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Supporting Sikh Arts

Last weekend I attended the Sikh Lens Sikh Art and Film Festival in Hollywood. I have attended film festivals all over North America and strongly believe in their need and presence in our community. Many times, however, the events get overshadowed by the glitz and glamour the red carpet, the photographers, the eccentric outfits I was therefore grateful that my experience at the Sikh Arts and Film Festival was a fulfilling one I left knowing that Sikh Arts and Films bring value to our community and need to be supported. In addition, I felt the organizers made a special effort to keep the event focused on the directors, artists, musicians, actors, authors and organizations who were present. They recognized the fact that we are all in this together. Sikh Arts and Films are only beginning to be acknowledged, there is so much potential and growth that will still occur. However, this isnt going to magically happen overnight, and it most definitely wont happen without the communitys support.

golden_temple.jpgI was recently told that Sikhs in the UK spend 7 times more on license plates than they do on books (yes, 7 times!). While Im not sure of the statistic in the US, the point is clear perhaps were not investing in the right places? I think as a community we have begun to establish the need to support non-profit organizations that are working to address human rights, legal, education and activism issues (although we still have a long way to go to enhance our support). However, what goes hand in hand with this is the support and advancement of Sikh Art and Media. Without a doubt, events such as Sikh Lens are helping to pave the path however, we as a community need to ask ourselves why we are so hesitant to spend money on independent films, childrens books, on historical references and on paintings. When I think about other immigrant communities, I notice that their advancement as a community comes from their support of one another. Whether we like to admit it or not, our community is extremely frugal and competitive with each other, and unless we start to move away from those stereotypes we will not be creating a better world for our children.


Nov. 21: Women in 1984 (SF) & Lahir(NY)

Two great events are happening this Saturday: in San Francisco- “Women in 1984”; in New York- Lahir.

If you’re anywhere near either of these 2 cities, you better be there, or you’ll regret missing out!

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Dr. Cynthia Mahmood (Fighting for Faith and Nation), Navkiran Kaur Khalra (daughter of Jaswant Singh Khalra), and Jasmine Kaur Marwaha (Ensaaf) will share their narratives and links to the struggle of the post 1984-period.
Dr. Cynthia Mahmoods work deals directly with the issue of militancy and she will discuss the violence in Punjab from the macro lens of India as a democracy.
Navkiran Kaur Khalra will speak of her own experiences as the daughter of S. Jaswant Singh Khalra and the heritage of his vision. The Khalra familys narratives is inherently linked to the states backlash against movements desiring human rights and autonomy.
Jasmine Kaur Marwaha, human rights lawyer for Ensaaf, will be discussing the the right to reparations for victims of the November 1984 pogroms, as well as victims of the Punjab counterinsurgency, from a gendered perspective.
Saturday, November 21st, 2009 | 124pm | 166 Barrows Hall (UC Berkley)


Sikhs remember 1984 this November

In keeping with a spirit of Remembrance and quest for Justice as the 25th anniversary of the Nov. 3, 1984 pogrom in Delhi nears, don’t miss out on these East Coast events! Many events have been held nationwide this past year- educating and inspiring young generations of Sikhs. We are getting better acquainted with our history, connecting with the Sikh spirit of activism, and becoming inspired to be agents of change.

One event that has been a particular pathbreaker has been Lahir. [1, 2] Not only has it created an avenue for artists to express themselves, it has done so around an event in our community’s history that is a catalyst for many, and thus become a catalyst itself. If you missed it in DC, don’t miss it in NY!

Lahir-NY: Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009

From the artists who brought you the original Lahir, together with additional national and local talent, get ready for Lahir – New York… [details below the fold]

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Punjabi Lok Saaz

I came across this video from a cultural event in Northern California. It features Ustad Lal Singh Ji Bhatti, among others,live on stage performing Boliyan and Tappe in his famous voice. You get to hear (and see) many folk instruments including the Sarangi, Tumbi, Algozey, Dhad, Chimta, Dhol, etc. We sometimes loose some of theseinstrumentsto the bass and background noise in todays remix culture…its nice to hear them center stage. Enjoy the videos after the fold.


