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Four Sikhs on carving their identities despite the stereotypes

As a recent exhibition in New York explored the Sikh American community’s challenges in an increasingly hostile climate, we profile their Indian counterparts who’ve come a long way

brunch Updated: Oct 01, 2016 20:31 IST
manak singh,balraj singh khehra,amitoj singh
Whether it’s in modelling or entrepreneurship, Sikhs have often been subjected to misguided notions about their identity(Left image - GQ India )

In February this year, actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia was barred from flying home to New York on an Aeroméxico flight because he was wearing a turban. Since 9/11, the Sikh American community has had to face repeated harassment over basic tenets of their faith, such as wearing a turban and keeping a beard.

Ahluwalia and 37 other American Sikhs were recently part of a unique photo exhibition, The Sikh Project, in New York that aimed to showcase the triumphs and challenges of their community 15 years after 9/11. In India too, Sikhs have battled misconceptions and stereotypes to thrive, without compromising on their identity. Here are some of their stories.

Manak Singh, Model

My foray into modelling was quite accidental. I was at a night-spot in Delhi when the fashion director of GQ India spotted me and said he wanted to shoot me, as they were looking for a Sikh model. It was supposed to be one editorial, but I ended up doing a three page-spread dressed in Canali, Zegna and Tommy Hilfiger. Since then, I’m the only turbaned Sikh model to have walked for leading designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh, JJ Vallaya and Shantanu and Nikhil.

Manak Singh is the only turbaned Sikh model in India to have walked for leading designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. (GQ India)

I’m a Keshdhari Sikh, I don’t trim my beard or hair. I’ve often been asked if I would be comfortable posing without my turban – but this is my identity. If you need a man with long hair and a beard, there are a hundred others who would fit the bill. I see my profession as a means to prove to younger Sikhs that you can look good without cutting your hair and you can make it in fashion without conforming.

Balraj Khehra, Winner of Roadies X4

I come from Khadur Sahib, a small village near Amritsar. My family is not too educated and when I was growing up, the dream was to go to America and earn dollars. After an accident with my right arm, I started bodybuilding and soon, became a trainer at a gym in Jalandhar. There, people often thought of me as a ‘gavar’ and it was a reality check. Getting through the Roadies auditions felt unreal, and winning the show, even more so. I gave it my all – there were people in my village who had recharged their phones just so they could see me.

Balraj Singh Khehra became the first Sikh to win MTV’s popular reality series, Roadies.

Sikhism has taught me everything, especially to give back to society. I could have stayed back in Mumbai after the show to realize my acting dreams, but I came back to Punjab. There are youth problems here, like unemployment and drugs. I do cleanliness drives and give motivational lectures to students. If a boy from a small village can make it to MTV, what’s stopping them?

Charanjeev Salva, Founder of Singh Styled

A few years ago, I had moved to Bangalore and was looking for a house, along with another Sikh friend. Soon after we had finalised one and paid the deposit, we were told to take it back. When we asked why, the owners said that we were “angry people”. I’m the only Sikh in my family who continues to wear the turban and started Singh Styled – a subscription box and gifting service for Sikhs that features classy turbans, beard grooming and turban styling products – so Sikhs would revel in the uniqueness of the faith.

Charanjeev Salva started Singh Styled so other Sikhs across the world could feel proud of the uniqueness of their identity.

And the response has been phenomenal, we’ve shipped our products to the US, UK, Australia, Singapore and more. I recently had a client from Canada requesting for a special box for her nine-year-old son. We’re expanding the business now, with 100 more turban shades and a new range of beard oils only for styling. Isn’t it strange that beards are becoming big with others, while Sikhs are trimming theirs?

Amitoj Singh, Journalist, Anchor

I was never into much debating or public speaking while in school. That developed during my time in college. Of course, I could be held back by conventions, but I realised that society just needs to see the fight, potential and hunger in you. In fact, Sikhs are outgoing, confident and made for TV. The day I walked into the newsroom nine years ago, I knew I could do this. A senior Australian cricketer once told me that had I been somewhere else, I wouldn’t be put on air in the same way.

Amitoj Singh anchors mainstream news shows and debates.

I’ve been lucky to have a very supportive team at NDTV. When the news of a Canadian Sikh man being wrongly labelled a terrorist by a French newspaper broke, my editor asked me to do an online segment on it. I was apprehensive about the story losing punch if I presented it, but was told that instead, it would carry more credibility if I did it, since I understood the issue better than others. You have to look presentable on air, and the only thing I’ve been told to change sometimes is the colour of my turban, if it doesn’t work.

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From HT Brunch, October 2, 2016

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First Published: Oct 01, 2016 18:37 IST