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The Sikh Project: Photos explore Diversity and Identity of Sikh Americans in US

The Sikh Project is a collection of photographs of turbaned Sikh Americans that was on display in New York City last week

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For Sapreet of the Sikh Coalition, the goal of the exhibition was "to spark that national conversation on behalf of all communities who are lesser known and misunderstood about what it means to be an American." Though the exhibition in Soho has closed, Amit and Naroop are working to compile a book of images from both the U.K. and the U.S. projects. VOA

In the photographs, they wear leather jackets, or superhero costumes, and hold their trumpets and helmets. They appear to be what they are: poets, musicians, bikers, soldiers — and all Sikh Americans.

The Sikh Project is a collection of photographs of turbaned Sikh Americans that was on display in New York City last week. It showed their interests are as diverse as their American community.

“At its core the project is about identity in general … and how identity never restricts you,” said Naroop Singh, half of the U.K. photography duo Amit and Naroop that took the photos.

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“Because Sikhs, whether they’re from the U.S. or the U.K., are thought of as a certain type of person — either they’re doctors, engineers, accountants. … But if you told somebody you could have a Sikh guy who’s tattooed and a kickboxer, they might not believe you,” Singh said.

Amit and Naroop, the London photographers of the Sikh Project, during their shoot with the famous actor and model Waris Ahluwalia. VOA
Amit and Naroop, the London photographers of the Sikh Project, during their shoot with the famous actor and model Waris Ahluwalia. VOA

Amit, 31, and Naroop, 35, have been working together for years, but began photographing members of their community in 2013.

In London, the photographers set out to photograph Sikhs with the goal of breaking stereotypes and showing “how cool” a Singh (male Sikh) can look. This look includes the turban, which Sikhs wear as a symbol of self-respect, courage and piety, and to show their love for and obedience to the wishes of the faith’s founders.

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Few step forward

At first, Amit and Naroop were hard-pressed to find sardars, or turbaned Sikh men, who would sit for them.

“They said, ‘Who would ever want to see photos of Singhs?’ They said, ‘Don’t waste your time, boys,’ ” Amit said. “We had to grab my grandad and say, ‘Dude, look, sit here. We’re gonna take a photo of you and show people how cool a Singh can look.’ “

The trend caught on. When Amit and Naroop started a Kickstarter campaign to fund their first exhibition, the impact was global.

“They put one of their first images online. I saw that and was blown away by their talent and their ability to see people in a different way,” said Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, a Sikh advocacy and community development organization in New York that works to promote civil rights for all people.

Though Amit and Naroop were born and raised in the U.K., Sapreet knew they were the perfect choice to tell the story of the American Sikh. And the photographers found just as much diversity and character.

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For the American project, women and children were also photographed expanding on the original idea. Though relatively few women of the Sikh faith wear a turban, or dastaar, it was important to the Sikh Coalition that those women be represented.

Amrita Khurana, a marketing specialist at The New York Times, poses for her portrait with the Sikh Project. VOA
Amrita Khurana, a marketing specialist at The New York Times, poses for her portrait with the Sikh Project. VOA

Amrita Khurana was one of the subjects they chose. She is the first and only sardani (turbaned Sikh woman) working for The New York Times. Amrita did not always wear a dastaar and struggled for years balancing her love for her religion with her love of hip-hop and clubbing.

Search for identity

“I was trying to find myself; I couldn’t figure out who I really was,” she said. “I came from a Sikh family, but my friends lived in the ghetto, and that’s where I felt comfortable. I was into hip-hop and rap; that was my scene. The Sikh background was only on Sundays.”

Though Amrita never lost her love for hip-hop, her devotion to her religion became stronger as she aged. And along with the worship came a fascination for Sikh identity — namely, the turban.

Amrita started wearing a dastaar only occasionally on the weekends, to temple. “One foot was in the club scene, one foot was in the dastaar scene,” she said about that period in her life.

Reactions within the Sikh community to women wearing the dastaar are often mixed. While some see it as the ultimate sign of devotion, some, including Amrita’s mother, believe that it should be worn only by men.

“My mom has a fit,” Amrita said. “She’s like, ‘What are you doing? This is not OK. This is not the norm. Nobody’s going to want to marry you!’ “

It took years, more fights with her mother, the guidance of her priest and discussions with her husband before Amrita committed to the dastaar full time. Unlike some Sikh men and teenagers, who often have the opposite fight with their parents, wanting to cut their hair to avoid questions and stares, Amrita struggled to break gender norms within her faith community.

The look of the dastaar was almost as important to her as what it meant religiously.

“I wanted to stand out,” she said. And as a turbaned woman who still sports her leather jacket on weekends, she absolutely does.

“I remember saying to her, ‘Should we try it without the leather jacket?’ And she said, ‘No,’ ” Naroop said with a laugh.

Living and working in New York, Amrita said she has faced few questions and next to no hostility about her look or her religion.

Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, answers a woman’s questions about the Sikh Project in New York City. (E. Sarai/VOA)
Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, answers a woman’s questions about the Sikh Project in New York City. (E. Sarai/VOA)

 

From genie to terrorist

Amit and Naroop noticed a difference in how Sikhs are treated and perceived in the U.S. versus in the U.K.

“One subject here told me, ‘Before 9/11, I used to walk down the road and someone would say, “Hey, look, there’s a genie,” ‘ and after 9/11 they said, ‘Hey, look, there’s a terrorist.’ THAT’s what people are going through,” Naroop said.

“And the horrible thing is that in the U.S., I find that people take it, accept it as a norm,” he said. “Like, I’m going to go out today and probably be verbally abused, and I’m not going to say anything back.”

While Amit and Naroop were shocked, Sikh Americans share this perception and have become numb to it in the past 15 years.

Sikhs, who are often confused with Muslims in the U.S., have been the targets of violence and hate crimes, particularly after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

In 2015, a year marked by the most divisive and hateful rhetoric during a presidential campaign in decades, 174 incidents of violence against Muslims and those perceived as Muslims were reported, according to a study by Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative, a multi-year research project focusing on Islamophobia.

Sikh Coalition volunteers speak with visitors as they look at portraits from the Sikh Project. (E. Sarai/VOA)
Sikh Coalition volunteers speak with visitors as they look at portraits from the Sikh Project. (E. Sarai/VOA)

For Sapreet of the Sikh Coalition, the goal of the exhibition was “to spark that national conversation on behalf of all communities who are lesser known and misunderstood about what it means to be an American.”

Though the exhibition in Soho has closed, Amit and Naroop are working to compile a book of images from both the U.K. and the U.S. projects. (VOA)

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Recent Trends among the Indian Diaspora and its Increasing Significance

As the Indian diaspora is increasingly organizing itself in the host countries by accumulating the resources, it may have potential impact on the economic, social and political landscape in India.

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Indian Diaspora
Indian Diaspora organizing community identity in the host country

The Indian diaspora is a generic term representing the people who migrated from the Indian territories to the other parts of the world. It includes the descendants of these groups. Today, over twenty million Indians which include Non-Resident Indians and People of Indian Origin are residing outside the Indian territory as Indian diaspora. According to a UN survey report of 2015, India’s diaspora population is the largest in the world. In 2005, Indians formed the world’s third-largest diaspora. The Indians who settled overseas in the 1960s for more developed countries such as US, UK, Canada, Australia and Western Europe formulate the category of the New Diaspora.

What are the popular host countries for the Indian Diaspora:

The 2010 estimates of Census data of US, UK and Canada suggest that Indian diaspora constitutes three million people in US, 1.5 million people in the United Kingdom and one million in Canada. Indians are the fourth largest immigrant group in the United States. Also, five million emigrants from India residing in the Gulf region at present.

The History of Indian Diaspora:

A brief overview of the history of Indian diaspora suggests that the first group of Indians immigrated to Eastern Europe in the 1st century AD from Rajasthan during the reign of Kanishka. Yet another evidence of migration was witnessed in 500 AD when a group immigrated to Southeast Asia as the Cholas extended their empire to Indonesia and Malaysia thereby spreading the Indian culture in these states. Thus the early evidence of the diaspora was found during ancient times. The medieval period witnessed the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism during the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. Mughals took Indians as traders, scholars, artists, musicians, and emissaries to the other parts of the country.

Old Diaspora:

The first wave of the Modern Indian Diaspora, also called the Old Diaspora, began in the early 19th century and continued until the end of the British rule. The Dutch and French colonizers followed the suit. Indians were sent in large numbers to become the bonded labourers for sugar and rubber plantation in their colonies.

Indians in Caribbean, Africa, and Asia:

By the end of World War 1, there were 1.5 million Indian laborers in the colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. At present, around 60% of Indian diaspora is constituted of this Old Diaspora.

Impact of Immigration policies on Migration from India:

After the Indian independence, a large number of unskilled and some skilled Punjabi male Sikhs migrated to the UK from India due to favorable immigration policies in the United Kingdom. Similarly, the 1990s onwards, due to software boom and its rising economy, H-1B was introduced in the US immigration policy that allowed the entry of highly skilled IT specialists, doctors, scientists and engineers in the US. Further, the 1970s witnessed oil boom in the Middle East that led to significant growth of Indian diaspora in the Gulf region.

While the low skilled and semi-skilled workers are moving to the Gulf region for better economic opportunities, highly skilled labor is moving from India to US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Has Indian Diaspora started impacting the economies and societies:

With the growing rate of international migration since the beginning of millennia, there is a significant impact of diaspora on the economies and societies of the world. In recent years, the diaspora is influencing the economic, political and cultural affairs in their homeland. It is so because the influence of the diaspora communities increases as they organize themselves and accumulate resources in their host countries for several years. The mobilized diaspora are now influencing the affairs of the homeland countries. A common form of exchange is the financial remittances provided to the relatives by the diaspora community. Overseas family networks of the political elites in India are shaping the political landscape as well. Culturally, the diaspora is influencing the music and literature trends in India as the content is consciously structured to cater to the tastes of the diaspora.

