Sikh Studies at UC Santa Cruz

By Nirvikar Singh

This talk was delivered by Prof. Nirvikar Singh – Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair in Sikh & Punjabi Studies, UC Santa Cruz at the conference “Sikh Studies in the 21st Century” May 16-17,2014 at UC Santa Barabara

Sikh Studies UCSC

Distinguished conference participants, it is an honor to be here on the dais with Professor Gurinder Singh Mann and Professor Pashaura Singh, my senior colleagues in Sikh Studies in the UC system, as well as my other distinguished colleagues, Professors Nesbitt and Thandi. I do not have a lot of time to share with you all that I want to say, but there is a handout summarizing the activities that have come under the aegis of Sikh and Punjabi Studies at UC Santa Cruz over the past three-and-a-half years.

I will try to give you a sense of perspective on what I have been doing, and what I hope to accomplish in the future.

Introduction to Punjabi is offered through UCSC Extension this summer.

Dates: July 7 – August 7
Times: M Tu Th 4-6:30 pm (15 class meetings).
Location: San Jose Gurdwara Sahib, 3636 Murillo Avenue, San Jose
Instructor: Arshinder Pal Kaur

High school students, college students and working professionals are all eligible to take the class.

The class may be eligible for 5 units of college credit, depending on the crediting institution.

The syllabus is essentially that which was approved for a regular UC Santa Cruz class in 2012, and the text is a standard college-level textbook developed within the Sikh and Punjab Studies program at UC Santa Barbara and published by Punjabi University, Patiala.

The class is made affordable by the generosity of the Guru Nanak Heritage Fund endowed at UC Santa Cruz by the Bay Area Sikh community.

To enroll, go to

The Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair at UC Santa Cruz is somewhat different than the chairs at UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside. Both my distinguished colleagues are in departments of Religious Studies. We no longer have such a department at UCSC, and it would not have been the right home for me in any case. The endowment for the chair came to UCSC, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Narinder Kapany, after lying dormant at UC Irvine for some time. However, two successive searches at UCSC did not yield a successful outcome. While I am an economist, in 2010 I had just finished three years working directly for UCSC’s Chancellor on campus initiatives in Silicon Valley, and when I was asked to take on the job of inaugurating and leading Sikh and Punjabi Studies at UCSC, I felt it was my responsibility to the community and the campus to accept.

In some ways, I had been unwittingly preparing for this role, alongside my theoretical and empirical work in economics. In 1990, I had written on the Punjab crisis, comparing it with the situation in Kashmir. Subsequently, I had written on the Green Revolution, Punjab’s attempts to create a software industry, and healthcare in Punjab. I had also written on Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid, a prominent figure in the Singh Sabha movement, and – the work I am most proud of – a paper in which I excavated the problematics of the claim that Guru Nanak was a Sant, indeed, the claim that the Sant movement is a valid category at all. I later included this issue, along with a discussion of the weaknesses of Harjot Oberoi’s assertions regarding the creation of a Sikh identity, in the inaugural Guru Nanak Lecture at San Jose State University. In addition, I had served as a Trustee of the Sikh Foundation for three years in the 1990s.

Despite this preparation, I faced a challenging situation at UCSC. The Chair had been allotted to the Humanities Division, and my home department is in the Social Sciences. As an existing faculty member, I would be responsible for my teaching and research duties in Economics, unless I used the endowment income to buy out time, which I did not want to do. When I spoke to the Sikh students at UCSC, it was clear that one of their foremost wishes was to have a course that would teach them about their own heritage, and extend that teaching to their non-Sikh peers at the university. I was fortunate that a new Dean of Humanities, William Ladusaw, had just taken charge, and he proved to be enormously supportive. When I proposed a new 2-unit course “Introduction to the Sikhs,” which I could and would teach in addition to my regular economics teaching, he did everything he could to speed the administrative approvals. I have now taught the course successfully three times, and I will return to describing that effort.

Sikh Studies UCSC

Before I turn to describing what I did, I want to acknowledge one huge advantage I did have at UCSC, namely, the presence of Dr. Inderjit Kaur. Inderjit, also an economist, had been building on her formal training in Hindustani classical music and her deep experience of singing shabad kirtan, to conduct research on shabad kirtan as well as engage in community service. Inderjit had been presenting regularly at Sikh Studies and ethnomusicology conferences and seminars, and she had presented her paper on the meaning of ghar in the Guru Granth Sahib, at a UC Riverside conference in 2008 organized by Prof. Pashaura Singh. Given the importance for the Sikh tradition of shabad kirtan and the musical information in the Guru Granth Sahib, I consider this paper to be one of the most important in Sikh Studies in our lifetime. Inderjit had also created an international kirtan competition for the Hemkunt Foundation, and herself founded the Sikh Music Heritage Institute. Inderjit’s insights and perspectives on the field of Sikh Studies, and her ability to bridge the academy and the community, while keeping core values intact, have been enormously important for what has been accomplished at UCSC in Sikh and Punjabi Studies.

