Sunday, April 01, 2007

"For young Sikhs, the turban is old hat"

By Amelia Gentleman
Published: March 29, 2007
in the International Herald Tribune

AMRITSAR, India: The day 14-year-old Jugraj Singh abandoned his turban and had a lifetime's growth of hair cut off, he collected the tresses from the barber shop's floor and packed them into a plastic bag. Then he threw the bag into a river flowing out of Amritsar, the spiritual home of the Sikhs.

"It was my parents' idea to float it down the river; they thought it would be a display of respect to the hair I had cut off," said Singh, now an 18-year-old business student. "For me it wasn't an emotional moment."

Like many young Sikhs, he found the turban a bother. It got in the way during judo classes. Washing his long hair was time-consuming, as was the morning ritual of winding seven meters, or more than 20 feet, of cloth around his head. It was hot and uncomfortable.

"In the end," he said, "it was a question of fashion. I felt smarter without it."

Sikh spiritual leaders voice dismay at the rapidity with which a new generation of young men are trimming their hair and abandoning the turban, the most conspicuous emblem of the Sikh faith.

While there are no hard data, Jaswinder Singh, a lawyer and leader of a "turban pride" movement, estimates that half of India's Sikh men now forgo the turban, compared with just 10 percent a couple of decades ago.

"The problem is very severe," he said, from the basement headquarters of his organization, Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj, or Army of God, here in Amritsar, in the northern state of Punjab, where most of India's 18 million Sikhs are based. "We are going to have to battle hard to turn back the tide. Otherwise another 20 years will pass and India won't have any more Sikhs in turbans."

Since 1699, about two centuries after the founding of the religion, Sikhs have been prohibited from cutting their hair. At that time every Sikh man was given the surname Singh - lion - and was required to wear a steel wristband and long cotton underwear, carry a short sword and a wooden comb. The turban was conceived as a statement of proud individuality, intended to make Sikhs easily identifiable in a crowd.

But, these days, not every young Sikh wants to stand out so boldly.

The dwindling numbers of turban wearers reflects less a loss of spirituality than encroaching Westernization and the accelerating pace of Indian life, Jaswinder Singh believes.

He puts the start of rapid decline at the mid-1990s, as India began liberalizing its economy, more people began traveling abroad and satellite television arrived in the villages of Punjab. Working mothers are too rushed to help their sons with the arduous task of mastering turban-wearing, he said, and increasingly just shrug and let their children cut their hair.

"Everyone is working harder to buy themselves bigger cars," Singh continued. "They don't have time to teach their children about the Sikh heroes. Boys take film stars as their idols instead."

Twenty-three years ago, when the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard led to the massacre of thousands of Sikhs across India, some abandoned the turban in self-defense. But changes wrought by globalization have had a far greater impact on the number of turbaned Sikhs than the oppression of the 1980s.

"There is this terrible, misplaced urge to merge with the rest of the world," said Patwant Singh, a historian and author of "The Sikhs" (John Murray, 1999).

In addition, since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Sikhs traveling abroad have complained of being confused with members of the Taliban and harassed at airport security. This, too, has contributed to the desire to shed the turban.

Outside the Army of God offices is a turban clinic offering free classes for boys in how to tie up their heads with finesse - one of a series of new Sikh revivalism programs.

Standing before full-length mirrors, an instructor shows teenaged boys in baggy jeans and sports shoes how to twist the cloth into neatly layered folds on one side and smooth the pleats into sharp lines with a hooked silver pin, which is then concealed beneath the hair at the back of the head.

The fumbling attempts of young beginners must receive only praise, the tutor stresses. "Learner turban-wearers," he says, must not be discouraged.

A "Smart Turban 1.0" CD-rom offers step-by-step instructions in constructing fashionable looks and guides new turban-wearers on how to choose the most flattering style according to face shape.

In sheer desperation, Sikh leaders have also started holding "Mr. Singh International" pageants (contestants are judged by looks, moral character, knowledge of Sikh history and principles and turban-tying skills) in an attempt to promote the turban as a high fashion item.

