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The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation – 1967 to Today – Part 1

By Sonia Dhami

Reaching 50 years is a proud milestone for the Sikh Foundation and this article is an effort to document this history, from its establishment in 1967 to today. I have relied mostly on archival materials and interviews with Dr. N.S. Kapany. This article follows a chronological structure and will be published in three parts- the first focuses on the decade following its founding, the second part covers the next two decades while the third and final section will focus on the period starting 1997 to today.

The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation -1967 to TodayDr. Narinder S. Kapany and his wife Satinder K. Kapany
(Photo courtesy: Kapany family)

1967 America: Vietnam war continues and peace rallies intensify – Muhammad Ali stripped of his boxing championship for refusing the draft -Worlds First Heart Transplant – The first ATM – Strikes by US teaching staff for pay increases – The first Super Bowl played between Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs – Six Day War Arab Forces attack Israel – American cities including Detroit exploded in rioting and looting – Summer of Love with young people smoking pot and grooving to the music of the Grateful Dead – color TV’s become cheaper and popular…

1967 was also the year when a young Sikh physicist, Narinder Singh Kapany, took his Silicon Valley optics company public and achieved the American Dream.

But his dream was not just for his himself or limited to his family. It also included his community. With immense pride, commitment and faith in his Sikh heritage, he founded and registered the Sikh Foundation on Dec 29th 1967 with the mission to preserve and promote Sikh heritage.

Prior to setting up the Sikh Foundation, both Narinder and his beautiful wife Satinder were active members of the small Sikh community in Chicago. Narinder was also the President of the journal “Sikh Study Circle of USA”.

In 1960 they moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and with the cooperation of Dr. Janmeja Singh, continued to support Sikh community activities including the publication of the book “Guru Gobind Singh – Reflections and Offerings” by Prof. Puran Singh in 1967.

The landscape of the Silicon Valley at this time was very different from what we see today. The nearest Gurudwara at the time was in Stockton, over 100 miles away. A far cry from today when the Bay Area alone has six large gurudwaras and counting.

The First Ten Years: 1967-1977

The Sikh Foundation launched its first publication “The Sikh Sansar” a quarterly journal in 1972.

The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation -1967 to TodayThe ‘Sikh Sansar’ journal of the Sikh Foundation

Maharaja of Patiala Sir Yadavindra Singh & S. Hardit Singh Malik were its first patrons . The editorial board comprised of Dr. N.S. Kapany, Dr. R.K. Janmeja Singh, Prof. Hari S. Everest, Dr. Gurnam S.S. Brard, Prof. Harbans Lal and Mrs. Satinder K. Kapany.

Imminent scholars and writers Prof. W.H. McLeod, Prof. N.G. Barrier, Dr. M.S. Randhawa, Prof. Ganda Singh, Dr. Kartar S. Lalvani, Prof. Harbans Singh, Prof. Harbhajan Singh & S. Khuswant Singh were on the “Editorial Advisory Board” .

The journal focused on many subjects of interest to Sikhs including Sikh Women, Sikh Educational Institutions, the Ghadar Movement, the American Bicentennial, Bhai Vir Singh etc.. One special edition, which specially stands out, was on “Sikh Art” published in 1975.

The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation -1967 to TodaySardar Hardit S. Malik (left) Maharaja Yadavindra Singh (right)

Prof. R.P. Srivastava, Head of Dept. of Fine Arts, GCW Patiala-Punjab writes in his guest editorial column “For the first time in the history of journalism a systematic attempt is being made to record the significant contributions made by Sikh Artists, Sculptors, Architects and Artisans in the Punjab and elsewhere.”

He further writes, “ No concerted effort was ever made by any Author or Historian and so far no one has tried to write anything on this aspect of achievement of the Sikhs which has glorified the pages of Sikh history and beautified the Punjab with architectural monuments.”

Looking back from now to this momentous beginning in 1976, it is nothing less than a mind shift that has been accomplished. Today Sikh Art has already been celebrated by over half a dozen museums worldwide including the Victoria & Albert Museum-London, The Smithsonian-Washington D.C, The ROM-Toronto, The Asian Art Museum-San Francisco amongst many others.