The course I teach at UCSC is a lower division course with no prerequisites. I keep the class size below 40, to permit discussion and interaction. In the first six weeks, I provide an introductory overview; describe the Sikh belief system; give a fairly detailed, linear account of 500 years of Sikh history; and then range over music, film, art and architecture, literature, class, gender, politics and religious institutions. The last four weeks are spent on the Sikh diaspora, starting with a global overview and successively focusing on North America and California, but also putting the Sikh experience in the context of other immigrant and minority experiences. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Komagata Maru, and the Ghadar Party all feature, as do modern day efforts to deal with hate crimes and civil rights in a post-Martin Luther King world. Social justice, activism and equality all receive attention. About half my students are Sikhs or of Sikh heritage; the others span the spectrum of America’s new pluralistic society. There is self-selection of course, but the students regularly amaze me in their intuitive feel for what a just and diverse society can and should be.

The students are required to make individual or group class presentations, and to write a short final paper. They choose their own topics, with advice from me when requested. Sometimes the topics are what I might term conventional, such as the panj kakkar, or Sikh women, or dealing with discrimination. But students have also chosen topics such as Sikh horse culture, gay rights and Sikhism, and Amrita Pritam’s poems. Dance, weddings, food and clothes are popular subjects, as well as explorations of Sikh beliefs and practices. I have a detailed reading list, but students, as might be expected, rely heavily on web resources, so that requires some monitoring and guidance from me. One of the highlights of the course, for me as well as many of the students, is a visit to the San Jose Gurdwara in a chartered bus. We have langar, sit in the diwan, visit the gurdwara museum, and generally tour the magnificent site.In Fall 2012, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times was doing a feature on Sikhs in California, and she came along for our field trip and wrote about it in her broader story.

Sikh Studies UCSC

I mention the LA Times story because it illustrates how one can leverage the core classroom experience in terms of impact. My course is young and small, relative to those taught by my UC colleagues, but it has had an impact outside the classroom. I would be happy to share my syllabus and lecture slides with colleagues to get your feedback and suggestions. In the future, I hope that this course can be integrated into a new Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) major at UCSC: this major is very much in the works. That new program will offer, I hope, a welcoming long-term home for Sikh and Punjabi Studies at UCSC.

Let me now describe other activities. The Sikh students’ other initial request was for Punjabi language classes. Here, I recognized the limits of my expertise, even though I had certified students’ Punjabi language expertise on a couple of occasions in years gone by: one needs a specialist for teaching language effectively, and to have credibility within academia. Once again, though, I had the good fortune to work with Dr. Inderjit Kaur and Dean Ladusaw to reach out to the San Francisco Bay Area Sikh community. Representatives of the community agreed to transfer an existing endowment (the Guru Nanak Heritage Fund), also languishing elsewhere, to UCSC. In Summer 2012, UCSC sponsored an introductory Punjabi class, and innovated by offering it at the San Jose Gurdwara. By choosing this timing and location, we were able to reach out to college students throughout the area, as well as high school students and professionals. Using materials from UC Berkeley’s long-running program, and with support from the Dean and the chair of the UCSC Languages Department, I was able to create a syllabus, get the course approved in an accelerated process, and find a top-notch instructor in a nationwide search, with a committee headed by the Languages Department chair. We were fortunate to have a college-level textbook already available, this being the fruit of many years’ labor by Prof. Gurinder Singh Mann and his students and former students at UC Santa Barbara. So I have been able to benefit from the labors of my senior colleagues in the field. This summer will be UCSC’s third offering of Introductory Punjabi at the San Jose Gurdwara, and I would like your help in spreading the word about the class, to make the Sikh community’s investment in this effort more visible and worthwhile.

Continuing to focus for the moment on the students, the inauguration of the Sikh and Punjabi Studies Chair at UCSC helped to catalyze the formation of a Sikh Student Association (SSA), which has served as a focal point for activities and community creation among the students. The SSA has organized a panel on the Oak Creek massacre, in which the Dean of Humanities and the Director of the Institute for Humanities Research and Center for Jewish Studies participated along with Sikh community members; an all-day conference on Sikh feminist and social activist perspectives that included academics and community members; and – just last week – UCSC’s first-ever Turban Day, which was a joyful and successful occasion. This is in addition to several smaller more inward-focused events. The SSA also organized a seva day, with 15 students going to the San Jose Gurdwara to do seva in the langar and listen to kirtan. In SSA activities, my role is to provide encouragement and sometimes financial support, but the students always decide what they want to do. I also make sure that my colleagues and the administration are aware of the students’ activities and efforts.

