Reflecting on Sikholars 2014

By Sangeeta K. Luthra

Sangeeta LuthraWe at Sikh Love Stories want to send a shout out of love to the Sikholars 2014 community: the Jakara Movement organizers and volunteers, the brilliant and passionate presenters, and of course the community who attended, listened, and asked stimulating questions.   Valentine’s Day weekend was the perfect time for the kind of scholarship, reflection and engagement that has become a hallmark of the Sikholars event.  Channeling Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs, the conference included presentations on topics that spanned from physicality to spirituality and from the intellectual to the emotional.   The cornucopia of presentations covering art, sound, self-expression, health, poetry, desire, and memory, prompted age-old questions with renewed urgency: What does it mean to be a Sikh, man or woman?  What does it mean to be part of a “minority” as well as part of “humanity”?  What are our responsibilities to our-selves and to others/Others?

In one panel, our eyes were mesmerized by the soulful gazes of the Sikh men depicted in the “Faith in Taxis” exhibit, our sensibilities lifted with the poetic and literary traditions of Chathian di Var, our hearts filled with courage by a re-thinking of Sikh ethics in the 19th century Ghadr movement, and our ears reverberated with the sounds of Sikh spaces of worship and living.  Other speakers delved into Sikh nationalism, Sikhi-inspired hip-hop, and the use of biometric technologies to make the Punjab government’s welfare programs as effective and responsive to the needy as the Langar Seva of the Harimandir Sahib.

In another panel we were asked to consider masculinity and femininity as dynamic expressions of history, politics, culture, and spirituality.  We learned about the attitudes and challenges of young Sikh American adolescent males who keep their kesh/unshorn hair and patka/turbans in the face of a growing tide of racial profiling, about why a growing number of Sikh women have begun to wear a dastaar/keski , and about avant-garde representations of colonial and post-colonial cultural appropriations.  We left asking:  Is the wearing of dastaar by women feminizing the dastaar or masculinizing the women? Is blurring the lines between feminine and masculine good or bad? We ended the panel thinking about Sikh masculinity and femininity as “beyond the binaries” of West or East, but as evolving expressions of Sikh ethics and aesthetics – woven and worn.

A session called, “States of Health” highlighted topics ranging from attitudes and access to mental health services in our community to the troubling persistence of domestic violence.  Another session explored entrepreneurship and technology in the community.  Perhaps the most emotional session was the one commemorating the tragic events of 1984, which have left a deep mark on the modern Sikh psyche.  How should we heal these 30-year old wounds?  How can we continue to strive to become better as individuals, as a community, and as citizens of a world being torn apart by similar conflicts?

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Sikholars has been a consistent, seamless and serious integration of Sikh women and their experiences in all the discussions in and between the sessions.

The conference was a success because it generated as many questions as it answered, and because it represents the best of upcoming scholarship on the diversity of Sikh experiences – the good, the bad, and the beautiful!

Dr. Sangeeta Luthra is a member of the Editorial Board of The Sikh Love Stories Project, and is cultural anthropologist and educator.

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