A Sikh Minstrel Show?

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This video from the popular South Indian television show Adhurs Ultimate Talent Show has gone viral in the last couple of days. In it, the so-called Warriors of Goja, a group of Sikh men “performing” with a giant Khanda as their backdrop and upbeat bhangra music as their soundtrack, win a cash prize of 300,000 rupees for their efforts.

There is much to say about this video, how it reflects upon our community, and how it fits nicely into the Indian media’s representation of Sikhs. Others have written about Sikhs and Bollywood, and I am not going to do a thorough analysis or history here. But what is painfully clear to me is that this “performance” of chest-beating (literally), hypermasculine Sardars acting like a bunch of baffoons as they pound themselves into bloodiness is simply a more blatant, egregious version of how Indian popular culture has represented Sikhs for as long as most of us can remember.

What does the viewer take away from this video? What does the average Indian (and non-Indian now that the video is going viral) learn about Sikhs as they see this group of men, proudly wearing their turbans and very deliberately representing their Sikh identity through their performance, smash each other with sledge hammers and run over each other with cars and motorcycles? Is this the kind of Sikh bravery and courage we want to show the world? Is this Guru Gobind Singh’s legacy? Or is this a bunch of clowns trying to make a quick buck and get their five minutes of fame by perpetuating stereotypes about Sikhs being violent and blood-thirsty on the one hand, and idiotic buffoons on the other.

Stereotypes sell, don’t they?

As I watched this video in disgust, it immediately struck me as a modern day minstrel show, Indian style. Minstrel shows were extremely popular (among whites) in the United States in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, featuring comic sketches of white performers (and later black performers as well) in black face singing and dancing.

While we Sikhs have not faced the level of oppression and exploitation that African Americans have in the United States through chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and hundreds of years of institutionalized white supremacy, the parallel here to minstrelsy is still worth making. Sikhs in India have obviously faced our fair share of bigotry and dehumanization, which in a similar (though less extreme) way to black face and minstrelsy in the US, has been perpetuated and reinforced by media representation.

As in black face, Sikh characters in Bollywood films are often not played by Sikhs themselves. Actors put on turbans and fake beards and dance a lot of bhangra with big, goofy smiles on their faces, shucking and jiving to provide some comic relief and entertain the masses.

We can’t, however, place all the blame on the industry. The Warriors of Goja do appear to be actual Sikh men. Indeed, oppression always needs some members of the oppressed community to collude, to buy in, to perpetuate, to sell out. Perhaps the kicker of this video is when the “Warriors” raise an Indian flag to conclude their…battle? Not so subtle messaging. (The crew is later rewarded for their patriotism by the judges).

I am reminded of Spike Lee’s brilliant film Bamboozled, which features a modern day minstrel show starring two black men who perform in black face.

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The film as well as our country’s history makes it clear how serious of a matter media representation actually is for oppressed communities. Perhaps some will think I am blowing this ridiculous talent show out of proportion. If I am, it’s only because of I am sick and tired of our community being portrayed as a bunch of violent buffoons. And I am sick and tired of members of our communities living out those stereotypes. We can do so much better than this.


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48 Responses to “A Sikh Minstrel Show?”

  1. Harmeet Sigh says:

    I totally agree with this article. Already the film and other television shows have done enough damage and then there is this stuff. Gatka has changes over the time and so have the motives of learning Gatka. I have seen people who are trained acting as a street gang. There was a body building show(I don't remeber which) and that video too went viral titled 'The power of Khalsa'. Well, the man was not even a amritdhari and was termed as Khalsa. Seems like the deinition of Khalsa has been changed too. If something is not done next thing changing will be the identity of a sikh.

