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Smithsonian mischaracterizes Sikh identity
in Indian American exhibition

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | 03:14 pm

The Smithsonian will not remove this offensive image of two men without Kesh tying a turban, representing Sikhism.

Photo Source: SikhNN

Two exhibition displays show correct portrayals of Sikhs. The first is of Bhagat Singh Thind whose desire for citizenship led him, in 1923, to fight for it in the Supreme Court. The label describes him as “a devout Sikh and U. S. Army combat veteran.”

The second correct portrayal is that of Dalip Singh Saund, the congressman from California. The label describes him as the farmer, mathematician and judge from Imperial County who made history in 1957 by “becoming the first Asian elected to Congress.” He is not portrayed as a Sikh.

Although Saund was born in a Sikh family, he gave up his Kesh about five year after his arrival in the U.S. in 1920, according to his autobiography, "Congressman From India."

And during his 1952 campaign, Saund wrote the following anecdote:

“One day, just three days before the election, a prominent citizen who was opposing me bitterly saw me one morning in the town restaurant and said in a loud voice: 'Doc, tell us, if you’re elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come to your court?'

'My friend,' I answered, '…I don’t care what a man has on top of his head…' All the customers had a good laugh at that and the story became the talk of the town during the next few days.”

Smithsonian's version of Sikhism

Left: A section on American citizenship rights includes a small display about Bhagat Singh Thind, a U.S. Army veteran who fought all the way to the Supreme Court, in 1923, and lost. But he did not give up. He was granted citizenship in 1936. Right: Dalip Singh Saund, congressman from California, is rightfully not described as a Sikh. He gave up his Kesh and dastaar after immigrating to the U.S., in 1920.
Source: SikhNN

The Smithsonian is the world's largest museum and research complex. According to its Web site, it includes 19 museums and galleries, and nine research facilities. But this is not the first Smithsonian exhibition to make factual errors about Sikhism.

In a previous exhibition, "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," an Udasi was incorrectly defined as a "Sikh yogi" or "Sikh ascetic" in its artifacts, labels and research catalogue. Sikh scriptures reject the Udasi, ascetic and yoga traditions, and consider the lifestyle of a householder (family) as being closest to God.

But contrary to Momaya’s decision to not fix mistakes in the "Beyond Bollywood" exhibition, the curator for the "Yoga" exhibition, Debra Diamond, corrected its mistakes.

“Based upon the scholarship in several respected works, as well as a content editor who is a senior scholar, a PhD in South Asian religions who is a professor at a research university, the original printing of the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” catalogue referenced Udasis as Sikh ascetics,” explained Allison Peck, spokeswoman for Diamond.

“After learning of (the) concerns, Dr. Diamond contacted university professors of Sikh religion this fall. Having completed substantial conversations with those scholars, she has determined that it would be most appropriate that future reprints of the catalogue will redefine Udasis as renouncers belonging to an order formed by Baba Sri Chand (son of Guru Nanak).

“References to Sikhism have been removed from the exhibition’s object labels for the next two venues, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art.”

The "Yoga" exhibition was at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery from Oct. 19, 2013, to Jan. 26, 2014.

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