There are over a dozen high quality books on Sikh art written by art historians and scholars on areas ranging from textiles to paintings, from ancient manuscripts to contemporary art.

The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation -1967 to TodayGuru Nanak’s wedding procession, from a manuscript of the Janam Sakhi (Life Stories) @ Asian Art Museum Gift of the Kapany Collection

Growing up, Narinder had often heard his grandmother recite stories of Guru Nanak’s life from their family’s manuscript of the Janamsakhis. This 19th century volume, richly illustrated with 40 colored plates ( gift to the Asian Art Museum San Francisco) was his first hand introduction to the beauty and richness of Sikh art.

Having this beautiful manuscript in the family encouraged this young couple to become ardent admirers, collectors and preservers of Sikh Art. In fact, the Kapany’s were artists’ themselves- Satinder an accomplished dancer and painter & Narinder a sculptor.

Fusing technology and art, Narinder created sculptures using optical fibers, Lucite and other materials, which were, actually discards from his lab. He coined the term “Dynoptic” –combining various optic technologies in a dynamic mode. Numerous museums across America, including the Exploratorium in San Francisco, exhibited the entire series of 22 sculptures.

The literary activities undertaken by the Sikh Foundation also included creating opportunities for the local Sikh community to hear from Sikh stalwarts like Prof. Gopal Singh & Prof. Ganda Singh who were invited to give lectures.

The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation - 1967 to Today
Hari Singh Everest, Mark Juergensmeyer, Clinton Loehlin (right to left)

At this time, a young American scholar, Mark Juergensmeyer met Dr. Kapany. Mark had studied in the Punjab, and believed that Sikhism had a lot to offer the world and should be taught at American universities.

The word “Sikh” in itself means a student. And what better way to live this ideology than to introduce Sikhism to students here in America. The Sikh Foundation organized a conference at Berkeley in 1976, inviting over a dozen scholars to discuss ways and initiatives of how this could be made a reality at American institutes of higher learning.

With this, the Sikh Foundation, had in its first decade, taken the pioneering lead to include Sikhs and their heritage within two of Americas most important institutions- museums and universities.

The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation – 1978-98 – Part 2

Legacy of the Sikh Foundation  - 1978-98 - Part 2 Dr. Kapany addressing US senators in Washington D.C , 1984 Pic: Sikh Foundation archives

The Sikh community, in the US and Canada, in the seventies, felt a growing awareness of the need for representation in the two important fields of Arts and Academia. This steered the Sikh Foundation to foster deep and meaningful engagements with these communities and continue to work on exploring the potential of launching Sikh studies at US universities.

But the course of history, set in motion, in the Punjab, engulfed all academic and artistic ambitions for now. As the Sikh community became acutely aware of the violent and tragic turmoil unfolding in their homeland – Punjab, the Sikh Foundation heeded the need of the hour.

Legacy of the Sikh Foundation  - 1978-98 - Part 2 The destroyed building of the Akal Takhat after Operation Bluestar, painting by R.M Singh, oil on canvas, collection of Dr. G.S Mann

In the spring of 1984, along with 150 prominent Sikh Americans, Dr. Kapany, the chairman of the Sikh Foundation, addressed the U.S congress in Washington D.C informing them of the dire situation in Punjab. There were growing apprehensions that the Golden Temple might be attacked. The Sikh Foundation sent an urgent telegram to the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi and Ambassador K. Shankar Bajpai advising against such an attack. But tragedy could not be averted and the Golden Temple, revered deeply by the Sikhs, was attacked on June 1st,1984, shattering the faith of Sikhs worldwide. Hundreds of lives were lost in this military operation codenamed “Operation Bluestar”.

The Sikh Foundation also continued in its efforts to inform the world of the reality on the ground in Punjab. It organized a group of 20 US senators who were willing to make a fact-finding trip to Punjab, but the group was refused visas by the Indian Government. Undeterred and pursuing every opportunity to make the American people aware of Sikhs and the injustices been met out to the community, Dr. Kapany confronted the Indian Ambassador on American television about the tragic events.

