Festivities, Art and Culture

Amandeep ji has again presented a lot of facts that can help analysis of what is happening in Punjab. I would however suggest that we should remember that the reasons for Dera phenomenon being so successful have to be native to Punjab and neighbouring parts. The power of vote banks can therefore only be an offshoot of Dera’s success, not the cause of their growth.

All the Deras named have bulk of their following among Sikhs; in fact Sikhs are their target group. The logic of inequality among Sikhs is powerful but then such inequality is rampant in Indian society – why are such Dera alternatives not coming up elsewhere?

The problem is unique to Punjab and has to do with what we are, our understanding of Sikhi, our attitude to life, our sense of values, our contempt for education and our lack of coherent thought on how to relate to a complex evolving society. We have to look within, at our praxis and our institutions.

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I am writing about a Cultural event entitled Funjabi 08 being organized by the Siklh Society of Harrisburg at the Miller Chapel, Lebanon Valley College on the 19th evening. This is the first such event being presented by the Society and a well known performing group Nachdi Jawani from Toronto will be offering their fare in addition to performances by our local talented performers. We expect attendance of around 500. Besides the music, dance and song items being presented, the program includes buffet dinner catered by Passage of India.

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Thank you Paul. This is great. You can indeed pull crowds. Looks you might need more tickets – let Paula just keep the names and we can get the tickets across if she needs more.

The release is great. How about Mary – would she get Patriot News to cover? If she suggests a name I can call.

Paul I also wondered if we could keep the access to class rooms close to your office open during dinner so if any want to sit on chairs in one or two designated rooms while eating can do so? I will call you. Are you planning on sending the mailing to our interfaith friends too? Some of them might like it.

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It was nice to meet you at the Information Office at Darbar Sahib when we happened to talk about Zee TV, USA. Zee now has a one-hour presentation of your Amritsar morning program, selected rather erratically – sometimes starting with swaiyyas and ending with ardas. The other hour has been assigned to a Hindu lecture type presentation. In fact this precedes from 6 to 7 am [Eastern time] and asa ki var from 7 to 8 in the area where we are. They are trying hard for those who want Amritsar transmission to additionally buy Alpha Punjabi which, in our area replays the entire morning program from 3 to 7 am and then again from 7:30 to 11:30 am. The evening program starts late [for US winters] at around 6:30 or 7, finishing at 8pm or later. The charges for Zee plus another channel are $ 24.99 pm and for Alpha Punjabi an additional $ 15 pm. You cannot only get Alpha Panjabi without subscribing to Zee.

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Mandeep Bajwa is right. In fact my memory is that it was expected that in Services Sikhs will play cricket and golf attired in their turbans.

I did not see any written instructions but the code was followed. I myself had to swallow deep and hard when around 1968, I went golfing with a patka at Delhi Army Golf Course one early morning. Soon I heard a tall Sikh in distance calling loudly as he looked in our direction. I asked my partner if he was trying to get his attention. He said no and as we approached we soon recognized Lt Gen Paintal, who was I think the QMG and Chairman of the Golf Club. He just went through me – ‘what kind of aSikh officer are you to come out like this on the Golf course. Go getyour turban on.’

Sports were not just for fitness or to develop team spirit or friendly competitiveness – they also were considered instruments to reinforce pride in self, relate to society in a dignified manner. Phrases like sportsman’s spirit were not mere metaphors but were expected to be

guiding conduct. Thank you for reading – enough of romanticizing ruminating memories!

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Here is some more information on Lohri festival:

Lohri is celebrated on the 13th day of January in the Bikrami month of Paush, a day before Makar Sankranti. Earlier it was celebrated mainly in Punjab but now in many other parts people celebrate it as a harvest festival under different names.

