In the news >

Turban Up event at Dundas Square breaks down cultural divide

Toronto Star
May 17, 2015

Over a gorgeous Saturday afternoon the middle of downtown Toronto is bathed in colour. Inside Dundas Square, people of every hue and stripe walk about resplendently in freshly tied turbans — brilliant pinks, deep purples, powder blue and bright fuchsia.

“How do I look?” asks Kim Kraemer, visiting from Stratford for a late Mother’s Day celebration with a group of women. “Fantastic,” one of them yells back. The baby blue turban tied by one of the 110 volunteers is the exact shade of Kraemer’s ornate stone necklace. “That’s why I picked it,” she says of the slim-styled turban that was popularized in the ’30s and ’40s by Hollywood actresses such as Greta Garbo and Lana Turner.

About 10,000 metres of rolled fabric was brought in on the holiday weekend for “Turban Up,” an event organized by the Sikh Youth Federation to spread awareness about the religion and dispel some of the stereotypes about people who wear turbans. They have been prominently worn for centuries in parts of Asia and Africa, but in Canada are most commonly associated with the Sikh community and more increasingly with certain segments of the Muslim community. For some, even before our post-9/11 world, turbans represent a cultural divide.

But on this day “Turban Up” has packed Dundas Square as people watch live performances of traditional Sikh swordsmanship, listen to music and eat free meals — the compulsory Sikh “langar” served to everybody in the community. Then, there are the turbans.

“About four years ago, an event like this, much smaller, was put on at the University of Waterloo,” says “Turban Up” organizer Gurjiwan Singh, a 24-year-old law student at the University of Windsor. “We wanted to take it to the next level. What better place than Dundas Square (it’s the second year the event has been held here). It’s about breaking stereotypes, breaking barriers.”

While growing up in North York, said 20-year-old Boyang Qiu, his curiosity about people who wear turbans wasn’t so much about the why as about the how. “I had Sikh friends at school. They would come with these elegantly tied turbans and I thought: How do they do that?”

Wearing a freshly tied traditional Maharaja-style baby-blue turban, Qiu now knows exactly how it’s done. “It’s complicated,” he says.

At one point, around mid-afternoon, with Punjabi bhangra music pulsing from nearby speakers, hundreds are taking in the event. About 30 at a time sit in the sunlight having turbans tied on their heads by volunteers, while others wait their turn.

Rolls of material in an explosion of colours are stacked on tables where people make their choice. A variety of styles are tied. For the traditional wider one worn by most Punjabi men, volunteers cut sections about five metres long and three metres wide. Two more volunteers then pull the material taut from diagonal corners, making a huge rectangle, as they carefully fold the two loose sides from opposite corners into the middle. A long, folded, straight length of material is now ready to be carefully tied around a person’s head.

Ontario NDP Deputy Leader and MPP Jagmeet Singh offers a lesson, on himself. He ties his own yellow-orange Dhamala-style turban, which is taller and more fitted (it was once worn by Sikh warriors for its agility), then answers questions about what it was like for him wearing one as he grew up in Windsor.

“In Windsor there weren’t very many Sikh families, when I was young — I would say about 50 families. I didn’t have any Sikh friends growing up. Windsor was not very diverse when I was young, so I was a brown-skinned boy, with a turban, named Jagmeet. Those were three really good reasons to get picked on, so I used to get picked on a lot in school.

“Being (in) a tough city, kids would also just come up and want to fight with me or hit me for looking different. There was an overwhelming feeling of not being welcome.”

Singh says that as he grew older he began to identify the “boldness” of his turban with his emerging personality. “The Sikh philosophy stands for a lot of things that I feel are important, primarily equality.”

Singh talks about the origins of the Sikh practice of wearing turbans, a custom began around the early 18th century as an act of defiance, when the 10th Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh (the last of the living gurus, or founders of the faith) questioned why only the nobility in India could wear turbans.

“The turban until then was like a crown, worn by the wealthy, the kings,” Singh says. “If you were a peasant and you wore a turban you were sanctioned. But Guru Gobind Singh said Sikhism is all about equality, and he said every human being is noble, regardless of what family you are born into.”

The younger Singh, who helped organize “Turban Up,” says having the chance to explain the history and significance of the Sikh turban — bridging a cultural gap — is one focus of the event, but he likes the fundamental idea of simply having non-Sikhs try one for themselves.

“I can tell you everything I can about the turban, but once I tie it on someone, it’s a whole different experience.”

No items found.

Continue Reading