The sixth World Turban Day will be celebrated on April 13 with a march through Amritsar by thousands of turban-wearing Sikhs in a display of unity.

India has no shortage of powerful Sikh role models, like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Lieutenant General Joginder Jaswant Singh, the army chief of staff. But they are hardly style icons and their prominence has done nothing to stem the disaffection of a younger generation with the most important symbol of the Sikh faith.

For that, turban promoters turn to the Punjabi pop star Pammi Bai. Grinning through clenched white teeth, his canary-yellow turban at a jaunty angle, he sings of the glory of wearing the turban in a single released this month as part of the campaign. Images of the prime minister and the army chief flash behind him as he dances in the video version.

"I try my level best to gear up the youngsters," Bai said in an interview, absentmindedly pulling a pin from his turban to dig out the battery from his mobile phone. "They've adopted bad European habits - fast food, pubs and clubs. They want to show they are modern. They are forgetting their own culture." The album containing the turban song has sold 100,000 copies so far.

Are these efforts working?

Not according to Namrata Saluja, manager of the Colour Lounge hairdressers in central Amritsar, which turns away young Sikh men every week who want to get their long hair cut off.

"Kids come in groups - there's a lot of peer pressure," she said. "But we won't unturban them here. We don't want to be responsible for that upheaval in their families."

Instead the barbers advise the boys to cut their own hair at home and come back for styling.

"It's usually college-going students who are more worried about looking good than about their spiritual identity," she said. "It's a thrilling moment for them. You can see a flush on their faces. Taking eight or nine meters of cloth off your head releases a certain amount of pressure."

But while it's good for business, as a religious Sikh she feels ambivalent about the trend. "At the end of the day it is a bit hurtful," she said. "It means one more identifiable Sikh is missing."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dastaar used to train police in UK

Got this email from a police officer in the UK who ordered Dastaar:

Thank you very much for posting Dastaar (Defending Sikh Identity) by Kevin Lee. This is very much appreciated and I will be using this video for training puropses for the UK Thamesvalley Police force. If there is anything I could do for yourselves I will be more than happy to accomodate any reqest you may have.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Indy Nandha
Community & Diversity Officer
Thamesvalley Police

A couple of events I'll be at: Ottawa and DC

The Ottawa-Carleton Sikh Students Association presents:

Lights, Camera & Action: Sikh Day 2007

at the University of Ottawa's Alumni Auditorium, from 6:30pm - 8:30pm on March 30, 2007;

An evening of film and culture exploring a vibrant community through the lens, complete with musical performances blending traditional Indian instrumentals and percussions, and an electrifying tabla fusion by 'The Tabla Guy'. (

The evening will be followed by a reception where light refreshments will be served.

For more information, please refer to the poster or contact us at

Dastaar playing at Spinning Wheel Film Festival -- Washington, DC; Saturday 4/8/2007 2:30PM at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - visit for details


The Kaur Foundation proudly debuts the Spinning Wheel
Film Festival at the world re-known Kennedy Center for
Performing Arts in Washington D.C this April 6th and
7th, 2007. This premier two-day event hosted by the
Kaur Foundation, will start off on the evening of
April 6th, 2007 with a Gala Event evening, “Leaders of
Today - Lighting the Torch for Tomorrow” at the Hyatt
Regency in Bethesda, Maryland.

On April 7th, 2007 the esteemed Kennedy Center for
Performing Arts will be the venue for the Spinning
Wheel Film Festival. This acclaimed Sikh Film
festival brings together the diverse cultural and
historical perspectives of Sikhs worldwide, offering
cinematic insight on universal themes. The highlight
of the Festival is the opportunity to meet with the
Sikh directors and actors who partake in informative
discussions and Q&A sessions with the audience after
each cluster of films is shown.

These two pioneering events will bring together
world-renowned artists, film directors, Hollywood
actors, corporate giants, congressional dignitaries,
and celebrated community leaders from all across the
United States, Britain and Canada. The events will
highlight and honor the achievements of community
leaders and partners who have made an outstanding
contribution towards the advancement of the Sikh
community. The Kaur Foundation wishes to showcase the
talent, creative capital and potential of the
community by sending a message of excellence for the
younger generations of Sikh Americans.

