Reflections on Sikholars Sikh Graduate Student Conference: Day 1

(photo: Twitter user @ksalag)

(photo: Twitter user @ksalag)

This past weekend, I attended the third annual Sikholars Sikh Graduate Student Conference at California State University East Bay, held by Jakara Movement, the CSU East Bay Ethnic Studies Department and the Sabharwal Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at CSU East Bay.  I had also attended the previous conferences in 2010 and 2011.  I’ve enjoyed all three of these meetings of the mind immensely, and I believe the 2012 iteration was a raising of the bar in the discourse it brought forth about our community and faith group.

The blog The Langar Hall provides a recap of the conference, and the papers that were presented this year are available for a limited time on the Sikholars website.  Below, I will discuss some of my own reflections of the presentations and panels as a member of the audience.

Let me first congratulate the conference organizers and presenters on a successful and engaging weekend.  By design or not, it seemed like there was a somewhat different focus in this year’s meeting as compared to previous ones; the presentations were much more about looking at our current situations through different lenses – be it those of the past, or from different angles within our community.  These perspectives challenged my traditional thought and thus provided an education for me even of things that I thought I already knew.

The memories of previous generations

The first panel was comprised of two presentations that looked at life from the eyes and minds of those from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations:  Bandana Kaur presented a survey of the biodiversity of Punjab before the Green Revolution of the 1960s (when native crops became supplanted by cash crops and more modern techniques).  Much of this history came from an under-appreciated source: her interviews with women who, pre-Green Revolution, had active and direct roles in Punjab’s agriculture, and whose memories and knowledge of historic farming practices could be a precious key to restoring the region’s struggling biodiversity.

The second presentation was an overview of The 1947 Partition Archive, by Guneeta Kaur Bhalla. A scientist by training, she described her personal motivation behind this project to document and record the fading memory of this most tragic event in Punjabi and Indian history.  There is an ever-decreasing number of survivors of the Partition of India in 1947, and her efforts to reach out and record the stories of those who actually lived through it preserves for posterity what life was like before and during Partition – a very different world than what we have lived since. The 1947 Partition Archive project brings together communities and generations who are connected to a common and forgotten past.

Definitions and rights of Sikhs and minorities in flux

Jasmine Kaur’s presentation on the racialization process  shed light on how we have historically defined ourselves within (and how we have been defined by) American society. Over time, Sikhs have attempted to categorize themselves by what they are not – coloured, Hindu, Muslim – in order to secure or protect our rights. Sikhs are not unique in this, but it hasn’t always served us well.  We have historically attempted to escape discrimination not by fighting that process, but by attempting to deflect the discrimination away from us by dissociating our community from the targets of discrimination.

Kiran Preet Kaur discussed how Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act has come to facilitate employment discrimination rather than to combat it.  Employment discrimination cases are often rooted in the demand that an individual must conform to what are considered  “societal norms”, which themselves are rooted in a normalization of supremacy of the dominant religious/racial group.  However, legal precedents based on Title VII  have set the threshold very low for an employer to claim that accommodating religious practices or articles of faith (such as the Sikh turban or uncut hair) would cause them too much burden.  Accordingly, Title VII has only undermined the freedom of discrimination that it sought to defend.

The science of music – prospective and retrospective 

Musician Neelamjit Dhillon presented musical pieces that took the form of an audio-visual experience.  He demonstrated his experimentation with open source software that allowed an artist to associate imagery with musical notes and rhythms, thereby adding a visual quality to the auditory experience.  Such visualization allowed the audience to appreciate sound and music in a whole new way.  One wonders what the experience of Gurbani (hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh holy book) would be if we could “see” a visual interpretation as presented by the performer alongside the vocal and instrumental.

A discourse on partaal, which, as an instruction incorporated into Gurbani, was offered by Harpreet Neelam as she demonstrated how its use provides a more sophisticated experience to a shabad (hymn).  While shabads are often performed with a constant rhythm throughout, partaal instructs that certain lines within a shabad be sung with a different rhythm, providing a very different emphasis and creating a whole other emotive experience. Partaal thereby connects us more authentically to the meanings and feelings behind the hymns as intended by the Sikh Gurus.

Harpreet’s powerful performance (accompanied on tabla by Neelamjit) of the shabad Mohan Neend Na Aavaey Haaveh was a moving demonstration of partaal:

The science of technology and music, and the science of Gurbani discussed in this academic environment was a reminder that art is in the heart of Sikhi.

Viewing of “Roots of Love” – a short film by Harjant Gill

The first day of the two day conference closed with a viewing of “Roots of Love“, a short film directed by Harjant Gill:

Told through the stories of six different men ranging in age from fourteen to eighty-six, Roots of Love documents the changing significance of hair and the turban among Sikhs in India. We see younger Sikh men abandoning their hair and turban to follow the current fashion trends, while the older generation struggles to retain the visible symbols of their religious identity. The film is a timely and relevant exploration of the inherent conflict between tradition and modernity, between pragmatism and faith. The choice of cutting one’s hair is one that not only concerns the individual and his family, but an entire community.

The movie explored the acceptance, insistence, promulgation and rejection of facets of the Sikh identity – uncut hair and the turban – and the impact of this on individuals, families and the community.  Watching the movie was a very emotional experience for me, as it was for many other members of the audience, who are so invested in the Sikh identity.

The movie was specific to the story it presented, and in my mind, before we can make generalizations, we also need to see many other perspectives and voices that were not included.  However, this movie was clearly not an attempt to represent every voice, but to begin and explore the conversation.  The impact that this movie had on the audience was a clear indication of the power of video and film-making, and it made me contemplate the potential of this medium in benefit of our community, and by extension the importance of the arts (yet again) to the Sikh community that does not often promote this as a career among its children.

The conference officially concluded for the day after the movie, and many of the attendees reconvened at a local Indian restaurant (where my somewhat anonymous identity was severely exposed) and then enjoyed a night of bowling and networking.  It was especially great to meet fellow Sikh bloggers (shoutout to Kaurista!) and Sikh tweeters.

In a subsequent post, I’ll write about Sikholars, Day 2.


  1. A_Singh

    Hey Veerji,

    The Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at CSU East Bay…who is the main Professor there? Is it Professor Gurinder Singh Mann of University of Santa Barbara? Please let me know if you have any information as it is important for me.


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