On the front of graduate student research, there is less to report, but it is not trivial. Twenty years ago, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany made a small endowment at UCSC for studies of Punjab’s economy and polity. For several years, I made grants for graduate student projects on these topics, but then stopped, for reasons I will give shortly. More recently, I advised a Master’s student in Philosophy, who was wrestling with issues of Sikh identity in 21st century America. Currently, there is a new doctoral student in History, who is interested in the Ghadar movement in California. Hopefully, a CRES program will one day provide a long-term home for graduate students interested in such topics. Meanwhile, I have involved the undergraduate Sikh students in a research project on Sikh entrepreneurs, which is slowly moving forward: the students have played a major role in conducting interviews with successful as well as budding entrepreneurs.

Sikh Studies UCSC

Now I want to turn to the aspect of Sikh Studies that probably interests you all the most as academics – that of research. I have already mentioned how Dr. Inderjit Kaur had been actively presenting her work on Sikh shabad kirtan at conferences and seminars for several years before I was asked to take on the job of Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair. Inderjit conceived of an inaugural conference that would take stock of the field, bring together as many Sikh Studies scholars as possible, established and emerging, and create a comfortable space for interactions. The conference as she conceived it happened in November 2011, and was a big success. Not that any revolutionary new discovery was necessarily presented, but – and I hope those of you who were at the conference can agree – the setting brought together specialists in the field, UCSC colleagues who are not in Sikh Studies, students, and community members, to discuss a wide range of issues, and not just purely “academic” ones. As one of my UCSC colleagues put it at the conference, there is an inherent tension in the academic study of any faith tradition, and we were able to provide a space for an open, animated, but respectful set of interactions that, I would like to think, had some positive ripple effects. One other highlight of the conference was a keynote talk by Dr. Inder Mohan Singh, Chairman of the Chardi Kalaa Foundation, on “Guru Nanak’s Message for a Flat, Interconnected World.”

In March 2013, Inderjit and I collaborated on a second conference, this time tackling a more specific issue, that of Punjab’s place in Sikh tradition, and the current status of its economy, polity and society. Again, this was a relatively small and intimate conference, and we brought together people who might otherwise never have interacted, or thought about each other’s work. Income from Dr. Kapany’s Punjab Studies endowment, which I had been hoarding for many years, came in handy in bringing leading scholars from Punjab. This effort also had positive ripple effects: I subsequently visited Punjabi University Patiala, gave a public lecture on Punjab’s economy, and carried an Agreement of Cooperation between UCSC and Punjabi University to the latter’s Vice Chancellor, who we had met through the efforts of Dr. Mahinder Singh Madan, one of our staunchest community supporters. In March of this year, Punjabi University organized a major international conference on the Punjab economy, where I was honored to give the keynote address, laying out possible pathways for the state’s future economic transformation. As an aside, I also want to note that our 2013 Punjab conference gave us an opportunity to acknowledge and honor Prof. Gurinder Singh Mann’s remarkable 13 years in leading his unique and irreplaceable summer program in Punjab: his keynote talk was rich in evocative images of the region, and was made special by the presence of several program alumni in the audience.

I have described to you what has happened on our campus, but the interactions have not been one-way. Both Dr. Inderjit Kaur and I have had various opportunities to present our ongoing research at several significant conferences. These included the University of the Frasier Valley conference that coincided with the 100th anniversary of the first gurdwara in North America, a conference at Santa Clara University, two at the San Jose Gurdwara co-sponsored by the Chardi Kalaa Foundation, and Prof. Pashaura Singh’s exciting conference at UC Riverside almost exactly one year ago. Over these past few years, we have seen a greater positive engagement of scholars from India and Sikh community members with the activities of scholars based in Western academia. This is a significant trend, and one that needs to be nurtured and built upon: after all, the Sikh community in all its diversity and richness is what makes it possible to do what we do. I hope that we can all continue to contribute to this effort, with mutual respect and understanding.

There is still an enormous amount of work to be done in clarifying some of the core issues in the Sikh heritage and tradition. In particular, I think we are not merely post-colonial trauma victims. I have begun a conversation with several of my colleagues in Sikh Studies, seeking to deepen our collective understanding of Sikh tradition, including its diversity as well as its continuity. I am also hoping to collaborate with Inderjit on a conference focused on Sikh music, art, film and literature, to take place in 2015. I think these will both be significant activities for Sikh Studies, and I look forward to your engagement.

In closing, I would like to thank the pioneers of the field of Sikh Studies; my senior and my junior colleagues, from whom I keep learning; those in the Sikh community who have supported all our efforts; the UCSC leadership for giving me this magnificent opportunity; and my collaborator in making this opportunity into something meaningful, Dr. Inderjit Kaur.



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