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The turban trap

There is quite a bit of traffic on the road. And as usual there is no place anywhere to park. Large letters in Roman and Gurmukhi script in the front of a slightly rundown white building tells me I have arrived.   Apart from a few cars  the place is quite empty.  Gurudwara Guru Nanak Darbar of Ballsbridge is a large standalone building in a quiet gentrified surburb of Dublin. The usual pungent yellow and navy  marks its gates and its facade, superimposed with the sikh emblem. A triangular  flag is being tugged hard by the sudden gushes of autumnal wind. I make my way into the temple through its large wooden doors having first removed my shoes.  I have come to talk to the gurudwara priests about the sikh turban.

My journey with the turban has spanned 5 years and is an integral part of my art practice. The turban and the south Indian kavadi makes up the part of my research on god-prosthesis. My starting point is the ubiquitous believe that normal senses and capacities are never enough to commune with our gods. We extend our senses to detect or commune with a sacred presence through material media, through the apparatus of belief. This could be any material object that enhances the  experience of a sacred presence.  My particular focus is on the specifically Asian responses in the form of the turban and the kavadi.

The turban is considered by many around the world as a consecrated cloth.  When we talk about textiles , we talk about the handle and the feel of the fabric. How important is a good handle to the turban fabric? How important is it to  hold and feel this consecrated cloth in your hand and how does it enhance divine communication? Belief it seems is demanded here by the material weight of the turban combined with an ensemble of bodily movements ( the act of tying a turban). The devotee is able to commune with a sacred presence through the presence of a ritual which maintains a parasitic dependence on an apparatus exterior to the subject.

The turban, with its manual gesture and tactile sensations, is automatic and mechanical and is the perfect prayer machine.  Belief and prayer become embodied and performed through the operations of machines. Here the turban is, as what Freud suggests, a prosthesis, an extension to man to reach god or to become one.

Paraphrasing 'Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)', 'Long ago man formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. .... To-day he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself. ..Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God.'

The apparatus of belief extends beyond the turban in many ways. Each piece of turban fabric is cut for the average adult, exactly 5m long and a metre wide. Factories around the world produce hundreds of thousands of perfectly cut and stamped turbans every year. The material, the size, the shape and the texture of this consecrated fabric is thus closely related to the mechanised systems of mass production. A distributed mechanised network of manufacture becomes a  prosthesis to experience the sacred.

Some of the early work-in-progress for this area of my research is provided below. In these  installations,  I explore the materialities of divine communication. I allude to the weight and the immaterial nature of  religious experience, the weight of the idea of timeless eternity, the coldness of abstraction, the overflow of the infinite through the fabric of a turban.

I might also be hinting at the colour of the turban which signifies martyrdom to some, to the racks of pain and certain death, to worship and war, to the spiritual and martial.

And at the same time there is this  idea of commemoration. A commemoration to those who sacrificed for the idea of something.

I am exploring the religious experience and its technological mediation. I am hinting at the weight of a turban when it is not one,  when it is a trap or a cage or a prosthesis to weightier things.

Back at the gurudwara, I ask the priest,  "What is the weight of a prayer?  Is it the weight of the paper on which it is written  or the prosthesis that can organise an experience that sits outside the everyday sense of awareness. Is it the weight of a turban?"


1. Freud, Sigmund, "Civilization and Its Discontents", London: Penguin, 2002.

2.Blanton, Anderson. “Introduction.” Hittin' the Prayer Bones: Materiality of Spirit in the Pentecostal South, University of North Carolina Press, 2015

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