The focus of Lohri is on the bonfire. On the day of the festival, with the setting of the sun, bonfires are lit . People gather around the rising flames, circle around the bonfire uttering “Aadar aye diladder jaye” (May honour come and poverty vanish!), and sing popular folk songs. The munching of seasonal goodies like popcorn, reori, Gajjak, jaggery peanuts and sugar cane forms an integral part of the celebrations. Fistfuls of these goodies also find their way into the fire, as an offering. The festival assumes greater significance if there has been a happy event in the family during the elapsed year, like the birth of a child or marriage.

Following the tradition, children go from door to door singing Lohri songs and asking for money for purchase of logs of wood for the bonfire.. They sing in praise of Dulla Bhatti, a legendary Punjabi character (like Robin Hood) who used to rob the rich to help the poor, and once helped a miserable village girl by getting her married off like his own sister. This practice is, however, now not much seen. I and my brother did do it in Rawal Pindi in those days when India and Pakistan were still one country. Don’t recall doing it in Delhi except possibly for some time when we were in Jangpura.

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Thank you Monte. We can now rest easy about contribution by Nachdi Jawani Troupe. They will do well. Let us prepare our items and do our part of organizing. Jagirji tells me they have their own MC to conduct the event. We will go over all the details in the Monday meeting -how to blend and coordinate both parts of the program and admin support.

Monte, we can use some pictures from their site for our flyer and put some of their information in program brochure as intro to the group. I was at the Surgical Center yesterday for my wife’s surgery. Tried sending you the scans but there were problems with the server.

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Some of well placed among us exihibit a supercilious attitude toward other Sikhs not as well placed. A physician remarked that ‘I think people must know that a significant number of Sikhs are low in literacy in New York because their major occupations are working in restaurants as helpers, cleaners, taxi drivers, gas pumping at gas stations, construction labor and house maids. There are some occupations I would not dare to mention. Majority of these folks are on public assistance, Medicaid and food stamps.’ Another physician characterized Sikh immigrants as school dropouts fit to be taxi drivers and store employees.

Unfortunately food stamps and welfare recipients are almost at the lowest poverty level; higher only to the homeless and the residuous population. If our youth is seen to be increasingly in this group then even for new immigrants we may be touching our lowest point. These observations are possibly based on anecdotal evidence seen in doctor’s offices and the like. No study seems to have been done on the subject and reliable data is hard to come by. I do look askance at it because my observation does not support such a bipolar distribution among the American Sikh population and if it is true, their education and resettlement problems must deserve more attention, the same way as other immigrant groups have helped their own who did not have the language skills or suffered from other handicaps to give a fresh start to their lives.

There are several questions that come to mind. Is there any likely linkage between this situation and their visa status?  Are new immigrants mainly providing cheap labor to Sikh entrepreneurs in very competitive sectors? Are any volunteer organizations trying to help them in various issues surrounding lives in isolation, penury and absence of fraternal support? I have no doubt that the next generation will catch up and not get stuck in the poverty trap and in that sense I remain optimistic but if the current generation is in dire straits we should at least be looking at their isolation and need for support mechanisms. All other communities provide those, Hindus included – and they do not talk endlessly about seva, discrimination in Mandirs or helping guide the unlettered laity to achieve liberation.

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We returned last night rather late. I have just got an email from Paul Fullmer saying:

Media Services contacted me over my vacation to say that–because our event is on a Saturday night–staffing costs and sound rental would total $316.  HOWEVER, last night I worked with the professional-grade sound equipment owned by our department (used by the “praise band”) to verify that–independent of Media Services–I can provide 3 microphones (one at podium and two on stands) and a CD player that all runs through a quality amp/8-channel mixer and large speakers.  All cords will be taped to the floor.  (We had also considered a PowerPoint projection unit, which I would not be able to provide.)  Would you prefer to save the $316 and work with this equipment?  Now I do not have the expertise to answer Paul’s question and would ask you to give me some input. Do we need their staffing and sound system? Have we arranged our own? I will call later this morning to find out more.

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Very interesting to read about your conversation with Prof Katherine Ewing about the choice by some Sikh seniors to pick a topic connected with Sikh history for their thesis before graduating and the present practice with its implications.

