Saturday, August 14, 2004


An academic carnival
Roopinder Singh finds out what brings these foreigners to Chandigarh

  • Kristina Myrvold is back again. She has been researching on Sikhs in Varanasi and on Punjabi marriage practices.

  • Gibb Schreffler has been back for the third time, he plays the dhol and soon plans to teach others and make them dance to his beat.

  • Margherita Zorzetto, a human rights' activist from Venice, Italy, is learning about Punjab and its culture.

  • Anna Bigelow was in Chandigarh recently. She is continuing research on the shared sacred spaces in Malerkotla.

    Daisy Rodriguez plays the iktara while Gibb Schreffler strikes the beat on the dhol as others in the background join in. From left: Rahuldeep Singh Gill, Sukhmit Singh Kalsi, Vishal Bhalla, John Warneke, Chester Phillips, Margherita Zorzetto and Amrit Kaur Gill.
    Daisy Rodriguez plays the iktara while Gibb Schreffler strikes the beat on the dhol (foreground) as others in the background join in. From left: Rahuldeep Singh Gill, Sukhmit Singh Kalsi, Vishal Bhalla, John Warneke, Chester Phillips, Margherita Zorzetto and Amrit Kaur Gill. Photo by Manoj Mahajan

What has brought these foreign academics to Chandigarh is the Summer Programme in Punjab Studies guided by Prof Gurinder Singh Mann, Director of the recently created Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies and Kapany Professor of Sikh Studies at UC, Santa Barbara, the programme, in its eighth year, has attracted over 100 scholars from 44 universities in nine countries (Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Sweden, and the USA). Several of the scholars who attended the programme, like Bigelow, have now become faculty members in different universities, and many who hold teaching positions in various academic institutions have been enriched by their interaction in learning more about Punjab.

Flush with the success of seeing his dream of setting up a centre for Punjab studies at UC, Santa Barbara come true and holding the much-acclaimed "International Conference on Punjabi Culture" in May this year, the normally self-effacing Mann's satisfaction is not difficult not to see.

Mann says interest in Punjab studies is developing in the western world. "We do not have any system of advertising the Summer Programme, but young scholars find out about the programme and join it." He maintains that Chandigarh is the best place to have a programme like this. "The city is welcoming to foreigners. I am very grateful for the cooperation of local scholars, who have helped to make the programme such a success," he says.

Shinder Thandi, Professor of Economics at the Business School of Coventry University, UK, says: "It is a unique and all-encompassing programme on Punjab and its people. This is the only such programme in the world." Thandi immigrated to the UK in 1963, and is an authority on the Indian diaspora. He is, at present, working on a book on the relationship between the diaspora and homeland.

Prof Constance Elsberg, author of Graceful Women: Gender and Identity in an American Sikh Community, has been lecturing on the issues facing the Euro-American Sikhs in North America and was in Chandigarh to learn more about Punjab and its culture.

Rahuldeep Singh Gill, from the UCSB, is studying the vars of Bhai Gurdas to understand the evolution of the early Sikh community. He is also a bhangra dancer, having founded Shera Vargi Jaan team at the University of Rochester, NY. He helped others and brushed up his bhangra skills during the course as well as found time to tone up at Vertical Fitness and discover Mr Beans for coffee.

Kristina Myrvold, on the other hand, is a die-hard Barista fan, where she has charmed the young lads into brewing a special cuppa for her. She is repeating the programme, has spent time at the UCSB, and plans to offer a course in Sikhism at Lund University, Sweden, next year. This would be the first such course in Europe.

Lectures by major Punjabi academics, bhangra, musical performances, exposure to art and theatre and a hectic travel week that covered religious, cultural and academic centres in Punjab has had Chester Phillips, who studies Liberal Art at Harvard University, dubbing the programme an "academic carnival." He contributed to the general atmosphere by wearing an impeccably tied dhoti on most formal occasions, like the dinner at theatre personality Neelam Mann Singh's house. That day, Amrit Kaur Gill, a third-generation Indian in the US, looked great in her new salwar kameez, while Rana Ajrawat and Sukhmeet Singh Kalsi looked natty in western clothes. John Warneke was heard discussing the Nihangs, and Jenifer Heisler was fascinated by the museums of Punjab. Daisy Rodriguez grew up among the descendents of one of the earliest Sikh settlements in the US, El Centro.

Most of the participants of this six-week intensive course were newcomers; three repeated it. Many were foreigners, some children or grandchildren of immigrants from Punjab.

In the 20th century, the diaspora had left Punjab to go to other lands. Today, scholars from those countries, including their descendents, are visiting and studying Punjab through this unique programme.

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