Is there something definable as Sikh style or Singh fashion if you took away the turban? The gregarious, so-very-Singh-in-his-step-and-spirit actor Akshay Kumar would have us believe there is. Posters and publicity trailers of Prabhu Deva’s film Singh is Bliing, which releases on Friday, will certainly sell this notion, if in an exaggerated way. One poster has Kumar wearing multiple gold chains, a golden dollar locket, shoes with glitzy, three-dimensional patterns, skinny jeans, a half unbuttoned shirt, aviators and a glittering gold turban. Others show Kumar in dandy shoes, deconstructed salwars with pockets, velvet jackets and vests, vibrant kurtas—even as turbans change colours. If Singh and bling are such smug co-habitants, what else are we left with?

A poster of “Singh is Bliing”
A poster of “Singh is Bliing”

Plenty, it seems. As part of pre-release promotions for Singh is Bliing, a double edged sword was recently unleashed in Delhi. The term “sword" sounds like a pun but is purely incidental. Sikh designer, the veteran J.J. Valaya, Sikh choreographer Harmeet Bajaj, a leading name in the country’s fashion business, Sikh models (Simar Duggal and Nisha Singh included) and Sikh talent working backstage went into an overdrive for a fundraising fashion show on 29 September. It was held at Hotel Imperial which has a Sikh ownership. This all-Sikh idea was initiated by Sunil Sethi, the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) president who insists that it was done in his personal capacity, with Vikramjit Singh Sahney, CEO of Sun Group and Hindustan Times. The fashion show raised money for 100 widows of debt-ridden and drought-hit farmers of Maharashtra who committed suicide.

Kumar, who has reportedly been carrying around ready-to-don turbans for the film’s promotions, did not wear one for this show. But, always the star with his heart in the right place, he urged the audience to donate generously for farmer families adding that if they did, he would do anything to entertain them: he would dance and get selfies taken with the do-gooders. He lived up to his promise and danced merrily. It was a perplexing coming-together of a film’s promotion, a charity event and a fashion show labeled Style is Singh (instead of bling). But it worked.

Everyone was dressed by couturier Valaya, who genuinely disagrees with the “bling" part of the populist image of the Singhs. Asked if a genre called Sikh fashion can be visually and verbally defined, Valaya responded by saying that the only differentiator given the current imagery is the turban, and nothing else. “Too much importance is being given to the turban as an accessory whereas real Sikh style is much more," says Valaya. He said that Punjabis in general are constantly associated with being flashy and loud as Hindi films riotously use this stereotype. “Spiritedness, warmth and a cheerful temperament is all very well, but when it comes to style, the most elegant among the Sikh community were about quiet elegance and heritage," said Valaya, recalling examples from Punjab’s Kapurthala royalty. Other arts and crafts of the state like the non-flashy traditional phulkari embroidery too are usually buried under the projection of embellished and turbaned style.

“Style and Singh" and “Singh is Bliing" are opposites if you look at it, points out Valaya. He is working on creating an annual event that can showcase the real Punjab and its fashion. Punjabi by nature Akshay Kumar, minus a turban, would be a terrific ambassador for such a cultural venture. Especially because the turban, also a popular accessory of contemporary hijabi fashion, has become a mixed metaphor.

This series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words. Shefalee Vasudev is the author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion.