This Portrait Gallery In LA Highlights The Everyday Heroism Of Sikh Americans

A collage of images from the "Sikh Project," on display at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. from Sept. 11 to Nov. 3, 2019. (Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

Every day as a sheriff's deputy, Harinder Kaur Khalsa put on her uniform and badge and went to work helping to de-escalate conflicts in her community.

Meanwhile, Jatinder Singh Kahal heads to the family farm, having decided against law school in favor of the hard work of producing food for his country.

And cartoonist Vishavjit Singh patrols the streets in full Captain America garb in his fight against bigotry.

All of them wear the turban and unshorn hair that help distinguish them as Sikhs, followers of a faith that holds equality and service to humanity in the highest esteem. All three are among the 28 Sikh Americans featured in the "Sikh Project," a portrait gallery now on display at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

"The goal of this exhibition was just to show that, you know, Sikhs are average Americans, as well, and also just for Americans to get familiar with what the Sikh identity looks like," said Inderpreet Kaur with the Sikh Coalition, which commissioned the project.

The portraits on display are slick and full of character — smooth, bright and saturated, almost like paintings. Some are whimsical, others calm, still others haunting. The stories behind the photos shatter first impressions, constantly reminding the viewer that Sikhs, having faced discrimination and oppression around the world, are deeply passionate about freedom and equality.


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(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

JATINDER SINGH KAHAL
Farmer and Business Owner | Chowchilla, CA

The son and grandson of Californian Sikh farmers, Jatinder Singh Kahal was born and raised in Central Valley, California. Jatinder earned his bachelor's degree from the University of California, Davis. Initially he considered law school, but inspired by the sacrifice of his family and other farmers, he chose farming. Jatinder and his family farm grapes, almonds and pistachios. They own and manage over 2,500 acres and remain motivated by the strong work ethic and vast knowledge needed to put food on tables across America.

Jatinder embraced the Sikh articles of faith after graduating college and became an Amritdhari (initiated) Sikh in 2013. He feels that no amount of success or money has been able to give him the inner peace he has found through Sikhism. He hopes to pass the same values on to his two children.


HOW IT GOT STARTED

The project was initially conceived in 2014 by British Indian photographers Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti, known professionally as "Amit and Naroop."

Both are Sikh. But they don't wear turbans. They don't have long beards. And they didn't start this project with the intention of making a political or humanitarian statement.

The idea came from their agent, who thought a special project highlighting their unique interests outside of work might help score points with the big advertising agencies that often booked them for commercial work. Their agent suggested something that reflected their heritage.

After some initial research, they found the internet was not "very kind to the Sikh identity," Jhooti said. The images they found played more like stock photography of cab drivers, grocery store clerks and the like.

To counter that perception, Amit and Naroop decided to put Sikh men in a studio to strip away any context that might tempt viewers to form prejudgments. With a single, constant background in which only the people change, viewers can really study the individual, Jhooti said.

"Stylistically, it'd be very Western with our kind of advertising look, but the content would be Indian," Jhooti said. "So it felt like a perfect marriage."

They initially focused on men as a way to explore the different styles of beard and turban.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

TARANDEEP SINGH BALI
Information Technology Engineer | Hayward, CA

Tarandeep Singh Bali grew up in the only Sikh family in the village of Chandak, Jammu and Kashmir, which is on the border of India and Pakistan. His village was affected by the region's political and civil unrest, and during his childhood the local gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) was attacked numerous times. In 2000, more than 30 Sikhs were massacred in neighboring areas.

Tarandeep moved to the United States in 2007, but the attacks on his faith and identity followed him; throughout his life he has continued to encounter hateful remarks and even violence. These attacks have made Tarandeep truly understand the value of his turban. To him, his turban is an extension of his soul. The nine meters of cloth he wraps around his head represents the sacrifices and history of his ancestors.


GOING GLOBAL

It was supposed to be simple, but the project soon took on a life of its own.

"You know, we photographed 10 men initially, put them on our website, and we felt brilliant. That's our job done," Jhooti said.

Then came requests for more images. The original project grew to include 34 British Sikh men and multiple exhibitions, the first funded on Kickstarter. Positive press coverage fueled still more requests for images. And then they were approached to make an American version by the Sikh Coalition, whose work to combat discrimination in American society ranges from advocating for better hate crime laws to representing victims to producing anti-bullying curricula for schools.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sikh Americans suddenly found themselves the targets of a rising tide of hate and violence. One of the first hate crimes — possibly the first — committed in the wake of 9/11 was against a Sikh American.

"It was only after we heard stories of the persecution and the prejudice and discrimination that American Sikhs were facing, that we realized that, okay, this has to be done in America," he said.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

HARINDER KAUR KHALSA
Former Deputy Sheriff | Alameda County, CA

Former Deputy Sheriff Harinder Kaur Khalsa, originally from Birmingham, England, was originally the longest serving turbaned Sikh American in a law enforcement position in the United States. Former Deputy Sheriff Khalsa, who has also been a social worker, enjoys working with people, using her Punjabi language skills at her job and de-escalating potentially dangerous situations in Alameda County, California.

In 2009, Deputy Sheriff Khalsa was told she could not wear her turban while in her sheriff's uniform, forcing her into a non-uniformed desk assignment that kept her segregated from the public. After years of community advocacy, in 2013, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office complied with a new state law against workplace discrimination. This finally allowed Deputy Sheriff Khalsa to wear her turban with her uniform and made all uniformed assignments available to her.


FINDING NEW MEANING IN AMERICA

They decided the American version should be more representative, incorporating both men and women. Amit and Naroop worked with the Sikh Coalition to identify potential subjects and began a series of interviews.

At the core of these interviews were a couple of simple questions: "What's your relationship with the turban? How has it affected your life day-to-day?"

Many of the responses were positive, but often they seemed to convey experiences of discrimination and discomfort, Jhooti said:

"It's not easy to look like this."

"Every day we expect to be bullied, harassed, looked at."

"People don't sit next to us on public transit."

"We get weird looks."

In the UK exhibitions, the information cards that ran alongside the photos were simple: name and occupation. In the U.S. version, the personal stories became just as important as the images.

"It wasn't just about, you know, guys who look cool, or women who look amazing," Jhooti said. "A lot was about, 'Okay, what has this person done to add value to the community? And what are they doing to promote the Sikh identity in a positive way?"

One of the subjects of the American exhibit is musician Raaginder "Violinder" Singh, who told LAist by email that he felt Amit and Naroop's work personifies his identity and artistically gives the community a voice at a time when they need it most.

"There have been countless times where I've faced discrimination throughout my life," Singh wrote. "Many times, it's Islamophobia being directed toward me. Whenever something like this happens, I make sure to let them know who I am and who Sikhs are. Along with that, I make sure that the person knows Islamophobia is also unacceptable."


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

RAAGINDER "VIOLINDER" SINGH
Violinist and Music Composer | San Francisco Bay Area, CA

Raaginder Singh was born in Thailand in 1992 and raised in California. Both his parents are classically trained musicians, and from a young age, music has had a profound influence on his life. Raaginder's parents taught him, his sister and hundreds of Sikh youth, gurmat sangeet (playing of Sikh hymns on instruments).

Raaginder began playing the violin at 11 and learned in raags (classical South Asian melodic modes). Since then he has experimented with hip-hop, Punjabi folk, R&B and other genres. Raaginder, who earned his Bachelors of Fine Arts in World Music Performance from California Institute of the Arts, is a full-time violinist and composer. He has performed on prominent stages all over the world, including the White House and the Pentagon. He has also performed the U.S. National Anthem at a Los Angeles Clippers game for more than 18,000 people.


A SIKH FACT CHECK

A lot of Americans may not know much about Sikhism or its practitioners.

Sikhism is the fifth largest major religion in the world after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, with 25 million followers worldwide, but the U.S. share of that population is just 500,000, according to a guide released by the Religion News Foundation.

California boasts both the largest share of American Sikhs and the first-ever Sikh place of worship in the country. The first "gurdwara" was founded in 1912 in Stockton.

So Sikhs have been part of the fabric of our country and our state for more than 100 years. Yet many people (including this writer) continue to harbor misguided notions about their faith.

So in preparation for your visit (these portraits are definitely worth seeing up close and in person), here is a short list of things you may not have known about Sikhs and Sikhism.

1. Sikhism is an independent religion.

There's a misperception that Sikhs are part of the Hindu or Muslim faiths. In fact, Sikhism is a unique — and relatively new — religion that has its origins in the Punjab region, which spans the modern nations of India and Pakistan. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469. Islam predates it by about 800 years.

2. It's pronounced with a short "i" sound.

"I know a lot of folks, they pronounce it as 'seek,' but the correct way to pronounce it is 'sick,'" said Kaur, the Southern California community development manager for the Sikh Coalition. At least, that's the preferred pronunciation, from the original Punjabi.

3. The turban's significance has more to do with political history than religion.

The turban, worn in many cultures across the world by both men and women, was developed as a practical garment to protect the wearer from the elements, Jhooti said.