For Many, Being a Sikh Means Being an Activist

mosaic04d7a7b2ed2428b58c207456836565d64dfed88b.jpgWhile everyone seems to be pretty excited about Kamaljit topping the Billboard charts – it seems that Jay Sean is not the only musician from our community who is gaining a ton of attention lately. In the October/November 2009 issue of East West magazine, an article by Navdeep Singh Dhillon titled, “The Brown Underground” discusses the five new names in hip-hop worth knowing. While on TLH we have featured these names in previous posts and are fans of their work – we wanted to highlight this new article as it provides a very intimate look at these artists. Musicians, rappers, emcees or whatever you may call them – they, at the end of the day, are regular guys (believe me, they are). They work, they go to school, they feel strongly about adversities that are going on all over the world. Unlike many, however, they are using their talent to channel that emotion into creativity and into their music. We definitely like what we’re hearing and whether they know it or not, these artists are paving a path for generations to come.

The article highlights the work of Canadian-based Humble the Poet and Sikh Knowledge, D.C.-based Saint Soulja of G.N.E., Hoodini from Los Angeles and Mandeep Sethi from San Francisco. You can read about their quest into this industry and how being a Sikh plays a role (or does not) in their music. What’s clear about these artists is that while they are Sikh, they don’t necessarily only rap about Sikh issues or only about issues affecting our community and that’s what makes them stand out in my mind. Injustice to any group is an injustice to humanity and as Sikhs, that is something we should resist. We can rest assured that these artists are having that dialogue.


Sikhs in the Spotlight

This past week I came across two videos that are just… cool. The videos are not necessarily Sikhi-related but they show everyday Sikhs in their element. This first video was taken at a U2 concert where a lucky fan [Amp Bains] was invited onstage to sing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” with Bono. So lucky.

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In this second video Shakira performs her new song Gypsy. One of her musicians in this video is Shamsher Singh, a Sikh from Florida (hat tip: Sikh Swim). The video can be viewed here.

Is RDB really the best we have to offer?

In many ways, the Punjabi-Sikh art scene is expanding exponentially these days. Just 10 years ago, beyond major, mainstream singers, I don’t think there was an arts scene, except maybe in people’s homes. Today, there are film festivals in most major cities like Spinning Wheel and the upcoming Sikh Heritage Film Fest in NY, art exhibits in museums such as the recent exhibit at NY’s Rubin Museum and current exhibit at the London’s Victoria and Albert, and even spoken word shows like When Lions Roar and Lahir. There are independent artists writing thoughtful lyrics, creating original beats, and giving some of our community’s concerns a voice. One of my favorites from this summer is Humble the Poet’s “Singh with Me” featuring Sikh Knowledge.

Yet, while the number and modes of art and artists grows in our community, many mainstream musicians are following RDB.jpgmainstream trends… videos featuring flashy cars rented for the shot, women as props, all at some party. Maybe they’re catering to what they think the audience wants, but the audience is clamoring for what they see as glamorous… which is manufactured to cater to the whims of the audience. This degenerative, downward spiral has led to recent hits such as RDB’s “Om Mangalam.” (See end of post.)

RDB is clearly identifiable as Punjabi-Sikh (let’s not talk about who’s a good or bad Sikh- that’s boring), wearing the now fashionable Palestinian support scarf, and singing Om Mangalam in this video on the homepage of their official site. This is definitely a case of trying to do too much and doing it all badly. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being Punjabi, singing Hindi music (while wearing a Palestinian support scarf), in a video with meaningless lyrics. It’s just not art. Some might call it entertainment, though I’d call it a train wreck.



1118351.gifYears ago, I watched this beautiful documentary called Amandla (Xhosa word for power)

It chronicles the struggle of the Black South Africans when the apartheid government came to power in 1948. It also covers the decades of increasing violence and repression, then finally “victory” in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became South Africas first democratically chosen president.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Black South African movement against apartheid and have read, listened, and watched much about it. What was so unique about this film was it focused on the music of the movement, and how the power of song was used to communicate, motivate, console, unite and, ultimately, beget change.

I really connected with this film as it made me think about Shabad Keertan and in particular – Vaars, and how it may have been used to motivate and inspire the Khalsa during battle. I would strongly recommend this documentary for a film discussion at any Gurmat camp or retreat. If anyone has seen it, I would love to hear your review!