Could you elaborate this a bit further – about the current practice? My thought has always been that Sikh students should try and pick topics relating to Sikhs and Sikhi for their dissertation especially in the US educational system. This is for several reasons. Firstly, we have the problem of Sikh identity and more so the problem of mistaken identity that is pervasive and persistent. Next the study would be a great opportunity to learn in a formalized manner with some measure of rigor imposed – something that we have little of in learning about ourselves at home or in Gurdwaras. Lastly it may generate interest in your fellow students, faculty and push the libraries to add easy access to related literature.

Good there is a Gurdwara near your campus. Do go there when you get organized. There must be possibly Sikh Students Association. If there is I hope their activities help learn and provide opportunity to stay connected as well as to share what we may have to offer.

Incidentally your birthday falls soon after the festival of Lohri [Maghi] and Basant Panchmi that follows soon thereafter – in fact exactly five days later on the 5th day of the month of Magh. Now Basant Panchmi is the day when people wear colorful yellow turbans and chunnis – the color of mustard [sarson ka saag] flowers, much like the daffodils there. This is the day most popular for kite flying and I recall that when we visited Pakistan last, both Nani and I were quite delighted to see the festivities built into their lives to the extent that the Government seemed worried about the accidental tripping of the youth when flying from roof tops and getting hurt. Of course there also seemed to be some talk of the festivities being un-Islamic. Whatever it may be [even Sikhs do not celebrate Basant Panchmi] but kite flying on this day has been a traditionally Punjabi done thing. I will try and relate some of our Hyderabad experiences another time.

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The report below sounds familiar: Edmonton Sikhs have given up trying to be a part of the Heritage Festival, which runs this weekend.

Sikh Federation of Edmonton spokesman Jasbeer Singh said it comes after 25 years of constant rejections.

“It’s 150% political. On the one side they say they are protectors and guardians of culture, on the other side they want to keep a distinct culture out of it. If that isn’t politics, I don’t know what is.”

Heritage Festival executive director Jack Little said the Sikhs have not applied during his tenure.

“I’ve looked at the files and there have been discussions with the Sikh community before I started with the Heritage Festival and they were told at that time the festival is not a religious festival. It’s a multicultural festival and Sikhism is a religion, therefore they were not eligible to be in the festival,” said Little.

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25 years is a long time to keep being rejected. I recall a similar experience in Hartford CT, going back less than ten years. An initiative about a multi cultural event spread over two days to be started off in a year or so was launched. Even though I sent in an email to the organizers I did not receive any response and forgot about it.

In a year or so the event took place but since I had no information [and unfortunately no other Sikh was following it] I only knew about it through the papers. Email again brought no response.

The following year I had developed contacts with a couple of organizers and knew when the event was being planned. I sent in our application but was told the same – no place for a religious group. My arguments regarding our cultural identity were not seen credible.

It so happened that at that time we had invited an Andhra couple for dinner – the wife had offered a prayer with me in one of interfaith meets. During conversation that evening she said that she and some other girls from among the South Indian community had done Bhangra at the last year’s festival – the group got entry through the Indian Association.

I got on to my contacts and they directed me to the event program coordinator. She summarily rejected our credentials and she named her committee members who know about us and who confirm that we are only a religious group. I asked the name and it was the Indian association representative. This gave me the opening that the Indian Association was keeping us out by making South Indians perform a folk dance associated with our cultural heritage. This turned the tables almost overnight because the festival management did not want any participating group to try and keep others out. We were allowed in and starting the following year they invited us regularly. The Indian Association representative was dropped from the event program committee the following year. We have just a couple of weeks back done our first major cultural event in PA with an attendance of around 600 including close to 200 Americans. We muddled through but if we can learn to better organize and improve how we present the fare and represent ourselves we can carve a place in multi cultural events. If however our yearning is limited to savoring a few nostalgic moments of how life ,back home’ used to be, we would not be able to achieve continuing involvement in broad based events. For that our cultural identity will have to be live, dynamic, rooted yet evolving.

