Politics, Historic

Smithsonian mischaracterizes Sikh identity

in Indian American exhibition
By Anju Kaur | March 18, 2014
The Smithsonian will not remove this offensive image of two men without Kesh tying a turban, representing Sikhism.

The Smithsonian will not remove this offensive image of two men without Kesh tying a turban, representing Sikhism.

Reporting from Washington – The Smithsonian Institution has willfully mischaracterized the Sikh identity in its new exhibition on Indian Americans.

"Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape a Nation," opened at the National Museum of Natural History on Feb. 27, and will continue until Aug. 16, 2015.

Located on the largest wall space of the exhibit, in a section on the religions of Indian Americans, is a monitor that scrolls through a photo gallery depicting various faiths. Under "Sikhism," one of the images shows two men with shorn hair, one tying a turban on the other.  

Masum Momaya, its curator, was made aware that Kesh – religiously mandated unshorn hair - is a basic tenet of Sikhism, that the Sikh Rehat Maryada – code of conduct - requires a person to keep Kesh to be called a Sikh, and that this photo would offend Sikhs. 

“The Smithsonian has no intention of making changes to the exhibition’s labels and artifacts,” said Emily Grebenstein, a spokeswoman for Momaya. “We have confirmed that both men in the photograph are Sikhs.

“The two men in the photograph self-identified as Sikhs.”  

“That’s a very flimsy argument,” said Sukhmander Singh, professor of civil engineering at Santa Clara University, in California, who organized a Sikh conference last year on the Rehat Maryada, the Sikh code of conduct. “To take these people’s word, which has no substance in the Rehat Maryada, …is totally out of line."

The Sikh Rehat Maryada is the canon law, based on the Guru Granth Sahib, which embodies the unique tenets under which Sikhism originated, flourished and continues forward. It was crafted by a committee of renowned scholars and academicians of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, reviewed by numerous other Sikh scholars, institutions and the entire Panth, and adopted after 14 years of deliberations, in 1945.

“Historic evidence also shows that Sikhs have given up their lives for their Kesh,” Sukhmander Singh added. “In terms of presenting who Sikhs are, the Smithsonian must understand that it is not opinions that they should consider as criteria.”

Neither Momaya nor Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, granted SikhNN’s repeated requests for an interview. 

Left: Under the category "Sikhism," two men without Kesh (religiously mandated unshorn hair) are shown tying a turban. The curator, Mausum Momaya, will not remove this image, which is offensive to Sikhs. Right: A large quote by Balpreet Kaur is written on the wall, next to a cropped version of the offensive turban-tying image. Balpreet Kaur is a Sikh college student who was bullied last year on Reddit for having some facial hair. <i>Source: SikhNN</i>

While Momaya is the designated researcher for the exhibit, she worked with a team of assistant researchers. One of them was an intern from the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group. She conducted research for the exhibition last summer through SALDEF’s SikhLEAD Leadership Program.

The intern, who also does not keep her Kesh, “completed an independent research project on the Sikh American Identity, and created social media content to promote the exhibition,” a March 6 news release from SALDEF states. 

SALDEF did not return numerous requests for comment on details of its intern’s research, the social media content she created, why her project is labeled “Sikh American Identity” and not "Sikh Identity," and her knowledge of the offensive turban-tying image. 

A cropped version of the turban-tying image of men without facial hair also appears higher on the wall, beside a large-sized quote about Sikhism from Balpreet Kaur, the Sikh student who was mocked last year on Reddit, the social news Web site, for having some unshorn facial hair. 

The student who posted the slur publically apologized to her, and Balpreet Kaur became a role model for Sikh youth. Balpreet Kaur’s background is not explained in the exhibition.

Left: The "Beyond Bollywood" exhibition was curated by the Indian American Heritage Project of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, with nearly all funding from non-Sikh Indian Americans. Right: View of the section on Sikh identity. The left wall shows quotes from young-adult followers of various religions of India, and the monitor with photo galleries of scenes from the various religious practices. On the right yellow wall is the 9/11 display. <i>Source: SikhNN</i>

The exhibition contains several other contradictions, misrepresentations and factual errors about Sikhs. 

Opposite to the wall on Indian religions is a section on 9/11 with a showcase of artifacts, including Balbir Singh Sodhi’s dastaar. Balbir Singh was the first person to be killed in a 9/11-related hate crime because of his Kesh and dastaar, which led his attacker to misidentify him as a follower of Bin Laden. 

A large quote above Balbir Singh’s dastaar depicts Sikhs as a fearful people: “Trauma upon trauma. A decade of fear. How will I, and we, heal?” says Sonny Singh of Red Baraat, a funk-bhangra band. 