Buy your tickets today! This premiere event is not to
be missed!

For Kaur Foundation Leadership Gala Event Evening and
Spinning Wheel Film Festival ticket passes and for
further information contact:

Monday, March 05, 2007

At the Sikh Photo Exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art

Okay so I made a major goof by saying that Vaisakhi was this month and not April :-(, but aside from that, at least I said a few good words in praise of Sikhism. Chardi Kala!

A 10 minute highlight video of the exhibit will be posted shortly...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dastaar to play at Queens Museum of Art event tomorrow

Sikh Coalition and Grassroots Initiative Announce Opening of Photo Exhibition

"Fighting Prejudice With Votes -
Sikhs in New York

First Ever Photo Exhibition on Sikhs to Show at the Queens Musuem of Art from March 3 to March 31st

New York, NY (February 26, 2007) – The Sikh Coalition and Grassroots Initiative are proud to announce the opening this week of "Fighting Prejudice with Votes: Sikhs in New York" a photo exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art by photographer Sarah Tew. The photo exhibition marks the first time a Sikh-centered photo exhibition has been displayed at any museum in New York.

About the Photo Exhibition

In 2006, Grassroots Initiative teamed up with the Sikh Coalition to help elect the first-ever Sikh elected officials in New York.

In this bold new exhibit, Brooklyn-based photographer Sarah Tew documents the experience in images, juxtaposing the private and public lives of the Sikh community and the process of merging these lives through entry into the political process. The images provide an intimate look into the culture, faith and recent triumphs of one of New York’s most colorful and least understood ethnic communities.

RSVP for the Opening Reception
The opening reception, on March 3, 2007 at the Queens Museum of Art will feature the premier public screening of a news extended version filmmaker Kevin B. Lee's Dastaar (link to older, shorter version), an intimate discussion panel with the artists and activists involved in the exhibit, and a Q&A with the Sikh candidates themselves.

Opening reception, featuring sweets and refreshments, will be held on March 3, 2007 from 3-5 pm. Please RSVP here; space is limited.

New York Times and Other Media Articles on Elected Sikhs

The election of the 5 Sikh officials in New York City has generated a great deal of media interest. Publications such as the New York Times covered their election in an article entitled "Politics, Spoken in Punjabi." In addition the New York Sun covered their election in a front page article and the Times Ledger covered the election in an article entitled "Sikhs Join Dem Committee for First Time in Queens History."

The Sikh Coalition encourages all Sikhs to get involved in their local electoral process with any political party they choose support. It is critical that our community becomes a part of the decision-making structures our the countries within which we resided rather than simply advocating for change from outside.

Grassroots Initiative is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization committed to rebuilding democracy by opening doors, breaking down barriers and establishing effective dialogue between community residents and public decision makers. Grassroots Initiative promotes community involvement, assists first-time candidates for public office and enables decision makers to better utilize public input. For more information, please visit

Japji 25

Grace abounds beyond all reckoning,
Great is the Giver, with no trace of greed.
So many, the crowds of the heroes who beg,
So many, their numbers cannot be reckoned.
So many are wasted and ruin their gifts,
So many keep getting, but deny they've received.
So many are fools who just keep on consuming,
So many keep suffering sorrow and hunger.
These also are gifts which You give us.
Your will determines release from our bondage,
No one else has a say about this.
The fool who dares to speak
Alone knows the blows on his face.
The Knower and the Giver are one and the same
Though this is acknowledged by few.
The person gifted to praise and adore,
Nanak says, is truly monarch of monarchs.

Harvard University Sikh Scholarship

vidia vicari tam parupkari

Contemplate and reflect upon knowledge and you will become a benefactor to others


The Sikh Scholarship Foundation was started in 2002 to provide scholarship grants to Sikh students at Oxford University, UK. Building upon the success of the program there, the Foundation is glad to announce the availability of a US $10,000 annual scholarship award to one Sikh student who has been duly admitted to Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States for the academic year 2007-2008. The scholarship award will be paid to the successful candidate each academic year for up to four years.

