The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 20, 2001

Throwing the spotlight on Sikh diaspora

The Second International Conference on Sikh Studies highlighted the similarities in early migratory experiences and provided new and interesting insights into comparative experiences of Sikh diaspora communities, says Shinder S. Thandi

THE Sikh community, now numbering around 20 million, is scsattered across the globe. However, despite the massive presence of Sikhs overseas for well over a century, no serious attempt has been made to trace their evolution and development outside Punjab and India. It was because of this gap in the historiography of overseas-based Sikhs that scholars based at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), decided to dedicate their Second International Conference on Sikh Studies, held from April 21-22, 2001, at the varsity to the theme of the Sikh diaspora.

The conference was organised by Prof Gurinder Singh Mann who holds the Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies at the UCSB. Professor Mann has been the driving force behind raising the profile of Sikh studies in North America over the past 10 years and has been instrumental in nurturing young scholars who, he hopes, will carry the beacon forward for the benefit of future generations. The funds for the conference came from the proceeds of the Kudan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies and the Program in Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.


The two-day conference was divided into two distinct themes. The first day focussed on the histories of the Sikh diaspora whereas the second looked at the cultural representations in the Sikh diaspora. Professor Mann, while welcoming delegates, reminded them to focus on a century of migration, the long period of suffering and struggles, but more importantly, on the achievements of the Sikh community.

The first morning session, chaired by Prof Ainslee T. Embree of Columbia University, started with a paper by the eminent historian of Sikh history, Prof J. S. Grewal. Professor Grewal explained the emergence of Sikh communities in different parts of ‘Mughal Punjab’ and other regions of India from about 1500 to 1850. The second paper was presented by Prof Indu Banga, an established historian based at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Her paper covered the crucial period of 1850 to 1950, during which there was large-scale movement of Sikhs outside Punjab. The morning session also included case studies of Sikh pioneers in Australia and New Zealand and a profile of the contemporary Sikh community in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. Gurdit Singh, a young doctoral scholar based in Sociology at UCSB, made a visual presentation on the well-being of the minority Sikh community in the NWFP.

The afternoon session, chaired by Professor John S. Hawley of Columbia University, included four papers on Europe and North America where an overwhelming majority of Sikhs reside.

The second day of the conference examined the cultural representations in the Sikh diaspora. The morning session, chaired by Prof Thomas R. Metcalf of the University of California, Berkeley, included five papers, which focused on aspects of education, art and music in the diaspora. The first paper was presented by Dr. Bhajan Singh, an educationist from Singapore. He explained the challenges of cultural transmission among the Thai and Singapore Sikh youth. The other speakers were Suzanne McMahon, South Asian Librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, Susan Stronge, Curator of South Asian Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the British born Sikh twin artists Amrita and Rabindra Kaur Singh and Gibb Schreffler, a doctoral student working on bhangra music in the Department of Music at the UCSB.

This final session, chaired by Professor Nirvikar Singh of the University of California, Santa Cruz, included three papers on Punjabi literature in the diaspora.

This conference was a rewarding and enriching experience. By focusing on histories of the diaspora on the first day and recalling the experiences of the diaspora in the second, the conference organisers had provided the audience with plenty of food for thought. The conference highlighted the commonalties in early migratory experiences and provided new and interesting insights into comparative experiences of Sikh diaspora communities. The conference demonstrated the strengths of the Sikh community to pull together in conditions of adversity, to excel in conditions where equal opportunities are guaranteed, to nurture and transmit cultural heritage against overwhelming pressures and to celebrate success with vigour and candour.

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