Left: The 9/11 display contains a showcase of artifacts, including a dastaar worn by Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first victim killed from a 9/11-related hate crime. Right: This cartoon of Uncle Sam hugging a Sikh appeared in newspapers on Aug. 8, 2012, shortly after the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, gurdwara shooting. <i>Source: SikhNN</i>

On an adjacent large wall is a presentation called, "Ground Breakers," which showcases Indian American “luminaries” in the arts, sciences, sports and literature. The only Sikh on that wall is Darsh Preet Singh, the NCAA basketball player, who won the right to play the game with his dastaar. 

Darsh Preet Singh is described as a “turbaned Indian American.” The label states: “As the NCAA does not allow players to wear headgear, Singh had to petition to continue to wear his turban, a symbol of his Sikh faith, during games.” While a turban is symbolic of the Sikh faith, it must be worn over Kesh, a required article of the Sikh faith.

Sikhs are not recognized in the exhibition as “luminaries” of intellectual contributions. Narinder Singh Kapany, for example, is widely known for his contribution in the field of physics, and is known as the “Father of Fiber Optics.” In 1999, Fortune Magazine named him one of seven "Unsung Heroes" in its "Businessmen of the Century" issue. He is absent from the exhibition.

Left: "Spirit, Mind, Body" are the categories for the display of Indian luminaries who have noteworthy contributions to American society. Under the "Body" category is a display on Darsh Preet Singh, the NCAA basketball player who won the right to wear his dastaar while playing basketball. Right: Other luminaries on the wall include Kalpana Chawla, astronaut; Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize winning author; Harbobind Khorana, Nobel Prize winning scientist; Mindy Kaling, actress; Naeem Khan, fashion designer; Zubin Mehta, orchestra conductor; and Bharti Mukherjee, author. <i>Source: SikhNN</i>

The largest display associated with Sikhs reinforces the stereotype of Sikhs being taxicab drivers. In a mock-up of the back of a taxicab, the rear window is a monitor that displays a video about a taxicab driver from San Francisco.  

The label reads: “Many cab drivers are Sikhs who left India following the 1984 Indian army attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the ensuing anti-Sikh riots.”

The monitor shows scenes from "Punjabi Cab," a documentary released in 2004 about Sikh cab drivers in the San Francisco Bay area. <i>Source: SikhNN</i>

Two exhibition displays show correct portrayals of Sikhs. The first is of Bhagat Singh Thind whose desire for citizenship led him, in 1923, to fight for it in the Supreme Court. The label describes him as “a devout Sikh and U. S. Army combat veteran.” 

The second correct portrayal is that of Dalip Singh Saund, the congressman from California. The label describes him as the farmer, mathematician and judge from Imperial County who made history in 1957 by “becoming the first Asian elected to Congress.” He is not portrayed as a Sikh. 

Although Saund was born in a Sikh family, he gave up his Kesh about five year after his arrival in the U.S. in 1920, according to his autobiography, "Congressman From India." 

And during his 1952 campaign, Saund wrote the following anecdote: 

“One day, just three days before the election, a prominent citizen who was opposing me bitterly saw me one morning in the town restaurant and said in a loud voice: 'Doc, tell us, if you’re elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come to your court?' 

'My friend,' I answered, '…I don’t care what a man has on top of his head…' All the customers had a good laugh at that and the story became the talk of the town during the next few days.” 

Left: A section on American citizenship rights includes a small display about Bhagat Singh Thind, a U.S. Army veteran who fought all the way to the Supreme Court, in 1923, and lost. But he did not give up. He was granted citizenship in 1936. Right: Dalip Singh Saund, congressman from California, is rightfully not described as a Sikh. He gave up his Kesh and dastaar after immigrating to the U.S., in 1920. <i>Source: SikhNN</i>

The Smithsonian is the world's largest museum and research complex. According to its Web site, it includes 19 museums and galleries, and nine research facilities. But this is not the first Smithsonian exhibition to make factual errors about Sikhism. 

In a previous exhibition, "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," an Udasi was incorrectly defined as a "Sikh yogi" or "Sikh ascetic" in its artifacts, labels and research catalogue. Sikh scriptures reject the Udasi, ascetic and yoga traditions, and consider the lifestyle of a householder (family) as being closest to God.

But contrary to Momaya’s decision to not fix mistakes in the "Beyond Bollywood" exhibition, the curator for the "Yoga" exhibition, Debra Diamond, corrected its mistakes. 

“Based upon the scholarship in several respected works, as well as a content editor who is a senior scholar, a PhD in South Asian religions who is a professor at a research university, the original printing of the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” catalogue referenced Udasis as Sikh ascetics,” explained Allison Peck, spokeswoman for Diamond. 

“After learning of (the) concerns, Dr. Diamond contacted university professors of Sikh religion this fall. Having completed substantial conversations with those scholars, she has determined that it would be most appropriate that future reprints of the catalogue will redefine Udasis as renouncers belonging to an order formed by Baba Sri Chand (son of Guru Nanak).

“References to Sikhism have been removed from the exhibition’s object labels for the next two venues, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art.”

The "Yoga" exhibition was at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery from Oct. 19, 2013, to Jan. 26, 2014.

________________________ From Sikh News Network archives.