It is high time that the Sikh community encourage their youth to not only attend excellent and prestigious institutions of higher learning, but also provide incentive to learn and commit to the Sikh ideals of sevā-simran at the same time as undertaking their academic education. To that end, the Sikh Scholarship Foundation requires recipients of the scholarship to attend a 2 week intensive Gurmat training course and occasional projects, lectures and assignments on Sikhī topics during their university career. Furthermore, the scholars automatically become members of the Mātā Sāhib Kaur Alumni Society and utilize their education and Sikhi background to participate in society as practicing ambassadors of the Sikh nation.

All students interested in this program are urged to request an application form from the Sikh Scholarship Foundation using the following contact information:

Email –

Phone – 1-978-764-6855 (Harvard Shcolarship only)

Web page –

What – The Sikh Scholarship Foundation, Harvard Scholarship

Who – All Sikh students admitted to Harvard University, Cambridge, MA for the academic year 2007-2008 are eligible to apply

How – Request an application form from

When – Deadline for all application forms is June 30, 2007. Scholarship award is announced August 1, 2007.

For more information regarding the Sikh Scholarship Foundation, please visit

In partnership with the Sikh Research Institute, the Sikh Scholarship Foundation – Harvard is also accepting funds for this program. If you are interested in contributing, please send us your tax-deductible donation to:

Sikh Research Institute

P.O. Box 690504

San Antonio , TX 78269

Please make check payable to Sikh Research Institute and write "SSF-Harvard" in the memo.

Alternatively you may contribute via internet at and select "Sikh Scholarship Foundation – Harvard" when making your yearly commitment.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My anthem, courtesy of Guru Nanak

What I would give to have my own work convey the same feeling I get when reading this:

Infinite is the Glory, and infinite the ways to sing praise

Infinite are the deeds, and infinite the gifts

Infinite is the seeing, and infinite the hearing

Infinite are the workings of the Mind

Infinite is the variety of forms

Infinite are the edges of the universe

How many weep and yearn to find the limits

But these are not to be found

The end euldes all

The more it is expressed, the more is yet to be found

God is great and high in station

Yet higher still is the Name

If we could ever reach that height

Then only would we know the Highest of the high

Expansive as It is, That One alone can know Itself

Nanak says we are graced with the gift of the Gaze.

- Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Japji Sahib, stanza 24

Greetings from Oklahoma!

I received this email from a Sikh school teacher in Oklahoma who had requested a copy of Dastaar to screen to her students. Her feedback is one of the most powerful letters about Dastaar I've received:

Dear Kevin,

How are you? Dastaar was a HIT in the classroom! The kids really loved it, and were very sensitive to the message. They all feel smarter now because they know more about Sikhs, and they will possibly now think twice before engaging in hateful behavior towards others because of religion or ethnicity. We talked about things like, "Should people have to hide who they are because they might offend someone or because they are not like the mainstream population of an area?" "Can you look at a person and tell if they are a terrorist or not?" "Is Islam given a fair representation in the media?" "Have you ever hear of a Sikh before today?" "Would you like to see a more in depth study of other cultures and religions other than what is offered in the textbooks you use?" "Is it right to attack people because they are or might be a part of a culture that is perceived as threatening, even though they personally did nothing wrong?"

The kids were very empathetic towards the older man at the beginning of the DVD. One girl wanted to know how anyone would want to hurt that "sweet old man." We talked about how in the ignorance of the attacker's minds they were attacking the "enemy" even though Mr. Khalsa was not even involved nor is he even a Moslem. He is just a sweet old man.

I told the kids that there are Sikhs in Oklahoma, and there is a Gurdwara in Oklahoma CIty. I told them that a few people know that I am Hindu, but I also am studying Sikhism, and that I also attend the Gurdwara in Oklahoma City along with my son and daughter. I told them that I did not share my personal life and religion with many people because I did not want any backlash from living in an area where there are not many Hindus, and no Hindu teachers. I would love to be able to feel free to wear tika on my forehead every day, but I save that for the Temple. I told them that I often wear a salwar-kameez to school, and though they see it as pretty clothes, to me it is much more. We talked about how our part of the country needs to lighten up about being able to learn about other religions. We can teach in depth about other faiths without the fear of conversion. I told them that I would be happy to share all I know about Hinduism and Sikhism, and that I would never try to convert anyone, because that is not what we do. (In direct opposition to the mainstream Protestant (Baptist mostly) religions here.)