Lahir 2009: The Movement Has Only Begun

Lahir_2_HS.jpgThis past Saturday night, twenty artists from all over the country took to the mic in front of a packed and energetic crowd at the University of Maryland for Lahir 2009. It was a powerful evening of remembrance and reflection to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1984 Sikh Holocaust, organized by the DC Sikh Youth.

It was amazing to see teenagers, college students, young professionals, and even a few parents take to the stage and share their thoughts and reflections about 1984, human rights, and justice. Not only did the performers span across generations, but the performances themselves ranged in art form from musical pieces, poetry, and spoken word.

For me, it was fascinating to see how different each of the performers connected with 1984 – early in the show one artist eloquently recited an excerpt from Sirdar Kapur Singh’s 1966 speech to parliament, another tied environmental issues and water rights to 1984, while others shared personal accounts, poetry, dharmik geets, and dhadi vaaran. Regardless of how different each artist connected to 1984…the connection itself was strong…and watching that unfold on stage was absolutely breathtaking!

The evening concluded with G.N.E performing some of their recent tracks in front of their hometown audience. Seeing uncles and aunties “waving from side to side” was definitely a sight to remember.


Moving The Movement…Lahir 2009

TLH_Lahir.jpgNever doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
(Margaret Mead)

Last Summer, a small group of thoughtful, committedSikh youth from the DC Metropolitan area came together to form “Lahir” (movement) – a conference organized and run by high school and college students to promote human rights awareness. There were three themes to the event. Educate, Inspire, and Act. The “Educate” segment consisted of a series of short presentations outlining the history of post-1984 human rights violations in Punjab, based on published documentation from Ensaaf. These presentations interspersed with videos of the victim’s families told the story of grave violations that occurred between 1984-1995 during the counter-insurgency movement – including torture, disappearances, and illegal cremations. The “Inspire” segment consisted of poetry, spoken word, and musical performances along the same theme. In the final portion, titled “Act”, participants broke out in to discussion groups and brainstormed ideas on how the Punjab case can be raised to a mainstream audience and reviewing what other communities have done to highlight their cause. Overall, the conference was a resounding success and launched several new initiatives.

This Summer, the Lahir team has re-assembled and Sikh youth activists and artists from all over the country will again descend upon the Nation’s Capital for Lahir 2009! This year’s format is an all-out ‘Open Mic’ with musical performances, displayed art, poetry, and spoken word. Trailers have been circulating around the internet, providing a glimpse of what to expect.


When Lions Roar: The Kids Are Going To Be Alright


It is often said that a revolution begins not with the sword but with the pen. However, last Friday night in a packed banquet hall in the Toronto suburb of Malton, I witnessed a revolution begin with the microphone.

At an event entitled “When Lions Roar”, fantastically organized by the Sikh Activist Network, one young artist after another got on to the mike and paid homage to the lives destroyed in 1984. I was blown away by the talent and passion displayed by the performers. Through the art of spoken word, music, and action, each of the 26 acts put a different face on the impact of June 1984. They were all unique in their perspective, but all shared one common thread: 1984 is just too important to forget.

Over 1000 people gathered to attend the 4+ hour event. They covered the entire spectrum of Sikh life. This was not your typical retreat and kirtan crowd. In fact, the diversity of performers and audience has challenged me to rethink my stereotypes about who cares about 1984 and the future of the Sikh panth. Individuals that I would have never suspected of having even a passing interest in Sikhi or the Sikh community, would come up to the mike and speak with such energy, insight and emotion. They often reduced me to tears. And most amazing was the fact that almost all of them weren’t even alive in June 1984.

For a thirty-something guy like me who has always considered myself part of the “youth”, it was indeed a little bit humbling to realize that, while I’d probably still be the youngest guy at a Youth Akali Dal meeting, I’m now probably a generation or two above the youngest Sikh leaders. Which means me and my fellow Generation X-ers need to spend less time trying to do it all ourselves, and more time using our resources to enable the next wave of younger Sikhs to establish their own voice and institutions. We were the first generation coming through the diaspora, with little support from our elders. However, we can make it easier on our younger brothers and sisters. We can provide them seed funding to start their dreams, connect them those that can help them along the path, and help coach them through their challenges.

As you’ll see from the videos and photos, the next generation has indeed stepped up, their language of change is hip-hop and I think they’re gonna be alright.

Click through for videos and pictures.