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Thank you Gurmukh ji for bringing it up. I think it may be instructive to search the archives of this forum for what may have been said before about these two melas and yatras. We may find the practice declared unSikh and decried by the same people who may now come to its defense.  That apart, with immanent presence of the Divine, all places are potentially holy – made holy in effect where the sense of the sacred inspires prayer, brings people together in a shared quest for the sublime and helps them to find peace, solace. Hemkunt has become that and may be reason enough. As long as in the end we seek the darshan of the Guru, manifest in the Granth, may be we are not crossing the rekha of belief in the Guru.

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Once again the message contains within it some significant information encoded in tradition’s influence over our celebratory stance at the festivals we observe. Diwali or whatever we may recreate it as has the external celebratory trappings the same as others observe then and now. The fact seems to be that we have accepted the externalities as indicative of the secular about the festival and adopted them – the result is a family oriented event that is celebratory of not only release from detention but also an important martyrdom. We do it with the family – children, mother, father, siblings, our little home/retreat; community we deal with and live with – friends, neighbors, rich, poor, needy, generous, sick, healthy, good, not so good; and our extended family with the larger community in all its diversity – all living, evolving under the broad dispensation of One common, shared Wahiguru’s beneficence and in His Hukam.  Intertwined within the secular externalities, our spiritual quest finds its expression in the manner that brings us connectedness to the divine in the way we have learnt; that is unique to our faith and persuasion – maybe somewhat tempered by local traditions, family influences and our individual spiritual state. If we ask any member of our family about the celebration we may not get much negative feedback about being a part of the festivities. Then why are our other celebrations so stereotypical?  I keep on asking this question and have not received much response – but mercifully have not also been driven off the site. So I venture again to invite us all to look at the various purposes associated with celebrating festivals and ponder if the way we spend our festival occasions answers those objectives.

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Both Autar Singh ji and Jagpal Singh ji are making important observation – one in a question form and the other as a piece of anecdotal evidence of what is happening relating to our festival celebrations. Unfortunately the way the more dogmatic among us are promoting how the festivals should be celebrated makes the festival day a repeat of any other day, or at best an extended version of the same service.

The youth have questions, have always had them. Today they ask them; earlier we just went out and joined the melas or participative festivities with friends and neighbors – christmas, diwali, holi, dussehra, thanksgiving, valentine’s day, mothers day, fathers day, memorial day, new years day et al. I am lumping all together – cultural, religious, memorial for the reason that if we look across the range of reasons that go to create festivals we may find something in each that resonates with our memories and observances as Sikhs. Why then is festivity missing from our celebratory practices as promoted by the dogmatic? As long as we do not do some thing to make our own celebration of what is sacred and memorable to us a dignified, participative, joyous experience, we will continue to face the declining interest among youth in our festivals. We cannot blame others if the choices our youth and many others make in this respect do not fit our narrow interpretation of a faith where even the persuasion shows the path of achieving liberation while living a normal life amid playful activities, imbibing cuisine, wearing fineries and sharing the joy of laughter.

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The truth is somewhere in between and possibly beyond too. Firstly I am not clear from the reports if Badal only participated in the celebrations or if the SGPC has decided to celebrate the festival as a Sikh festivity. May be somebody can explain the correct position before we go on another much ado about nothing bash.  Nonetheless whatever the origin and truth in the report we must on our own look at the way we celebrate our festivals. We must question:

  • What specific and different thing is done by us as a family for each festival; at home or outside; is home a scene of some special activity that is specifically different when this day comes
  • What is the message that the mode of celebrations is intended to leave for the youth; how is it conveyed and how does it specifically relate to the event in history that we are celebrating
  • What is our corporate community mode of celebration – in other words is there any cultural heritage associated with the festivities and if so how does it find expression – examples public lighting, cultural displays, mela, exhibitions &c
  • How is our religious celebration tailored to enhance the message, memory and dignity of the occasion?

