the course of his research that people continue wearing the turban whenever it’s convenient even after they’ve cut their hair. “What’s interesting in Punjab is that guys are cutting their hair, yet they still wear the turban when they go back home to visit their parents. So it’s almost like they are practicing flexible citizenship,” he says. For instance, an interviewee in the documentary reveals having two identities — of a “cut sardar” and a “full-fledged sardar” — on two different social networks. Since the turban continues to be a marker of class and masculinity, and a way of belonging, Harjant thinks it is there to stay.

The film also documents the Turban Pride Movement, started by Akaal Purkh ki Fauj in 2005 against the shunning of turbans and hair among Sikh youth. Jaswinder Singh, a member of the organisation, mentions the unserious portrayals of Sikhs in films, and the deployment of turbans in comedic routines, as a major reason for the initiation of the movement.

Harjant sees in American popular culture and media a different but equally pernicious representation. “In American popular culture, the terrorist is often shown as the racialised “other” that resembles someone like Osama Bin Laden.” Referring to the recent Wisconsin gurdwara shootings, Harjant observes how the shooter Wade Michael Page was labelled “the lone gunman”. “Owing to this double standard, the turban has become the visual marker around which racial profiling frequently occurs.”

To avoid a repeat of the incident in Wisconsin, Harjant says it is necessary to condemn violence against all ethnic minorities, and not focus on Sikhs as “victims of mistaken identity” alone.

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