The Sikh Foundation published full-page advertisements in leading newspapers in major cities across the US educating the public about Sikhs and the heinous crimes committed against the community and its sacred spaces. Dr. Kapany even travelled to Canada to make a presentation to the Canadian House of Representatives on the situation in Punjab.

Video Message from Joyce Steinfeld on our 50th Anniversaryright – Full page advertisements in American newspapers run as part of a media campaign to inform the American people about the Sikhs and the Punjab crises of 1984 left – Newspaper published by Sikh Foundation from 1984-85

Soon after the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards. In its aftermath over 3000 Sikhs were heinously killed in Delhi and other parts of India. Sikhs living all across the world were shaken to their core.

Working with community leaders from coast to coast like Ganga Singh Dhillon and Dr. Shamsher Singh Babra, numerous community meetings and rallies were organized. This was a time before the Internet, and there were very limited means by which the community could keep abreast of the developing situation. To bridge this gap, a weekly newspaper “The Sikh Times” started publication from Palo Alto.

The fires & bullets of “Operation Bluestar” destroyed large parts of the Golden Temple complex including the toshakhana (treasury). Priceless manuscripts and valuable artworks, which were witness to centuries of Sikh heritage, were lost forever.

It now became clear that along with educating the world about Sikh culture, language and heritage, it was also important for us to collect and preserve our tangible heritage for our future generations. Collectively, these tragic events, created a rising consciousness about the importance of preserving our arts and culture, which are a critical part of who we are. Not only does this apply to paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, coins, stamps, but also to our monuments and architectural space, which are in grave peril even today, both in India and Pakistan.

Legacy of the Sikh Foundation  - 1978-98 - Part 2 Brochure cover of the first Sikh Art exhibit at the Asian Art Museum San Francisco in 1992

Perhaps these events played a role in encouraging the Kapanys to actively start looking for and collecting Sikh art, which today is renowned the world over. It includes masterpieces like the portrait of Rani Jind Kaur, illustrated books like Emily Eden’s “Portraits of Princes and People of India”, personal articles of Maharaja Ranjit Singh like his spectacular emerald ring, miniature paintings of the Gurus and much more.

The 25th Anniversary of the Sikh Foundation, presented a unique opportunity to share this growing Sikh art collection with the world. Working with Forrest McGill curator at the Asian Art Museum-San Francisco, the exhibit “The Splendors of the Punjab: Art of the Sikhs” opened on Nov. 25th 1992 accompanied by a grand Gala dinner. This was the first time that Sikh arts were celebrated, at a leading museum. Even more, this was a unique collaborative partnership between the academia and the arts. Alongside the exhibit, a 2-day conference “ Sikh Art & Literature” was also held at the Center for South Asia Studies at UC Berkeley.

Meanwhile a Punjabi language program had already been started at Stanford in 1986 with the initiative of a student, Harpal Singh Sandhu. The Sikh Foundation, in 1995, stepped up to provide additional financial support to the program.

Legacy of the Sikh Foundation  - 1978-98 - Part 2 The book cover of “The Name of My Beloved” and author Dr. Nikky G.K. Singh, 1995

Encouraging scholarship of the highest level, “The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus translated by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh was published in 1995. Khushwant Singh, the legendry author wrote, “is the first contemporary English translation of hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib-the principal sacred text of the Sikh religion- and the Dasam Granth, the poetry of the tenth Sikh guru. (It is) a significant contribution to the understanding of the essentials of the Sikhs’ sacred scriptures.”

The Berkeley Conference of 1976 led to a significant publication “ Sikh Studies: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Tradition (Berkeley Religious Studies Series, 1979). The partnerships fostered with American academia, was starting to bear fruit.