It was a very mature discussion for a group of raucous 8th graders.

Thank you for DASTAAR, it is a wonderful teaching tool. Oklahoma City is waiting for you, if you ever get a chance to come down this way!


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

New Documentary about Sikhs and Sodhi killings screening at Lincoln Center

Independents Night: A Dream In Doubt
Thurs Feb 22: 6:30pm

Admission: $10, $7 for students, $6 FSLC & IFP members.

There will be a Q&A after the screening.

A joint program of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFP.

A Dream In Doubt
Tami Yeager, U.S., 2007; 57 min
Rana Singh Sodhi and his brothers escaped persecution in India to become successful gas station owners in Mesa, Arizona. In the volatile atmosphere in the United States after 9/11, their turbans and beards, expressions of their faith as Sikhs, are mistaken as identifying symbols. Balbir, Rana's oldest brother, becomes the first victim of a 9/11 revenge killing, gunned down at his station by a man who claimed to be rooting out terrorists. As the Sikh community continues to live as misunderstood Americans, Rana Sodhi attempts to educate Phoenix residents about hate crimes, act as a spokesman for his family and community, and guard his own school-aged children from the bullying and harassment they continually face. When tragedy strikes his family a second time, Rana Sodhi’s perceptions of America come into deep focus. He questions how much more his family can endure and how they will achieve the American dream when they look like the enemy.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Japji case study

So I've picked out a passage from Japji to compare the different translations I have at hand.

Note that in the original Gurbani, each couplet is a rhyming match, an essential poetic quality to the original that none of the following translations can replicate. This is why I am told that to truly appreciate the power of japji one must recite it in its original language. Whatever I gain from these translations is but a fraction of the poetic and philosophical depth of Japji. But let's see what I can dinf out.

3rd stanza (excerpt)

translated by Arvind Mandair and Christopher Shackle:

Some sing of His power, for they have the power,
Some sing of His bounty, for they know its signs.
Some sing of His virtues, greatness and acts,
Some sing of His knowledge, so hard to imagine.
Some sing of His making, the body, then dust.
Some sing of His taking, and giving back life.
Some sing that He seems and appears far away,
Some sing that He sees all, present and here.

Rajinder Singh Vidyarthi:

Many sing His might, who have a capacity to sing that?
Many recite His bounties taking them as His signs.
Many sing His excellence and the virtues,
Others, His knowledge so hard to conceive.
Many sing His power of creation and destruction,
That, 'He takes away life and recreates.'
Many sing 'He is near at hand' others think afar.
Many sing 'He beholds us and is ever Omnipresent.'

Gurbachan Singh:

Who has the strength to sing and appreciate Supreme power?
Who can know and sing the marking rewards of the Lord?
Who can sing the greatness and excellences of God?
Who can sing His wisdom and know the knowledge of the Lord
Who can sing that creations are created and vanished by Him?
Who can sing that life is taken away and again it is restored?
Who can sing that He seems to be far away?
Who can sing that He seems to be present just face to face?

Harbans Singh:

Who has the power to sing and define God's Power?
Who can sing and describe the boons (the marks of grace) of God?
Who can sing the virtues and excellences of God?
Who can sing and describe the most difficult knowledge of God?
Who can sing God, who forms the body, and then reduces it to dust?
Who can sing God, who takes away life and again infuses it?
Who can sing god, who seems to be far away?
Who can sing God, who sees all just face to face?

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh:

Filled with might, they sing praise of the Might,
Seeing the signs, they sing praise of the Bounty,
Perceiving the virtues, they sing praise of the Glory.
Some sing praise through high philosophy,
Some sing praise of the power that creates and destroys,
Some sing in awe of the giving and taking of life.
Some sing of the thereness, the utter transcendence,
Some sing of the hereness, the close watch over all.

