A few days ago I re-watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Apart from the usual reasons, the thing that always stands out enough to stick with me is Clementine’s ever-changing hair colour. From green to a fiery red, a bright orange and finally, an electric shade Clementine calls “Blue Ruin”. A lot has been said about how the hair helps keep track of the chronology of the film and its symbolism, but for someone like me (who is nowhere close to being skilled enough to critique a movie) what stands out is how closely Clementine’s hair is linked to who she is. And who she thinks she is.
Real-world parallels to this theory exist in plain sight. Closer to home, even though the length of our hair is no longer governed by gendered norms — teenage boys with waist-length locks and women sporting pixie cuts is nothing out of the ordinary — the mere act of cutting your hair can mean cutting away from family, friends and more. For young Sikhs across the globe, hair — its length, its breadth, its visibility or invisibility — is a means to explore oneself in every way. Relationships with religion, with community and most importantly, the self are wound up in tight braids and turbans. What could be the motivations for cutting and what about the ones for growing that move beyond just their cultural circles? We tried to delve deeper into the intricacies of the relationship between hair and one’s historical identity that acts as a binding factor and common thread for the entire community. These are their stories.
We have selected five responses that we believe are representative of the broader spectrum. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
I. Rohan Kelsey, 27, United Kingdom
Kelsey’s journey of deciding to grow his hair is contrary to what most would expect from someone who has never lived in India. “Yes, it (long hair) has become a huge part of my identity, I don’t think I could ever cut it again, it is a part of who I am and who I have become. Keeping my hair and wearing my turban gives me confidence,” he explains, having only decided to start growing his hair three years ago, before which he had never kept it long at all.
“Ever since I was young I was taught about Sikh history and took it upon myself to learn more as I got older. When I heard about what our people have been through, it inspired me to keep up the tradition. I always used to say I was going to keep my hair, I just didn’t ever think the time was right but I genuinely woke up one day and decided I wasn’t going to cut my hair again,” said Kelsey whose decision to cut his hair even though impulsive, was something that was strongly linked to his cultural identity.
He feels that even though his hair is only a physical representation of being Sikh, cutting it would in a way be an act of stepping away from his faith, community, and, in his words, “trying to distance myself from who I am.” Having said that, Kelsey’s interpretation is not one that is narrow or rigid and he believes that over time the way he views religion has evolved. He said, “When I first decided to keep my hair I was very vocal about my religious beliefs and probably came across as a little forceful with my views. Over the years, I’ve become far more open-minded and more spiritual. Like I said earlier, I genuinely feel everybody is entitled to follow their own path. What is inside a persons heart and mind is more important than their religious choice in my opinion. I keep my hair now as it forms part of my identity and pays homage to our forefathers, it keeps our identity and culture alive.”
Kelsey is just one of the many young Sikhs whose proximity, or lack thereof, to their native country has not affected his affinity to his faith and community. His hair is a reflection of his religious identity, but has also allowed him to spruce up his wardrobe — Kelsey admits that he loves playing around with colours and coordinating his turbans to his outfits.
II. Sabrina Sidhu, 24, Chandigarh
Sidhu’s decision to cut her hair wasn’t a dramatic one. All of 10, living in a boarding school and actively involved in sports, she had no clue about how to manage her hair. So, her parents did the practical thing and got her a haircut.
According to Sidhu, hair has never been a factor of differentiation for her. Getting a haircut didn’t change much about how Sidhu felt. What did change though was how people reacted to her. “I was suddenly complimented on my short hair, whereas no one ever specifically talked about my long hair,” she said.
As far as identity is concerned, Sidhu feels that hair was not an aspect that defined her as a Sikh and still doesn’t. She focuses more on the spiritual aspects of the religion. “I didn’t attach my identity as a young Sikh closely with my hair, for me Sikhism is not about the outer manifestations but the inner being. If you are a person who follows all the Sikh tenets but you’re not a kind, helpful, and decent human being who stands for the defenceless and downtrodden, following these tenets is pointless. Similarly, cutting your hair doesn’t make you any less Sikh if you stand by these teachings,” she said.
However, she doesn’t completely disregard traditional beliefs and says, “I wear a kadda and am proud to associate as a Sikh. I would want my community to have a distinct identity in the world and would encourage young Sikhs who make the decision to grow their hair and follow Sikh tenets.”
Sidhu is a young Sikh whose faith and religion are a part of her identity, but not its entirety.
III. Prabhsimer Singh, 25, New Delhi
A very disappointing time in Singh’s life was when the Ko Samui airport security held back his “very expensive” hair products. His deep connect is not something to be taken lightly, Singh’s friend confirm that he takes a minimum of 40 minutes to groom his hair before heading out. Bottom line — he loves his hair.
Singh grew up in Chandigarh and talks about how just like any other foundational aspects of his identity, being Sikh was something he was aware of since as far back as he can recall. He was 16 when he decided to cut his hair. He was very proud of his hair, but couldn’t manage it. “I went up to my dad, scared out of my mind, and asked him if I could cut my hair. He knew this was going to happen because most of my brothers had got it done too, so he agreed. Surprisingly, my mother was a little reluctant,” he said.
Talking about how people reacted to him cutting his hair, he said “My friends were surprised because there was a major difference in the way I looked. My forehead was massive because of the joodi. But my parents were ok with it if I was.” Singh admits that cutting his hair did shape his identity, but did not change the way he felt about his community or the person he was. “I felt different, very different. But I’m the same person I was before my hair cut. No change other than how I looked from the outside. Sikhism don’t put a lot of pressure on you with respect to being religious,” he said.
IV. Dilshad Singh, 26, Ludhiana
Dilshad Singh studied in a Sikh school. All of 16, Singh was tired of trying to manage his hair. Everyone around him had long hair too and seemed to be just fine with it, but Singh wasn’t. So, he went ahead and decided to cut his hair for the first time in his life. What followed was something that sounds right out of a movie. “Some people said it was unbelievable. Others stopped respecting me. My girlfriend dumped me and my father did not let me inside his house for two months. My mother would have to come outside and hand me money. When my father did let me come back home, he would ask me to cover my hair,” recalls Singh.
A little bit of friction, some conflict and a fair bit of convincing later everything settled down. Today, the length of Singh’s hair does not regulate his affinity to his community or act as a form of religious expression. Cutting his hair transformed the way he looked, but that’s about it.
Singh stands firm in the thinking that the length of his hair is not a means of expression for him or affiliated to his core identity in any manner.
V. Ikjot Kaur, 31, New Delhi
“Oh, you’re Sikh. That’s why you have such long hair.” Statements like these were commonplace for Ikjot Kaur, they weren’t out of the ordinary because she knew them to be true. After all. this is what she would be told at home too — “We don’t cut our hair. We are Sikh.” She was made more aware of the difference when her brother would be bullied in school for having a judi.
Not too long after that, Kaur cut her hair. However, she emphasizes on how the decision was solely based on the desperate need for her hair to be trimmed and nothing else. “Cutting my hair had nothing to do with religion. It did not change who I was. I did it because I wanted my hair to be healthy. Associating with a religion and changing my hairstyle are completely unrelated things. I eat the same food, I hang out with the same friends and I go to the gurudwara whenever I feel like,” said Kaur.
Kaur does not believe in making judgements about people and their identity based on how they look, and expects the same from them. She identifies as being Sikh, she is religious and she cuts her hair — all these aspects are equally integral to her identity.
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