Legacy of the Sikh Foundation  - 1978-98 - Part 2 left – Sardarni Kundan Kaur Kapany ~ Right – Acknowledgement from UC Santa Barbara, on the establishement of the Chair- Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies” in 1997

Mark Juergensmeyer, who had introduced, in the early 1970’s, the idea to have Sikh Studies represented at universities was now teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This was the right time to turn dreams into reality. In 1997, Dr. Kapany established the “Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studiesat UC Santa Barbara, in memory of his dear mother. This was the first of its type in North America and paved the way for others to follow.

With these two firsts – the display of Sikh Arts at an American museum and the establishment of Sikh Studies Chair at an American university, a new path for the future was laid. This was the culmination of the previous thirty years of work but it was also the beginning of a new future of a truly inclusive American society.

III The Next Twenty Years 1998- 2017

The Legacy of the Sikh FoundationFig. 13. View of the “Arts of the Sikh Kingdom” exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in(1999) London

With these two firsts – the display of Sikh Arts at an American museum and the establishment of Sikh Studies Chair at an American university, a new path was laid. This was the beginning of the Foundation’s efforts towards creating a truly inclusive American society and opened a whole new world of possibilities for the Sikh community.
The Sikh Foundation seized upon this opportunity and increased its efforts to further promote, preserve and advance the artistic and academic study of Sikhism at the highest institutions of education and art.


The Legacy of the Sikh FoundationFig. 14. Dr. Narinder S. Kapany, and his wife Satinder meet HRH Prince Charles at the opening of The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms in London.”

With the idea of an international Sikh arts exhibit, Dr. Kapany, approached curator Susan Stronge at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, one of the largest museums in the world, to make the dream a reality. Marking the tercentenary of the Khalsa, the “Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms” was opened by HRH The Prince of Wales on March 22, 1999. Nearly 300 works of art from a sleekly smithed cannon and turban-shaped helmets of damascened steel to rippling silks, Kashmir shawls, gem-encrusted jewelry, a golden throne, the earliest portraits of the Gurus, and court paintings of Sikh maharajas and noble warriors were displayed. Sikhism at its best excluded no one (Fig. 13 & 14). The exhibition was brought to the Asian Art Museum (Sept. 1999) under the sponsorship of the Sikh Foundation and its third and final destination became the Royal Ontario Museum (Oct. 2000). Over 500,000 people have seen this exhibition in London, San Francisco and Toronto.

The Legacy of the Sikh FoundationFig. 15. 2017 Sikh Fine Art Calendar

The Sikh Foundation was interacting with artists, scholars and authors from around the world, leading to a number of high quality publications. Written and richly illustrated with fascinating art by the Singh Twins, Amrit & Rabindra, the timeless classic- Bindhus Weddings was published in 1999. In the same year, Warrior Saints, The Boy with Long Hair and Baba Ditta’s Turnip were also published.

In 2000, the Sikh Foundation brought out its first annual Sikh Fine Art Calendar, which became an annual tradition and is today in its 16th year. These series showcases both contemporary and older artworks from 17th century onwards from the Kapany Collection and other collectors.

The Legacy of the Sikh FoundationFig. 16 Guru ki Maseet restoration project

They are regarded as collector’s items and adorn homes and offices all over the world. At this time, efforts were also made in the field of monument conservation. Partnering with UNESCO, the partial restoration of a 16th century mosque built by Guru Hargobind was undertaken (Fig. 15 & 16).

In 2001, the World Trade Center & Pentagon were attacked by aircrafts flown by Al Qaida terrorists. In the aftermath of 9/11, Sikhs became the target of hate crimes all over the country. The previous efforts of the Sikh Foundation became even more relevant and meaningful. The need to educate Americans about our culture, history and religion became a matter of life or death.

The Legacy of the Sikh FoundationFig. 17 & 18 Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery of Sikh Art at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco CA

In 2003, the Sikh Foundation celebrated its 35th Anniversary with the setting up of the Satinder Kaur Gallery at the Asian Art Museum San Francisco. This is the first and only permanent gallery of Sikh art in the West. The Kapanys gifted 100 pieces of Sikh art including the 18th century Janamsakhi volume from which stemmed the Kapany’s love of art. The opening of the gallery was a moment of pride for the entire Sikh community and generated an appreciation of the Arts towards promoting an understanding of cultures (Fig. 17 & 18).