  2. jaspal singh says:

    as the author himself mentioned the article could be considered as ridiculous and way out of proportion, he is absolutely true, it is ridiculous.. i remember the time when Bir khalsa group stood 3rd in india's got talent and everybody said, its biased and they deserved to be first, now when they won, here comes the article. the point here is not the violence, its the talent and i cant think how can u do gatka without being aggressive. and if u can u should come forward and show it to the world rather than sitting at home and writing such demoralising articles. the group is very aggressive in the stated video and thats the fact they won. such kind of articles only demoralises the sikhs who put in their best efforts to improve sikh's image from being a comic character to real heroes.

  3. whycriticise? says:

    It's hard for us to say what real "gatka" is. Sure, this probably is not it, but neither is half of the stuff that is being done today. Gatka today is simply a washed down form of shastar vidiya. Today, people just do gatka for show, just like these people did. Most people today that put n gatka shows aren't living the true warrior lifestyle or anything like that. They're doing it just for fun and to put on a show. Real gatka in general is not really done in a competition or show setting, but people still do it. If people want to criticize this, then they should probably criticize all of gatka. It's cool that these people are getting recognition, mainly for being strong people that can take a hit. If you want to take something else out of this video then thats your choice. I have shown this to non-Sikhs and it has left a great impression on this which is very different from the normally goofy portrayal by bollywood.

  4. Harminder Kaur says:

    I think the performance was pretty fine for a talent show…but the guys waved an indian flag while trying to represent Sikhs..that’s really weird. It’s ok to respect the country that ur living in..but that doesn’t mean u replace the Nishaan Sahib. Only the Nishaan Sahib is the ‘flag’ that represents Sikhs. There are Sikhs in England for example who can do daring feats too but they never wave the union jack in place of the Nishaan Sahib! Yes, they respect the country they live in but they always hold the NISHAAN SAHIB! So this shows something weird is up with this performance ‘representing’ our Kaum.

  5. Guri Singh says:

    Sad to see such showmanship. True warriors do not go around flaunting their skills.

    I saw only 40 seconds of this video and don't need to see anymore.

  6. Guri Singh says:

    Oh! The article is well written, sorry, should have stated that in the comment above.

  7. ajnabi86 says:

    A well written and articulate article. The greatest downfall of the sikhs is the lack of education and leadership after Guru Gobind Singh. A race that has incredible strength that many have marveled at.

  8. Lakshmi Ipyiti says:

    I watched this and it was sort of disturbing. I have seen this done before but not in this way. Sledge hammers, cars running over people, why? Maybe they are trying to show their bravery? I didn't know that breaking fluorescent light tube on your chest and eating the glass showed that. A person who doesn't understand the basis of what they are trying to portray will look at it as a side show act. When one is trying to show their pride they must be careful in doing this. If not you have results like what is shown in this video.

  9. randep says:

    Brooklynvala,

    Agreeing with you, you seem to suggest that capitalism itself markets the desire and the consummation of desire. If we non-Khalsa, even non-Sikhs, mourn the commodification of the Sikh body and therefor body of Guru Gobind Singh himself, the public image of Sikhs would be no different. Even if every Sikh were to rightfully be grossed out by the gratuitous spectacle, capitalism would create the spectacle whether we like it or not. That's exactly what happens with all these half-shaven Bollywood actors try to act macho on-screen on our "behalf". But can the problem be pinned on capitalism as if it existed outside of Sikhs? The fetishization of the body already pervades our own institutions, perhaps to the core. Look at the calendars of Sikh art in our homes and Gurudwaras. Ask yourself why Sikh men of the Khalsa tend to have beach-bodies and light skin while the moghuls are dark-skinned and relatively pudgy. Then go to the calendars that depict the Sikh community prior to 6th guru sahib, and then you'll see the Sikh polity as relatively old with un-fit bodies (compared to the latter Singhs). Of course, this isn't an absolute description of Sikh calendar art, but the general trend. Not only does this instantiate the orientalist partitioning of Gurmat (as first pacifist, then militant), but shows how deep Sikhs' own psyches feel at home in the fetishization of their own bodies.

