By Kavita Bajeli-Datt

Even 15 years after 9/11, Sikhs in the US feel they are more likely to face profiling, bigotry and backlash than the average American because of the two symbols of their distinct identity - beard and turban. To dispel this misperception and spread better awareness about the religion, a new Sikh art exhibit will be held in New York later this year to showcase the pride taken by the community in their religious and cultural practices. UK-based photographers Amit and Naroop will click portraits of Sikh Americans under "The Sikh Project" mounted by The Sikh Coalition. These protraits will be unveiled around the 15th anniversary of 9/11. The Coalition is the largest Sikh American advocacy and community development organisation in the US and works towards the realisation of civil and human rights for all people, particularly Sikhs.

After their critically acclaimed exhibit in the UK, the two photographers, who are proud of their Sikh heritage, said they are "very excited" about their upcoming exhibition. "We are very excited! In the US, it will serve as an educational piece as well as an art project as the awareness of the Sikh identity is still misunderstood; so we are hoping it will have a wider impact," the two photographers told this correspondent in an email interview from New York.

The photography exhibit, which explores the beauty, style and symbolism of the Sikh articles of faith, will include both turbaned men and women and feature a combination of iconic Sikh Americans and a few selected winners. Speaking about how the idea of 'Sikh Project' came to them, the two photographers said it was in 2013 that it struck them when they "noticed men of different backgrounds and ages growing beards for fashion, as part of their identity."

"Being Sikh photographers, we wanted to show that in our culture, the beard has been a part of the Sikh identity for hundreds of years"
"Being Sikh photographers, we wanted to show that in our culture, the beard has been a part of the Sikh identity for hundreds of years," they said in the joint interview. They said their UK exhibition got "overwhelming response" and was "appreciated" and "respected" for the message it was giving and the way it was executed. "The content and context resonated with people from different backgrounds as it is not just about Sikh's, it's about pride for your identity". The two, who have worked in the US earlier also, want their latest project to "stand up to the UK Singh Project and if anything even better than it.In the UK, we have witnessed how powerful art can be in positively educating the broader public about the Sikh community.We can't wait to begin photographing the Sikh American experience and sharing those stories with the world as well. Amit and Naroop, in partnership with the Sikh Coalition, are currently casting for additional photography candidates and are asking turbaned Sikh Americans of all ages and genders to take part in this groundbreaking project. The deadline for entries was May 1. According to Coalition's Executive Director, Sapreet Kaur, "The goal with bringing this project to the United States is the opportunity to combat bigotry by sharing a positive narrative of Sikhs in America through portraits and the incredible stories behind them." The Coalition was founded by volunteers on the night of September 11, 2001, in response to a torrent of violent attacks against Sikh Americans throughout the US. Talking about the response of the people, the two photographers said it has been "fantastic". "The subjects involved have seen the success we have had, so they are excited to be involved. It's the complete opposite of the UK Singh project as nobody wanted to be involved at first and it took a while for it to build momentum." They strongly feel that such exhibition will help in showing the Sikh community in the US in a positive light and help fight bigotry they face in their daily lives. "Each one of the subjects has a story to tell, which will sit alongside the portrait. Some are positive, some are more dramatic, but through the stories, visitors of the exhibition will get to learn what it means to be an American Sikh, both in identity and also in spirit." "Yes I believe so," he said when asked whether the exhibition will help in highlighting the importance of the beard and turban, an important article of faith of the Sikh community. "An accompanying video interview of each subject will allow visitors of the exhibition to learn more about the way Sikhs are treated, both positively and negatively, and the courage it takes for the subjects to continue to wear their articles of faith," they say. The project, they said, is a fusion of their Sikh heritage and British upbringing. "It is traditional in content but the execution is modern and contemporary. Hopefully this has allowed it to spread to a wider audience. Has it been successful? It's hard to judge. People have to be open to learn and understand other faiths and identities. "All we can do is to try our best to spread the message. From the response we have had, it appears to have done the job, but there are always more people to reach."