In India, it evolved into a symbol of class, with the rich wearing turbans made of luxurious fabrics and colors and adorned with diamonds and beads, and the poor wearing turbans of plain cotton. At one point, some faiths were banned by the government from wearing them at all, Jhooti said.

So for Sikhs, wearing the turban became a statement of equality and an expression of defiance.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

VISHAVJIT SINGH
Sikh Captain America | New York, NY

Vishavjit Singh was born in Washington, D.C., but moved to Delhi, India as a child, where he survived the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Vishavjit moved back to the United States after high school, and following the 9/11 attacks, he started creating cartoons focused on Sikh news and events, housed at Sikhtoons.com. A decade into his cartooning career, he took to the streets of New York as Sikh Captain America to both visually represent the Sikh battle against bigotry and normalize the Sikh American hero.

Vishavjit now lives in New York, New York with his wife and continues to devote his artistic energy toward fighting intolerance with art and storytelling. Vishavjit's cartoons creatively address hate crimes against Sikhs and horrific events, including the 1984 Indian military attacks on gurdwaras (Sikh houses of worship) and genocidal attacks against Sikhs in India.


4. That signature look is like the uniform of a police officer (or a superhero).

The traditional garb that makes Sikhs stand out so much is made of up five "articles of faith" — the unshorn hair, a small comb called a kanga, a steel bracelet called a kara, a small knife-like object called a kirpan, and an undergarment called a kachera.

When you see someone dressed as such, it is a sign of deep commitment to the faith.

"This uniform really represents that they're duty-bound to help anybody that may ask for help, and that they are to stand up against, you know, injustice as well," said Kaur. In that context, a Sikh Captain America makes perfect sense.

The turban is not one of the articles of faith, but its origin and significance still resonate among Sikhs, so many choose to wear it.

"Being a Sikh is very much your own journey. You will find Sikhs in the United States who do not keep their hair or may not choose to wear a turban, but they still identify as Sikhs," said Kaur. "So it's not always about external identity, but obviously, when you have that external identity, you do, you know, stand out more."

5. Sikh surnames are feminist and egalitarian.

Sikh men often carry the middle or last name "Singh" (pronounced like "sing"), which translates to "lion." Women, like Inderpreet, often carry the middle or last name "Kaur" (pronounced "core"), which means "sovereign."

Both names were associated with royalty. At a time when a person's name branded them of a particular occupation and caste, taking on a royal surname was revolutionary. For women in particular, the surname reflects that she does not belong to her father's or her husband's household, but that she is a sovereign individual in her own right.

You can see more images from the exhibition and stories provided by the Sikh Coalition below.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

HANSRAJ SINGH
Student and Eagle Scout | San Jose, CA

Hansraj Singh was born and raised in San Jose, California and originally became a Boy Scout in 2008. In 2013, he reached the rank of Eagle Scout, which is an honor only 4 percent of all Boy Scouts ever receive. Hansraj's Sikh Scout troop, is based out of the San Jose Gurdwara. Hansraj finds many similarities between the Boy Scout oath/laws and the beliefs of Sikhism; for example the Boy Scout motto "be prepared" corresponds to the Sikh philosophy of always being on the ready.

After graduating from the University of California, Merced, Hansraj plans to work within the audit field as a Certified Public Accountant.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

JAGTAR SINGH ANANDPURI
Truck Driver and Business Owner| Union City, CA

Jagtar Singh Anandpuri was born and raised in Punjab, India. He peacefully protested Indian government persecution of Sikhs. Because of his political beliefs, Punjab Police repeatedly detained and brutally tortured Jagtar, beating him with boards and subjecting him to electrical shocks. Jagtar fled to the United States in 1995, where he was granted political asylum, and he successfully applied to bring his wife and children to his new California home the following year. He obtained full U.S. citizenship in 2004.

Jagtar has been professionally driving trucks for years. Several years ago, he started a small business called 24-7 Express Trucking Corporation that transports freight across the country. Jagtar lives with his wife and children in Union City, California.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

ISHPRIT KAUR
Nursing School Graduate | West Hartford, CT

Ishprit Kaur was born in New Delhi, India in 1989. Following the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, her father came to the United States and then brought over the rest of the family. In 1995, Ishprit's father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Inspired by her mother's commitment to service as a nurse and the care her father received, Ishprit decided to pursue nursing, and she recently graduated from St. Vincent's College. Aside from her work as a nurse, Ishprit is a self-proclaimed pizza connoisseur, fitness enthusiast, dog lover and fashionista.