Sikhi by fear, guilt or love?

He locked the washroom door, unravelled the nine-metre turban, took a pair of scissors and started cutting. Ten minutes later, three feet of hair lay in a pile and Charanbir Singh sat down and cried.

Outside, his parents and grandmother were in tears. Two friends persuaded him to come out, but Charanbir, his head wrapped in a towel, rushed to his room.

That was a year ago. Charanbir, now 17, still shudders at the memory. “I had to cut my hair.”(Link)

One of ironies of life in the 21st century western world is that despite an unparalleled degree of freedom of religion, the majority of people seem to be opting for freedom from religion.

Last week, Raveena Aulakh, a reporter from the Toronto Star, put a Canadian twist on the worldwide issue of apostasy amongst Sikh Youth.

Sikhism dates back to 15th-century India. Adherents are required to not cut their hair, considered a visible testament to their connection with their creator. The turban was adopted to manage long hair and make Sikhs easily identifiable.

For many young men in Greater Toronto, that is the problem: They don’t want to stand out.

Like other new or second-generation immigrants, many Sikh youngsters are desperate to fit in with the school crowd, while others complain of racism because they wear the turban. Add to that cultural influences, peer pressure and the desire to assimilate.

The end result? Many youngsters cut their hair, leading to family friction and, in some cases, lasting estrangement.

As a counterpoint, in the article and video above, Pardeep Singh Nagra (of boxing fame) presents his thoughts on why hes decided to keep his hair.

Fear & Guilt

Ive often wondered why so many Sikh youth keep their hair through high school but cut it as soon as they feel free from their parent’s control? From my perspective I see this as symptomatic of a great challenge facing Sikhs around the world today. Somehow, someway, we have fallen into the trap of pushing Sikhi to the next generation with fear and guilt, rather than sharing Sikhi through love.

Take your typical Sikh family; actually take mine. My now 25 year old cousin in Punjab had wanted to cut his hair since he was a teenager but two things stopped him. He was afraid that if he cut his hair his dad would beat him and then disown him. Secondly, he knew that if he did get a haircut and shave he wouldnt be able to look his crying mom in the eye.

Unfortunately, there was little positive reinforcement around Sikhi in his life. Sure there was Sikhi by osmosis: visiting Gurdwaras, gurbani playing in the background, the odd sakhi told by our visiting grandfather. However, my cousin had little exposure to the aspects of Sikhi (nitnem, kirtan, seva, simran) that would have connected him with his faith on a deeper level. Most of the discussions with his parents were a flavour of the famous Goodness Gracious Me clip. So not surprisingly, upon entering college, he too cut his hair. And sure enough, he became our family’s black sheep, making a kid with already low self-esteem, feel even worse.


Lose you turban and I’m outta here

The crisis of Sikh identity was once described to me in very simple terms; most Sikh males no longer want to look like Sardars and most Sikh girls don’t want to marry Sardars. In fact, I distinctly remember several Sikh guys that I went to school cutting their hair for the simple reason of “getting girls”.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen efforts on many fronts to confront this trend, including beauty pageants (Mr. Singh International), Sikh models (Sunny Singh Caberwal of Kenneth Cole and now GQ fame). Now, in a twist on the standard Sikh dharmak or religious song, Taranmpreet has released a track called “Teri Meri Bas: Sat Sri Akal”.

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Sikhs Sing National Anthems at Raptors Vaisakhi Game

Its been a good year so far for Sikhs and Canadian sports. First, we’ve had NHL regular season and playoff games broadcast in Punjabi. We’ve also the first NBA game broadcast in Punjabi. And this year, at the annual Vaisakhi game for the Toronto Raptors, four good looking Sardars sang the Canadian and American national anthems. Performing on drums is Jiwanjot Singh Gill, on dilruba Harman Singh, on dhol is “Tabla Guy“, Gurpreet Singh Chana, and on vocals and harmonium, Dr. Onkar Singh.

Feeling What We Remember

As we remember 1984 through concerts and acts of rebellion, let’s not forget the visceral spirit displayed by Singhs IN that time period.

Watch below the original version of a Punjabi kavita sung by Bhai Gursharan Singh during those turbulent times in Manji Sahib Hall located in the Darbar Sahib complex . This kavita captures the mood and spirit of those days. Tigerstyle later used it in one of their Shaheedi CDs to REMEMBER that spirit.