    Unfortunately, we don't yet have a proper understanding of how and why exactly the Sikh is being controlled in representation in this way. Books like "Nation's Tortured Body" begins asking a question of this kind, linking the glorification of a particular interpretation of an Amritdhari body to Sikhs' own surrender after the Anglo-Sikh Wars. However, it's hard to find, amongst Sikh "activists" themselves, any desire to interrogate the representation of the body itself in any sustained and committed way. Instead, the easy route seems to be nothing more than signing petitions, sending letters, and airing grievances to those who reign over the Sikh community for their stereotyepes — the sad, progressive line.

  10. angad says:

    randeep's comments seem to be a bit contradictory; on the one hand he does not believe efforts to react to 'commodification' will succeed yet in his discussion of 'festishization' and the need for 'interrogation' he implies that desisting from these practices, even becoming more aware of their consequences, should prove productive. if interrogation and understanding lead to courses of action too impotent against capitalism, they may not be so worthwhile–is how his logical SHOULD follow.

    mourning commodification may not do anything, yes it's true, because its simply mourning. but other changes toward more sensible living may create a wider gulf between stereotype and practice. he also needs to do a bit more intellectual heavy lifting, if he thinks that one should tailor or revise one's customs and practices in a way that makes them more invulnerable to mockery, satire, or exploitation.

  11. sant sipahi says:

    This just shows how easy it is to put on a paghRi, and how difficult it is to be a Sardar.

  12. justaskraj says:

    All I know is, these guys can really take pain! The whole thing was a bit too hardcore for me to enjoy it. I think their choice was to go over the top. To take that this represents "Sikhs" is just farcical in my opinion. We Sikhs, like members of any religion, what a person does, doesn't represent "us" as a whole group, and maybe we can stop doing it ourselves.

    I think they need some more showmanship, perhaps an outsider from their over-testosterone and make a show using their ability to taken in a lot of pain and make it more watchable. I mean, even the judges just stood up in shock.

    I would think that there can also be explanations of the meditative states you can get to not feel so much pain. I mean, this is Karate with bad marketing to me.

    You see, I'm judging their performance as a performance, not as their representation of Sikhi. My way of practicing Sikhi and my connection to Guru, and to the God beyond that, is my problem; and theirs is theirs. I can't judge their Sikhism or they mine. We are Sikhs of the Guru, and no one else.

  13. john smith says:

    Sikhs are awesome. The western world just think that Muslim extremist (which can also be viewed as any religion which embraces blatant sexism) as buffoons and backwards.

  14. Ajj Kaim Singh says:

    So what is wrong with waving an Indian Flag?

    Is it a requirement of being a Sikh to wave only a Nishan Sahib, I did not know that.

    I am a proud Sikh, a proud Punjabi and a proud Indian. If I was them I would have waved an Indian flag as well.

  15. aman says:

    Sorry but I wholeheartedly disagree Judging from most youtube comments and other comments from around the web, this video alone has brought more positive appeal and attention to the sikhs as a community than anything else in recent years. Within a day it's dispelled most of the misconceptions of indians as being weak and nothing more than 7/11 clerks and doctors. It's shown a heightened awareness of the martial side of sikhi, one of strength and the ability to take pain, physically and mentally. This fact alone will cause more people to research sikhism and learn about the spiritual side of it. Also, aside from some of the obvious prejudicial remarks (calling them taliban, ragheads,etc.) most of the comments express awe and wonder at the feats being performed, by indians no less. All in all, this is good publicity in combatting many of the stereotypes that westerners have of indians and sikhs as a whole

  16. Hunny says:

    Responses from the video on Huffington Post and Digg

    "Wouldn't these guys fit right in on one of the Pro Wrestling shows?"
    "I've been saying all along that the world was ready for a Sikh version of Jackass."
    "No wonder people are posting negative comments about this otherwise respectful Indian cult."
    "For those who can't read Hindi, the title of the performanc­e was "An evening in Guantanamo­".
    "Jackass, Dirty Sanchez your time is up"
    "Mental Indians"
    "They're all wearing Huggies in case they shit themselves. Probably. I had to stop watching. At least the Japanese equivalent Endurance made you laugh."
    "Gandhi must be so proud"
    "savages"

    Sonny well written, well timed, and much appreciated. You are not blowing this out of proportion and the discussion around colonial infused patriarchy is of utmost importance in all our communities.