What I am saying is that unless the symbolism of our festivals gets defined and subtly ingrained in our celebrations our festivals may be all right as anniversaries but will not serve the purpose “festivals” are expected to serve for families and the community.  I think we have to move beyond the common stereotype of the way we celebrate each festival at present.

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As far as pet keeping goes, my impression is that the Sikh behavior may perhaps be no different from a comparable cultural or social group. The Sikh thought gives a place of primacy to the human being – manas ko prabh de-yee vadeaee – yet the human is reminded that all created beings have their assigned roles to perform [and their co dependency in nature] – jete ji likhi sir kaar. The Creator is concerned about and lovingly provides for the sustenance of all – if you recall the shabad – tu kahe dole parraniya –.

Using other beings to serve the purpose of humans is recognised – avar joni teri panihari – and there is mention of dog’s [kookar] relation with his master; milch cattle, snakes, monkeys; and horses and elephants as possessions but the Bani really celebrates the animals in the state of their natural environment, enjoying their God given freedom – vismad nange phiren jant – or singing their love songs as ‘babiha’ does or the ecstatic joy they bring as harbingers of dawn, rain et al- chiri chehki poh phuttee wagan boht tarang

I suppose we love our pets as well as most others do. When we were contemplating to move to the US, we had three Lhasa Epsos. My youngest daughter soon made it known that she would not go without the dogs.  Even as I was trying to change her mind, one day my wife said ‘Nilu their eyes will always haunt me.’ That did it. Job or no job, we came with the dogs and true to His promise, He took good care of us all – jin paidaesh tun kiya soi de adhar.

One of the dogs died soon after we moved into the house we bought. It was early spring, the snow had melted. I dug up a trench in our back yard and we buried little Happy [the dog’s name] after ardas with a few of the little things she used to love and soon thereafter created a bed and planted a few rose bushes there. We were very new to the country and I learnt later that burying pets in one’s own yard is not allowed.  The other two are also gone now – but they went the American way – put to sleep by a vet and cremated. We did offer a prayer for each one of them before the vet took over and buried their ashes next to Happy. The Happy corner has always had plentiful roses [and other flowers], bumble bees, butterflies and birds visiting; even glow worms at night. We do not intend keeping pets any more but are presently enjoying the parakeet my youngest daughter bought for her two small kids.

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Parminder Kaur ji, thanks for your comment. I don’t think I am missing the point. I definitely am inviting us all to think a little beyond and look at our own festivities. Please read my mail again – reproduced for convenience – and give a thought to the last Para, more particularly the last sentence:

“Unfortunately in life such stories do not end because we declare them ended. This subject has its significance not because of karva chauth per se but because it is another example of the cross cultural influences working their way through the vulnerable chinks in the defining walls erected by all organized religions and cultures. The case of ‘Valentine’s Day’ is another festivity whose intrusion is causing a lot of consternation among various groups across the religious and cultural spectra. And how about the ‘mother’s day’ and ‘father’s day’, invariably mentioned in the Gurdwaras when they happen to come along.

Let us not be too much consumed by our Hindu phobia – cleansing Sikh tradition of what may be seen as Hindu influences will not solve all our problems; nor will it change the visible symptoms of alienation to an ardent love for the pristine values and observances so dearly advocated by us. Let us also try and see if our advocacy fits in with the needs of a whole-life faith – a faith that makes ‘grihast’ a cornerstone of its basic philosophy. It celebrates life as the most precious gift of God and encourages us to live life fully, devoid of denials or austerities, though in moderation, and prayerfully. We should ponder if our festivities reflect this balance and reinforce the bonds that make families stronger for that is the cradle where our future is nurtured.”

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Incidentally we are hours away from the dawn when ‘mitti dhund jag channan hoa, satgur nanak pargatya’. Why are our forums so quiet about it? It is a somber thought and goes back to how we seem to be relating to life – it is just like another day. Let those who decry celebration think of what they are doing to the young minds, their ability to feel proud of their festivals and their way of life.

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