Intellectually, we can try to REMEMBER those days; but this kavita actually makes us FEEL how it was to live through that time.

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Move The Movement

2611_1158837971055_1230931860_31352873_6839774_n-230x300.jpgI know this concert has already been discussed, but the event had been postponed to this coming Friday…and with all the local buzz…it got me thinking about how we remember 1984.

The Sikh Student Association here at the University of Maryland, in conjunction with other student groups, is sponsoring a free concert on April 3rd, 2009 to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1984 Sikh genocide. In a previous post Truth To Power – in reference to the recent Ensaaf report, I had stated:

We must read such reports and present them … anywhere and everywhere … to anyone who will listen: our gurdwaras, our local Amnesty International chapters, student groups, talk radio, public television, newspaper op-eds, etc. We must also create awareness of these findings in whatever format we can – through music, art, theatre and poetry.

I was impressed to see the SSA acting on this principle.

The featured performer for the concert is Immortal Technique, an up-and-coming rapper who attracts a large and diverse audience, especially amongst college students. His intense style, controversial lyrics, and willingness to approach political subjects, such as the mid-east conflict, have made him a fan favorite amongst the politically aware.

It is refreshing to see students think “out-of-the-box” in remembering 1984, by attracting a mainstream artist and joining forces with other student activist groups under the tagline “Move the Movement.” The SSA plans to distribute background material on the 1984 atrocities and subsequent human rights violations, as well as feature short video clips and interviews with victims in between acts.


Gurmat Gian Group: An All Sikh Womens Gurmat Sangeet Group

Recently we have discussed gurmat sangeet (i.e. classical keertan) on TLH. This past week, I came across an all Sikh womens gurmat sangeet group from Punjab. Their voices are absolutely beautiful! The emotion that raags convey that words alone cannot express is actually felt in these womens performances. You can visit the Gurmat Gian Group blog here. They also have a youtube channel here.

Here is their performance of the shabad, Sur Nar Mun Jan Amrit Khojday”.

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My favorite Sikh bureaucrat

Harpal Singh Kapoor, Director of Miami-Dade Transit, must be the coolest bureacrat in all of Florida. At a recent office party he not only showed off some mad bhangra skills, he taught his non-Punjabi colleagues some skills too, to the beat of a live dhol.

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I know there are some purists in the audience who think that bhangra might not be a good way to promote relations with Sikhs because it’s Punjabi culture, not Sikh, etc. … but I disagree.

Music and dance are a universal language. Kapoor probably already knows his office staff, and so he’s not a stranger to them,but unless they do bhangra in the office, they probably don’t get a chance to connect acrossthe conference table like you canin response to the beat of adhol. Connecting on that most basic human level, in response to music, reminds people that underneath our exteriors we’re all the same. And if they DO do bhangra in the office, then I’m moving to Florida to join their staff.

The Rise of Gurmat Sangeet

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As I was randomly going through youtube clips a few days ago, I came across the above video of a group of Sikh children in Fremont, who learn kirtan in classical raags. Despite the poor audio, its obvious that they are good and I know this also from having heard them (and some of their contemporaries) in person they are GOOD.

A couple of weeks ago Jodha reported on an article that brought to light the fact that Sikh children are practicing the tradition of kirtan, but what I think we didnt discuss there is how this generation of Sikh musicians has really become one of classical musicians, learning stringed instruments of old and performing keertan in the Classical or raag framework. The growth has been obvious, especially in recent years with the rise of institutions such as the The Raj Academyin Great Britain and the Gurmat Sangeet Department at Punjabi University Patiala, which specialize in providing instruction in traditional (classical) kirtan, and even the Miri Piri Academy in Amritsar of which the Chardi Kala Jatha (classically trained professional Sikh musicians who happen to be American in nationality) is a product.


Where Do We Go From Here

The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)is a group working to present stories that convey the “richness and diversity of Asian American experiences” to the broadcast audience. They do this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media. One example is this video directed for Mandeep Sethi, a bay area MC.As hesays, Where do we go from here, I thought my people would be proud of their heritage and instead they want to bury it.

Also presented by the Center, is the upcoming 27th Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco. For those of you in the area, here are some of the films you might want to catch.


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