Diaspora : Indians in America

Indians in America


Part 7 of the Indian saga of migration, settlement and integration in the US

Inder Singh
President, GOPIO


For Sikhs, religious beliefs are an integral part of their lives. In the beginning, they practiced their culture, religion, and traditions privately in absence of a common place like a Gurudwara. But in 1912, they established Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society and purchased land with a small frame house in Stockton, California, which was used as a temporary Gurudwara. Three years later, they built the first Sikh temple in the United States. The new temple was dedicated on November 21, 1915, coinciding with the 426th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev, founder of the Sikh faith. Many Sikhs would travel hundreds of miles on important occasions to attend the gatherings which not only served a reassuring link with their religion but also provided welcome opportunities to meet and socialize with other Punjabi immigrants.

The Stockton Temple became the center of religious life for the Sikhs and social and political life for all Indians in California, particularly for activities relating to the Gadar Movement. Many years later, in 1948, a second Gurudwara was established 500 miles away in El Centro, California. Today, Sikhs have built Gurudwaras in almost every part of the US and hold congregations on regular basis.

Baisakhi, like Diwali, is celebrated with equal fervor both as a religious function and as a harvest festival. One of the largest Baisakhi celebrations is organized at the Los Angeles convention center to accommodate over 15,000 people. The religious celebration includes Sikh devotional music and a colorful parade.

Classical Indian dance and music are taught in private schools and academies which offer training in Karnatic, Hindustani, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, bhangra, bhajans, devotional songs & semi-classical songs and several other forms. Among the different classical dance styles, Bharatanatyam has gained the most popularity among the Indian students. Out of the folk dances, Bhangra with all its different variations has been attaining new highs as a medium of entertainment.
Punjabis have a vibrant culture and the Bhangra, the harvest folk dance and music is integral part of celebrations – weddings, anniversaries and social parties. Some night clubs in the US routinely play Bhangra music or have exclusive Bhangra music once a week. The Bhangra music has also found its way into the recording studios of some mainstream artists, such as Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and others. Intercollegiate Bhangra competitions where the teams compete for money and trophies, continue to give a new surge of popularity among the youth. A number of Bhangra enthusiasts after graduation have formed Bhangra teams and hold regular national and international Bhangra competitions. Some well known teams are Apna Virsa Apna Punjab (Charlottesville, Virginia), Bhangra Bash ( Seattle, Washington), Bhangra Blowout (Washington, D.C), Bhangra Fusion (Detroit, Michigan) and SoCal Bhangra (Los Angeles, California). Bhangra, although rooted in tradition, constantly evolves with several hip-hop moves with the changing times.

There are many different offshoots from traditional Bhangra. Bally Sagoo promoted an offshoot of Bhangra music and his signing up with Sony, showed Bhangra's growing mainstream presence. Daler Mehndi has made the sound of Bhangra-pop a craze among many non-Punjabis, selling many millions of albums. Popular Guyanese born Terry Gajraj has also composed many of his hits in the USA and the Caribbean with variations of Bhagra. Pepsi commercial featuring Bhangra music was a true sign of the emergence of Bhangra into popular culture.

Sarina Jain has made this folk dance into an exercise regimen. Masala Bhangra Aerobics Workout classes are taught in some fitness centers and she also has directed and produced a series of Masala Bhangra Workout videos.

The Smithsonian institution in Washington DC is the most visited natural history museum in the world. A few Sikh Americans jointly started a very ambitious Sikh Heritage Project in 2000, to find, protect and display cultural and historical artifacts of the Sikhs at the prestigious Smithsonian institution. “Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab” was inaugurated on July 24, 2004 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The permanent exhibition presents more than 100 pieces of Sikh artwork and artifacts, including miniature paintings, arms and armor, traditional textiles and dress, coins, musical instruments, jewelry, sacred texts, and modern works of art, highlighting the culture and history of the Sikhs. The Sikh Heritage Foundation, West Virginia, has been instrumental in the establishment of Sikh Heritage Gallery.

Yuba City – the Mini Punjab in USA
Yuba City, the headquarters of Sutter County, California, is about 125 miles from San Francisco. Punjabis came to Yuba City as migrant laborers in search of work over 100 years ago and faced enormous social and economic hurdles. They were peasant proprietors in India and their farming skills and willingness to work hard helped them find work. Some of them even leased or purchased their own farms and a few became successful and prosperous farmers.

—To be continued.

July 2009

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