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Electrifying Sikh debut at the Smithsonian

Last updated on: September 8, 2010 21:50 IST

Electrifying Sikh debut at the Smithsonian



For the first time in 44 years, Washington's Sikh community participated in various activities of Smithsonian's annual Folk-life Festival history last month in the National Mall.

The Smithsonian Institution conducts the Folk-life Festival every year. But this year, the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, a gurdwara based in Rockville, Maryland, led the Sikh participation at the festival, displaying their heritage, identity, tradition, and culture as part of the presentations on Asian Pacific Americans.

On the opening evening, Sikh women from the DC area presented an electrifying giddha performance. They had practiced for months under the leadership of Aman Kaur, thanks to Balvinder Kaur and Suchinder Kang opening their homes to the dancers for weekly practice sessions.

The opening night concert featured the high energy song and dance in the form of bhangra and giddha and over 60 participants, including adults and youth, swayed to the sound of the dhol (large drums) and Bollywood and traditional Punjabi music.

The teams representing the Sikh community were from DCM Punjabi Arts Academy, DC Bhangra Crew, Rhythm of Punjab, and PunjabiNation Bhangra. An enthusiastic crowd of visitors, including several tourists visiting DC, joined on the dance floor to beat of Punjabi music.

Scores of visitors thronged to the Asian and Pacific American tent, where Sikh activities included gurbani kirtan (religious hymn singing), turban tying, henna tattoos, trying on Punjabi clothes, and having visitors get their names written in Gurmukhi  (Punjabi language) calligraphy, teaching Gurmukhi, and lessons in Punjabi cooking.

At the family activities tent, several turbaned Sikh youth men and women tirelessly wrapped turbans and helped people try Punjabi clothing.

Ravi Singh, coordinator of the Sikh participation, said: "The gregarious Sikhs, the bright colored clothing, the sweet melody of kirtan, visitors waiting to learn Gurmukhi calligraphy, henna tattoos, turban tying made the Sikhs the buzz word in the family activities tent. Over 150 Sikhs left no leaf unturned on the road to friendship towards their fellow Americans."

The Sikh Kirtani Jatha of GGSF, led by Bhai Gurdarshan Singh, sang hymns based on Basant Raag and semi-classical styles. Tabla maestro Sucha Singh's group was accompanied by Ravi Singh on the sitar and Navjeet Kaur on the violin.
Gagan Kaur, another one of the organizers said, "The audience thoroughly enjoyed the kirtan in their own personal way.

Some people kept nodding their heads, others closed their eyes and yet many others were rejoicing by waving their arms in the air. Everyone joined in the Wahe Guru chant when Bhai Gurdarshan Singh explained its meaning, the words of Gurbani accompanied by the sound of sitar, violin, harmonium and tabla, created a serene atmosphere in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the world's capital. It was a wonderful experience to share our Guru's baani (voice) with the rest of the world."

Text: Aziz Haniffa

Image: Electrifying Sikh debut at the Smithsonian
Photographs: Americans dance to the bhangra

Electrifying Sikh debut at the Smithsonian

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Dr Harminder Kaur Mangat, co-coordinator of the Sikh participation, said, "The Smithsonian staff and the organizers of the festival came many times to tell us how happy they were over how we had engaged all the visitors to the National Mall. The feeling was so mutual and so good that neither we nor our visitors felt any kind of strangeness or strain because of the work or waiting."

Arlene Reiniger, program coordinator, APA programme, 2010 Smithsonian Folk-life Festival, said, "The evening concert was so upbeat and exuberant, I thought that it gave a great sense of anticipation for everything to come, and was a terrific way to end the first day of the Festival."

Phil Nash, PTN curator of the APA program, 2010 Smithsonian Folk-life Festival, said, "The Sikh American community had a major influence on the 2010 Smithsonian Folk-life Festival. The opening night bhangra and giddha concert set the stage for a high-energy, uplifting festival that was rooted in tradition but blessed with youthful vigor and optimism. On a personal level, one of my favorite activities of the entire festival was the turban wrapping.

The head covering that had been demonized after 9/11 suddenly became a much-desired object of male adornment, and it was fun to see red-haired, blue-eyed teens strutting around the mall, showing off to their friends about their cool new look. I hope that this lesson stays with them as we continue to navigate the seas of cultural difference in the years ahead."

Preet Amrit Kaur, team leader of Henna Calligraphy, was busy for over eight hours non-stop with her team, due to long lines of all ages wanting to have henna decorate their hands.

She said, "I think such programs are what are needed in the world, especially in a country like America, where people of many backgrounds come together and meet each other in every day lives. Not only does it give an overview of our country but it also helps to dispel any misgivings about various communities."

Amrinder Singh, 17, a young turbaned Sikh, said, "I had a great experience tying turbans. I tied turban on people of all ages and gender. Many people asked me questions like what does the turban represent, if there is a specific style, if the color means anything and if women could tie turbans."

Sikhs were also part of the talk story panel titled, 'Immigration stories - How we got here'.

Image: A Sikh Kirtani Jatha at the Smithsonian festival

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Electrifying Sikh debut at the Smithsonian

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Gagan Kaur, a Sikh panelist and a teacher at the Gurmat School at GGSF, said, "It was amazing to hear immigration stories of people from different cultures. They all talked about their struggles to settle in United States and dealing with the constant prejudices that exist against any foreigner."

Arvinder Singh, treasurer, GGSF, said, "The Smithsonian estimates that on an average about 100,000 people pass through the Folk-life festival every day. We don't know how many thousands we touched but everyone was special to us for the time they gave us to share with them our Sikh heritage, tradition, and culture."

Dr Rajwant Singh, executive director, GGSF, said, "We felt privileged to represent Sikhs at this most important institution in the nation's capital. We want to thank Smithsonian for giving us this opportunity to build bridges of understanding with fellow Americans."

Sarabjit Singh Sidhu, chairman, GGSF, said, "It was important for us to be here and this helps our future generations since this entire participation has been filmed and will be archived for years to come. We are thankful to all the organizers for their hard work. I strongly believe that we left a wonderful and a memorable impression about the Sikhs on our audience."

Image: From left. Manjeet Battu, Dr Kaur and Meeta Kaur Broca showcase Punjabi attire

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