- Note that two of the translations phrase each line as a question. Harbans Singh includes an annotation: "The above verses have also been translated by substituting "Some" for "who" and omitting signs of interrogation." I guess the original is phrased in such a way that can be taken as either a question or a statement. The questioning quality adds to a sense of wonderment at the human capacity or lack thereof to describe and praise God's glory sufficiently.
- In the original, each line begins with the word "Gavai" which is translated as either "some sing" or "who can sing?" Most of these translations mirror the repetitive, rhythmic quality of the start of each line throughout this passage.
- God's name and gender: note that the first four translations refer to "God" in the masculine, as it is written in the original. Neither Harbans or Nikky-Guninder ascribe a gender to the almighty being described. Furthermore, it's worth noting that only Gurbachan and Harbans use the word God to address that being described -- the others, especially Nikky-Guninder, refer to it or Him in a more abstract manner. The term "God" is problematic with mainline Sikhism because it implies a deistic faith, where Sikhism is not necessarily deistic -- "God" - commonly refered to Waheguru in Sikhism - is both being and non-being, nameable and nameless. It is this very approach to understanding metaphysical reality that gives Japji its poetic power.
- Line six -- note the nuances in interpreting this idea of God taking and giving life. The translations by Mandiar/Shackle, Gurbachan and Harbans could be read as implying God's power of resurrection. Vidyarthi is a bit more vague, while Nikky-Guninder avoids such a reading by reversing the sequence to read "giving and taking of life".
- In the last line, the use of the term "face to face" in two of the translations while no mention of faces is used in the rest, makes me wonder if there was an idiom employed in the translation -- does Waheguru have a face?

I don't think I will continue using all of these Japji as I work through the rest of the 38 stanzas - by comparing all of them at once I will gravitate towards some that strike me as either more accurate or precise in their translations or more philosophically moving or poetically expressed. Still, it's been fascinating comparing all of them and seeing just how varied the translations can be.

Japjis I have known

I've been trying to make a regular practice of reading and meditating on Japji this year. It's just a way of trying to make time daily to give myself space to think about Sikhi. It's amazing how much this seems easier said than done. It's also become a way for me to reflect on my own journey and bring together the pieces of experiences and resources that I've picked up along the way.

Piece #1: I first got exposed to Japji (without quite knowing what it was) 2 years ago, when I attended Prof. Arvind Mandair's Sikhism class in Hofstra. As part of the syllabus he included his own translations of Japji Sahib as well as many other sacred nitnem and verse from Guru Granth Sahib. I read through these translations on and off for over a year, not sure quite what to make of them and what they had to do with my project, but certain that they had some value that would eventually make itself known to me.

Piece #2: Meher, my inten from last summer, gave me her book of nitnem, as translated by a Rajinder Singh Vidyarthi, printed in Malaysia(!). It was her nitnem from when she was a kid - in fact it is covered in a Baby Gap suede book covering!

Piece #3: When visiting the Sikh community in Seattle last June to do filming for the Sikh Coalition, I spent an afternoon with Parminder Singh and his family. At the end of evening prayers, Parminder offered me a Nitnem from his own home, translation by Prof. Gurbachan Singh M.A., published by B. Chattar Singh Jiwan Singh in Bazar Mai Sewan, Amritsar Punjab.

Pieces #4, #5 and #6: While attending the Toronto Film Festival last September, I hung out with Kulvir Singh Gill and he took me to the Sacha Sauda Gurmat Prachar Society, the largest Sikh bookstore in North America. There we went on a bit of a shopping spree, and I walked out with armfuls of books and recordings - including three versions of Japji.

One in print, which I've seen rather often, is translated by Harbans Singh Doabia in Chandigarh.

The second version of Japji is on a 2-Disc CD - no info on the translator is provided, but it's distributed by an outfit called Kirat.

And finally - an English language translation titled "The Name of My Beloved" by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, religion professor at Colby College.

So there I have it - no less than six versions of Japji to choose from. What's interesting is that in having so many versions, I've become more sensitive to the meaning of the texts, trying to get a real sense of the nuances. I'll try to say more about this in another post.