What actions have been taken by the government of India to tap the potential of Indian Diaspora:

The first Pravasi Bhartiya Divas was organized in 2003 by the Government of India to expand and reshape the state of India’s economy by the use of the potential human capital which the Indian diaspora reflects. Clearly, Indian diaspora has a larger role to play in the Indian economy over the coming years as the efforts to mobilize them increase in the homeland.

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Diwali Preparations Grow in US, from Disney to Times Square

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Diyas adorn every corner of the house on the celebration day of Diwali. pixabay

The holiday of Diwali in the US is starting to light up mainstream America. Diwali, a festival of lights celebrated by Indians all over the world, has long been observed in immigrant communities around the U.S.

But now public celebrations of the holiday are starting to pop up in places ranging from Disneyland and Times Square to parks and museums.

The Times Square event is the brainchild of Neeta Bhasin, who says that while many Indian immigrants have found great success in the U.S., “still people don’t know much about India. I felt it’s about time that we should take India to mainstream America and showcase India’s rich culture, heritage, arts and diversity to the world. And I couldn’t find a better place than the center of the universe: Times Square.”

Places in America where Diwali Celebrations will take place.

Bhasin, who came to the United States from India 40 years ago, is president of ASB Communications, the marketing firm behind Diwali at Times Square. The event, now in its fourth year, has drawn tens of thousands of people in the past. It’s scheduled for Oct. 7, from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m., with dance performances, Bollywood singers, a bazaar of food, saris and other goods, and a lighting ceremony.

While Diwali celebrations are held throughout the fall, the holiday’s actual date is Oct. 19. Also called Deepavali, it’s an autumn harvest festival held just before the Hindu new year. Celebrations include lighting oil lamp called diyas and candles to symbolize “a victory of knowledge over ignorance, light over darkness, good over evil,” said Bhasin.

The Diwali celebration at Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, California, includes performances of traditional Indian dances and a Bollywood dance party for guests. It’s part of a festival of holidays at the theme park reflecting cultural traditions from around the world. The Disney festival begins Nov. 10 and runs through Jan. 7.

San Antonio, Texas, has one of the nation’s largest city-sponsored celebrations of Diwali, drawing more than 15,000 people each year. The 2017 event, scheduled for Nov. 4 at La Villita, a historic arts village, will be its ninth annual Diwali celebration with Indian dance, entertainment, food, crafts, fireworks and the release of lighted candles into the San Antonio River along the city’s River Walk.

New York City’s Rubin Museum will mark Diwali with an overnight Ragas Live Festival featuring more than 50 Indian classical musicians performing amid the museum’s collection of sacred Himalayan art. The event begins Oct. 21 at 10 a.m. and continues all day and night through Oct. 22 at 10 a.m. Chai and mango lassis will be served, visitors will have access to all the galleries and pop-up events like meditation and sunrise prayer will be offered. Special tickets will be sold for the opportunity to sleep beneath the artwork.

Other places hosting Diwali celebrations include Cary, North Carolina, in Regency Park, Oct. 14; Flushing Town Hall, Queens, New York, Oct. 29; the Seattle Center, Oct. 21; the Dulles Expo center in Chantilly, Virginia, Oct. 7-8; and Memorial Park in Cupertino, California, Sept. 30. In Columbus, Ohio, the Ohio History Center is hosting a photo exhibit about the city’s fast-growing population of immigrants from Nepal, Bhutan and India, with a Diwali event Oct. 8.

Bhasin said Diwali’s message is particularly timely now. “It is extremely important to be together and showcase to the world, not only Indians, but the entire immigrant community, to be together with Americans and to show the world we are one, we are all the same human beings,” she said.(VOA)

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Build on Indian Diaspora to Bolster Relation: US Diplomat

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs President Donald Trump as Modi departs the White House, June 26, 2017. VOA

Kolkata, Sep 23, 2017: American diplomat Jeffrey Sexton on Friday batted for building on the Indian diaspora in the US to bolster relations, noting it is becoming more and more active in promoting cross cultural ties.

“The biggest connection that we have now is the size of the Indian diaspora in the US. All of the Indians who have connections with the US now… relatives, friends studying in the US and if we just keep building on this wonderful positive connection between the two countries, it adds such an important dimension to our relationship,” Sexton, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy in New Delhi, said on the sidelines of the inauguration of the Badamtola Ashar Sangha Durga puja and the Great Kolkata Autumn Heritage Festival.

Also Read: Indian Travellers Emerging as Key Market for America: Brand USA 

The pandal (marquee) represents a slice of America in Kolkata.

“The diaspora is becoming more and more active in the US in promoting these kind of connections (cross-cultural connections)… it is becoming more politically involved in the US… you see many of our politicians … United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley… the high profile just highlights once again the diversity of the US as a country and its connections to South Asia and India…,” Sexton told IANS.

The U.S. Embassy and consulates in India are celebrating the US-India Cultural Connections and #USIndiaDosti this month through several engagements.

(IANS)