The representation of Sikh identity has seen a shift in both the Indian & international fashion scene. A four year old Sahib Singh wearing a patka (head cloth worn by Sikh boys before they begin wearing turbans) graced the campaign shots for Burberry Children’s Autumn-Winter ’22 collection and took the internet by storm. The image was shared widely across Instagram and multiple articles celebrated the South Asian representation.
At the heart of this celebration was a community awaiting this change for a long time with bated breath, eager to move away from the misappropriated image of Sikhs and our turbans. It hasn’t been long since the Italian fashion house, Gucci made headlines for its ‘Indy Full Turban’ which was listed for sale on Nordstrom, a luxury department store’s website for a whopping $790.
Gucci came under fire for appropriating articles of faith and capitalising on a rather poor iteration of a revered cultural symbol. The turban was used as a prop instead of being draped properly, a skill that requires practice, similar to many other South Asian items of cultural significance. Moreover, turbans are an identity marker that often makes Sikhs the target of hate-fueled attacks. Profiting off the same identity as an item sold without understanding its significance is an undisguised example of cultural appropriation.
In the age of social media where brands enjoy a global reach, the fashion scene in India is slowly expanding. Brands such as JJ Valaya now closely associate their brand identity with the turban. Torani featured an entire campaign on turbaned Sikh women, a sight very rarely displayed in mainstream media.
India is only recently exploring a multi-layered Sikh identity, that goes beyond the caricatures of Sikh men that have been presented on screen for decades. These distorted media portrayals lead to mocking or even bullying of young Sikh boys in schools. Indian cinema has been repeatedly guilty of representing minorities in a singular light. The narratives they portray play on stereotypes, failing to treat the characters with nuance or provide them with any depth whatsoever.
Sparing Bollywood, even our daily television soaps and entertainment channels use the trope of the comical Sikh man as a means for jabs at a whole community to the extent that most Indian kids are first introduced with the Sikh faith with ‘Sardar jokes’.
While the portrayals slowly seem to be changing with more Sikh actors playing well-fleshed-out characters in more recent depictions. There is still a lot of scope for improvement that involves dealing with characters sensitively when representing their faith.
It is vital to centre the gradually shifting narrative on Sikh voices and creatives experimenting with their identities or rather exploring the identity that was seen as a caricature for so long. Photographers like Sutej Singh Pannu present a colourful yet authentic image of Sikhs through their photography. Similarly, the self-taught artist Ravina Toor explores the medium of art by representing her Sikh background while raising awareness and promoting dialogue.
The shifting narrative provides hope for better representation that goes beyond shallow tokenism. It is a step in the right direction and hopefully will go a long way towards creating space for Sikh representation at a global level.
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