    The Bhangra-Bollywood Complex has many faces.

  17. Lakshmi Ipyiti says:

    Well I see that some didn't like what I had to say in previous comments. If I offended anyone I aplogize. I am just saying what the truth is in society who may look at this with wrong eyes. Like someone said it made lead a person to research Sikhism. The point I am trying to make is some just see "Turbans" there for they have already formed an opinion. Not understanding the what they are seeing in a video like this. I myself not sikh have close friends that are. They agreed that this is not the way to show Gatka .I am also giving their thoughts on this clip. They showed me a video on youtube, which I saw from last season of India's Got Talent. This also had some controversy when Sajid Khan let his opinion be known. In which I don't agree with. Once again my apologies to all who misunderstood. My words come from a gentle place. For those who haven't seen the video .

  18. @TheHarprit says:

    I agree the show was poorly planned,and could have been toned down a bit. But the basic fact about surviving as a sikh, most importantly with the identity, the physical appearance and the ideology, is a daily effort.
    To choose to appear the way they do, follow a lifestyle and the mindset that they have needs a cold determination, which the non-sikh can't comprehend.
    And yes, when you're a Lion, somedays, the weak-hearted will find your roars unnecessary.
    But they can't help it.

    I would suggest all people to study the birth of sikhism and the struggle against oppression by Muslims and the cheating by Hindu rajas.
    The worst is,the disowning by the followers, at the times of distress.

  19. anon-femme says:

    @money_T: give it a break! We all know what he means so stop being the PC police?

    We really need to understand the media as a separate and living creature and we have not yet done this. Look at how it is manipulated by the Indian government to suppress a minority on the one hand and on the other hand take a long hard look at how its has been manipulated by the new 'royality' of the US the Kardashians. Sex tape aside, we could learn a lot from that family. …there is a saying in showbiz…no publicity is bad publicity?

  20. lakhvir says:

    this is showbaazi, not gatka. and to use gatka for cheap entertainment needs a warrant of peshi at akaal takht. i'm appalled at this nonsense in the name of our sacred gatka.

  21. Sandeep singh says:

    Isi inspired thoughts.

  22. Raunaq Malhotra says:

    What's wrong with the show, these guys are having fun why are you against people enjoying the show and kicking some butts!! Come on guys, enjoy this is 21st century!!

  23. Jason Mailmann says:

    How would you grow your religion if your views are so tight lipped? Sikhism is the modern religion but one of the slowest growing religion. Why? Do you guys lack funding, missionaries, well educated teachers? Your history is so rich, you should be producing movies the way Christians have produced movies related to Jesus Christ and related to stories in the Bible that inspires public and teaches them history. I would like to see movies related to great Sikh warriors, your Gurus!! Let these guys enjoy what they have protrayed, I don't see anything wrong with the show!! Enjoy guys and have fun!!

  24. Sikhism and sikhs are frozen in 1700s. They need to understand the need for spreading the information and media attention for future. This article reminds me the same issue that in early 1900s was faced by the Darbar Sahib Committee when they argued that electric wires in Darbar Sahib precincts will make it "less holy"

    Please come out of your dark corners and open up your closed brain. Sikhs do need to tell others about their values, beliefs and martial arts.

  25. S. A. says:

    I agree with this post completely and agree Sikhs are misrepresented as filled with testosterone and jolliness. These stereotypes are result in a endless cycle of Sikh individuals embracing these stereotype and further perpetuating them. I have shared this post with others, Thank you again.

  26. 916JaTtRyda says:

    YeE D33z B0ys B R3ppin J4tT PRid3! ! K33p It uP!

  27. Anon Anon says:

    Shows of strength surpass upbringing, and allow a glimpse into a mind dedicated and focused.

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