Upon Ishprit's request, a friend tied a breathtaking turban on her almost a decade ago. Ishprit immediately felt empowered, regal and blessed. Since then, Ishprit ties her turban everyday to remind herself to stay true to the Sikh way of life.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

MEHTAB SINGH
Biker and Anesthesiologist | Syracuse, NY

Mehtab Singh was born in Punjab, India and moved to the United States in 1982. He first rode a friend's motorcycle in 1991, and it turned into an expression of freedom that motivated him to keep riding. Mehtab is part of the Sikh Motorcycle Club Northeast. Mehtab and his fellow bikers have a passion for educating the public about Sikhism, with an emphasis on preserving the Sikh identity regardless of one's lifestyle. They participate in various events, including the annual Sikh Day Parade in New York City.

Mehtab's passion for education extends to involvement in various Sikh, interfaith and Boy Scout events, and writing for the local newspaper. He also actively supports Sikh nonprofits and other charitable organizations.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

HARPREET KAUR
Director, Producer and Filmmaker| Ellicott City, MD

Harpreet Kaur works as a producer for a PBS member station and is the founder of Sach Productions. She was the first Sikh news reporter in the Washington D.C. area. For over a decade, Harpreet has directed award-winning documentaries shedding light on social issues. Through advocacy and storytelling, Harpreet has impacted the lives of the individuals in her films and has inspired her audiences to become proactive. Her debut feature documentary, The Widow Colony, was the first Sikh film to be shown at the Canadian and U.K. Parliament, followed by a screening at the United States Congress.

Her documentary A Little Revolution, takes viewers into the homes of children of farmers in Punjab, India, who have committed suicide. Harpreet strives to educate, entertain and enlighten viewers with her ability to share compelling stories.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

RAJVIR KAHLON
Student and Soccer Player | Pittsburgh, PA

Rajvir Kahlon was born in Oakville, Canada in 1996. Growing up he was drawn to soccer, but playing professionally became a priority when Rajvir had the opportunity to train in Europe when he was 13. With his parents stressing the importance of a good education, Rajvir decided that playing Division 1 soccer in the United States was the best way to receive a good education and achieve all of his goals. Rajvir signed with the University of Pittsburgh during his senior year of high school and is the only Sikh in the ACC conference at the college level. He is grateful for his scholarship to a top academic college and to play in one of the best soccer conferences in the country.

Rajvir earneda degree from the University of Pittsburgh.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

ZORAVER SINGH
Elementary School Student | Jersey City, New Jersey

Zoraver Singh Narulla is a third generation Sikh American. His favorite presidents are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. He loves karate, Star Wars, Harry Potter and chasing Pokemon all over his neighborhood. His passion is animals. He loves studying them in books and in person, and helping with conservation efforts that better protect animals all over the world.

Zoraver wears a patka (head covering generally worn by Sikh boys) every day. Zoraver and his family deliver Sikh Awareness presentations every year to his classmates, so they can better understand Sikhism and his articles of faith. His family joins other Sikh children and parents who continue to work with school officials to increase resources and education aimed at combating school bullying in classrooms across America.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

AMRITA KAUR KHURANA
Former New York Times Manager of Marketing Operations | Mahwah, NJ

Amrita Kaur Khurana was the first and only female turbaned Sikh employee at The New York Times when she started there in 2005. After marriage and with the encouragement of her husband, she first started tying a turban in 2008. She now lives in Mahwah, New Jersey, with her husband and three boys who all proudly wear turbans.

Amrita was born in Delhi, India, where attackers targeted her house and neighborhood in the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. When her family fled to an uncle's house for safety, they dressed Amrita's younger brother as a girl in an effort to keep him out of harm's way. Soon afterwards, Amrita came to the United States with her mom and brother.


(Amit and Naroop with the Sikh Coalition)

LATHAN DENNIS-SINGH
Aerospace Engineer| Fairfax, VA

Lathan Dennis-Singh considers following Sikhism the most wonderful gift and experience any human can expect in this life. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and was good friends with Bob Marley.

In a series of devastating events, Dennis lost his caretakers and became homeless at 13, and Rastafarian culture became his home. Despite this challenge, Dennis moved to the United States on a scholarship, studying aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. He adopted Sikhism in college over 48 years ago after being transformed by Sikh meditation practice (Naam Simran) and hearing Gurbani (words from the Sikh holy book). Dennis has been living in Fairfax, Virginia for nearly 30 years. Despite having experienced workplace discrimination and racism, Dennis maintains a spirit of Chardi Kala (eternal optimism).

The full gallery will be on display at the Museum of Tolerance through Nov. 3.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the current employment of Harinder Kaur Khalsa, as well as the share of Sikhs compared to other religions in America. Khalsa no longer works in Alameda County, and Sikhism is the fifth largest in the world, not necessarily in America. LAist regrets the errors.