By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |
In the vibrant rebellious tumult of the 1960s and 70’s, Elvis Presley strode onto the stage of my consciousness, a blazing emblem of inspiration for both Sikhs and non-Sikhs of my generation. It was the era where the shackles of tradition were being ripped apart and there was an ineffable allure about him — a magnetic charisma that transcended the narrow boundaries of race, religion, and class.
Beyond a mere musician, Elvis was a legend, a sovereign ruling over the revolutionary surge of an emerging genre: rock ‘n’ roll. He was the ‘official’ King of this new genre constituting an intricate mosaic woven from the rich tapestry of African-American jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, and country music. It stood as a testament to the diverse influences that seamlessly converged to shape the symphony of a new era.
The very term “rock ‘n’ roll” traces its lineage to the imagery of rolling ocean waves — a metaphor that aptly encapsulates the undulating rhythms and exhilarating sensations that the genre evokes. It was Elvis who breathed life into this phrase, transforming it into a living embodiment of sonic and physical expression. Those initial performances, brimming with electricity and daring, were met with the stifling shadow of bans due to the perceived corruption they could wield upon the minds of the impressionable youth. The intensity of his rock ‘n’ roll essence was undeniable.
In the midst of the Elvis fervor, a remarkable tale unfurled in a distant corner of the world. An unknown Sikh, Peter Singh, a market trader from Swansea in Wales, entered the scene and within a matter of months he went from an Elvis impersonator on a TV talent show to a performer at the illustrious Royal Albert Hall. What set him apart was his captivating fusion of the ‘East’ — exemplified by his distinctive turban and beard — and the ‘West,’ seamlessly capturing the spirit of Elvis in both song and movement.
This intersection of cultures highlighted the universal resonance of Elvis’s music.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me at the time, Punjab boasted its own incarnation of “Elvis” in the form of Iqbal Singh Sethi, whose rendition of “Beautiful Baby of Broadway” in the 1960 Bollywood film ‘Ek Phool Chaar Kaante’ added a vibrant stroke to the regional cultural canvas.
As time flowed onward, my musical predilections evolved. The audacious spirit of Elvis gradually gave way to the magnetic allure of Led Zeppelin. The once-neatly combed quiff surrendered its place to a cascade of untamed hair tamed only by a defiant headband. This transitional phase of my life seamlessly coincided with a personal voyage of self-discovery — an exploration of my Punjabi roots, my Sikh heritage. Around the tender age of 15, a quiet yearning to connect with my past started to stir within me, culminating in a transformative decision at 17: the choice to embrace a turban, uncut hair and beard as a badge of identity and pride.
Yet, life’s tapestry continued to weave intricate patterns. Just as I believed my days of youthful rebellion were safely shelved, destiny unfolded a different script. A year later, I embraced the path of the Amritdhari Khalsa Sikh within the Akhand Kirtani Jatha (AKJ) — a pivotal moment that unveiled unexpected parallels between the ethos of rock ‘n’ roll and the approach of the AKJ. In a strange twist of destiny, in some senses, the AKJ represented the Sikh embodiment of “rock ‘n’ roll,” marrying a deep sense of morality and spirituality with an unwavering devotion with a daring spirit that challenged conventions. And it was this more progressive approach to Gurbani Sangeet, combining rhythms from folk music, qawwali, raag, with a hint of Bollywood, that seemed to capture a new generation of Sikhs like me who grew up with rock n roll.
In the grand mosaic of existence, where melodies, rhythms and beats intertwine with identity and defiance competes with heritage, my journey unfolds. From Elvis’s boundary-defying magnetism to the improbable narratives of the Sikh Elvis and Punjab’s own rock ‘n’ roll luminary, and from my evolution as a teenager with rebellious locks to the embrace of a turban and the invigorating philosophy of Sikhi and the modernity reflected in the approach of the AKJ — these stories coalesce to craft a distinct narrative. They underscore the timeless potency of rock ‘n’ roll, not just as a musical genre, but as a dynamic force that ignites transformation, fosters unity, and propels the authentic pursuit of self.
And as for my rebellious temperament, though 40 years on, I am much less confrontational (I think!), and I have developed a wide range of musical tastes, I feel the revolutionary spirit in me lives on. However, nowadays it is expressed mostly through my writing and reflections on the churn of history and culture, rather than through cult of celebrity.
Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.firstname.lastname@example.org
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Miracles and Godmen (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2020)
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