A music composer. A deputy sheriff. A technology executive. An Eagle Scout.
They sound like every-day Americans but what sets them apart is they are all Sikhs. And that combination is the reason they are subjects in a landmark photo exhibition that originated in New York, appeared at venues across the country and now has landed in Sacramento.
The Sikh Project, featuring portraits of 38 Sikh Americans, is the result of a collaboration between the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, and British photographers Amit and Naroop (they prefer not to use their last names). Thirty images from the exhibition will be at the California Museum in Sacramento through Jan. 27.
The exhibition was created to raise awareness of the Sikh religion and its members, who remain by and large misunderstood by Americans, said Satjeet Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s executive director. “We were aiming to change hearts and minds about the Sikh community and paint a truer picture of who the Sikh community is through stories of resilience,” she said.
Sikhs believe in one creator and strive to practice equality, justice and selfless service. Sikhs are prohibited from cutting their hair; hence their physical appearance is easily recognized by their turbans and long beards. Especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings, Sikhs were inaccurately identified as Muslims and faced violent attacks.
The turban is the unifying element of the portraits in the exhibit, including among the nine women featured. Each portrait is accompanied by the subject’s personal story, whether it is facing discrimination, fleeing persecution, or the troubles they have faced in being able to assimilate.
The subjects include Harinder Kaur Khalsa, a former deputy sheriff in Alameda who in 2009 was told she could not wear her turban while in a sheriff’s uniform. After years of advocacy, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office complied with a state law against workplace discrimination.
Also included is Hansraj Singh of San Jose, a student at University of California, Merced, and an Eagle Scout, an accomplishment held by only 4 percent of Boy Scouts of America.
And then there is Tarandeep Singh Bali, an information technology engineer from Hayward whose fierce gaze hints at his story of persecution and discrimination.
The stories, Kaur said, serve to show Sikhs through a wider lens – beyond the turban and beard.
“The climate we live in today, where there is a lot of misunderstanding amid the rise of xenophobia and hate, we limit understanding of other communities. When you hear stories of a driver, a mayor, a business person, they are all stories you can connect with. Maybe it is something connected to you, something happening in your life,” said Kaur.
The impact has been powerful for younger Sikhs for whom representation in the mainstream is important, Kaur said.
“To see an image you can identify with, someone who looks like your mother, your brother or your uncle or aunt up in city hall or at a pop up shop, it makes you feel proud,” said Kaur.
Deepraj Randhawa of Roseville, near Sacramento, spoke at the opening reception of the exhibition at the California Museum. Born and raised in California, Randhawa said it was interesting that non-Sikhs look at her and her young children with the same misunderstanding as people did at her father and mother two generations ago.
The exhibition, she said, is working to broaden that perspective.
“Non-Sikhs get the realization that these people are just like us,” she said. “It removes the myth of the turban.”
Randhawa said the exhibition contributes to the Sikh community’s effort to incorporate the religion in text books and other curriculum, pointing out that as the fifth largest religion in the world Sikhism does not belong to the fringe.
Through proactive efforts, Randhawa said, Sikh culture now is celebrated along with other cultures in her children’s classrooms. The photo exhibition aims to expand on those efforts. In Maryland, for example, groups of classrooms viewed the exhibition as did a joint group of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
The scene is expected to be replicated at the California Museum where diversity education is part of the mission.
“The Sikh community has disproportionately been subject to hate crimes, and the museum exhibit can help counter anti-Sikh prejudice by helping the broader public better understand Sikh customs and beliefs,” said Amanda Meeker, executive director of the California Museum. “The stories encourage contemplation and dialogue on diversity. Many visitors have reported learning something new from the exhibit.”
The Sikh Project will be at the California Museum through Jan. 27. The museum is at 1020 O St., Sacramento. (916) 653-7524.
Simar Khanna is a contributing editor at India Currents magazine.