The Legacy of the Sikh Foundation – 1978-98 – Part 2
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Studies” at 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.