The Legacy of the Sikh FoundationFig. 19. Entrance to the exhibit Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab, Smithsonian Institute Washington D.C ~ Fig. 20. Panorama view of Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab, Fresno Art Museum CA

Already community led efforts were on way with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. for a Sikh exhibit. Since the museum lacked any major Sikh art collections of its own, Dr Kapany readily agreed to loan significant artworks, to form the initial basis of the exhibit. On 24th of July, 2004 The National Museum of Natural History opened the exhibit “Sikhs: “Legacy of the Punjab” showcasing Sikh art and Sikh cultural heritage. This exhibit later travelled to Santa Barbara (2008), Fresno (2012) and Dallas (2015) (Figs. 19 & 20)

The Rubin Museum of Art, with the support of the Sikh Art and Film Foundation and The Sikh Foundation, put forth an exhibition “I See No Stranger” in Sept . 2006. It brought together approximately 100 artworks that identify core Sikh beliefs and explore the plurality of cultural traditions reflected in both the objects and the ideals. This art from the 16th through the 19th centuries, included paintings, drawings, textiles, metalwork, and photographs.

Internationally also the Sikh art scene was gaining vibrancy. At the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the Sikh Art Lecture series was started in 2005 with Dr. Susan Stronge, Dr. F. Aijazuddin, Arpana Caur, Gurinder Chadha and Dr. N.S Kapany delivering talks on Sikh Arts and heritage. In the same year, a delegation from the Sikh Foundation visited Pakistan. They toured Sikh Heritage sites and met with various officials to discuss and explore ways of working together to preserve and protect Sikh monuments and heritage.

The success of the Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies at the UC Santa Barbara (1999) encouraged the Sikh Foundation to foster more programs in other campuses. The Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies – UC Riverside (2006), the Ranjit Singh Sabharwal Chair in Sikh & Punjabi Studies – California State University-East Bay (2007), the Sarbjit Singh Aurora Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at UC Santa Cruz (2010) were set up by various families with the support of the community and the Sikh Foundation. Recently a Sikh Studies Program was initiated at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 2015.

These Chairs create a lasting program that will educate this generation and future generations of students about Sikh culture and contributions. Recent world events illustrate the continued need for increased understanding of Sikh values, traditions, and contributions to the world. Such programs enable faculty and students to explore the culture, religion, history, literature, art, economics, language, politics, and scientific contributions of the Sikh people from their origins in the sixteenth-century Punjab region of India to the present.

Numerous conferences, talks and presentations have been arranged over the years. The MS Kohli Memorial Conference on Sikh Education at Stanford University (March 2015) engaged scholars, museums, schools and Sikh organizations on ways to impact Sikh education. Talks by visiting scholars from the US and abroad have enriched local communities as have other events organized by the Sikh Foundation in the past years.

Our latest publication “Sikh Arts from the Kapany Collection” co-published with the Smithsonian Institute was released on 5th May 2017 during our 50th Anniversary Gala at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This milestone publication documents the unrivalled Collection of Sikh Art, put together by Satinder Kaur & Narinder Singh Kapany. Deeply inspired by the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, their collection displays the entire range of Sikh artistic expression over its 500 year history, including beautiful portraits of the Sikh Gurus, illustrated manuscripts, spectacular paintings of the Golden Temple, royal arts and treasures of Sikh Maharajas, arms and armaments, coinage, stamps, textiles and contemporary arts.

The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation

As we look to the future, there are many unknowns in the field of education and art, especially with the lightning speed of change brought on by evolving technology in both spheres. How will Sikh Studies evolve to take on the challenges of the future? How will the arts appeal to future generations? How can the connection with our past heritage be maintained? These are some of the questions we think about as we celebrate 50 years of the Sikh Foundation and continue in our mission to inspire, educate and engage communities around the world.


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