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A Showcase for Sikh Heritage

A painting of Bhai Alam Singh, a prominent Sikh, circa 1720-40.

Vijay Singh Chattha C’00 is proud of his Sikh heritage, so he took a leave from his nightlife-based Internet company, Urbangroove.com, to help a nonprofit group preserve and display Sikh cultural artifacts.
    Now he has another, more pressing, reason for showcasing his culture through the Smith-sonian Institution’s Sikh Heritage Project (www.sikhheritage.org). Sikhs living in the United States have been the target of at least several hate crimes since the terrorist attacks of September 11—all because many of them wear long beards and turbans like the Muslim extremist Osama bin Laden.
    “We are very concerned in our community about this occurrence,” says Chattha, who was born and raised in the United States. “We’re a completely separate religion from Islam, and our religion pretty much preaches tolerance. Just for the fact that we cover our heads to show respect to God, that’s been misinterpreted by some people in the U.S.” Sikhism is a 500-year-old monotheistic religion that incorporates some tenets of Hinduism and Islam, but is separate from both. It is practiced by about 22 million people around the world.
    But, Chattha is quick to add, “We don’t want to be in a position where we are fingerpointing. We want to take a much larger stance to make sure this [stereotyping] doesn’t happen to anybody.”
    So far his group and other Sikh cultural organizations have responded by putting Sikh Americans on news programs and raising funds for the family of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was gunned down September 15 at his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, by a man who later proclaimed, “I stand for America all the way.”
    “I think the media has done a decent job thus far,” says Chattha. “We hope to get some more help from the [networks’] programming departments. “We’d like to get some commercials during events such as NASCAR and NFL football, and target an American demographic that may not know about Sikhs or know about eastern religion in general.”
    Beyond that, he believes that long-term education is crucial. “I think this creates a sense of urgency [within the Sikh community] for this project to come to fruition.” An exhibit of Sikh artifacts, ranging from jewelry and artwork to Sikh scriptures, is planned for early 2002 at the Smithsonian, which draws more visitors than any other museum in the world. “Fundamentally, the only way we’re really going to change perceptions is to make those kinds of visual displays that people can see when they’re five or six years old, and can keep seeing, [to get] an explanation of who we are.” Behind the scenes the Smith-sonian will be involved in the restoration of a number of deteriorating Sikh objects, such as old manuscripts stored in temple basements with no climate-control systems.
    Chattha has used his dot.com experience with fundraising, financing, and event-planning to help the Sikh Heritage Project get off the ground quickly. This past summer it held a black-tie fundraising gala featuring South Asian performance artists.
    While a senior at Penn, Chattha cofounded Urbangroove.com, a network of alternative nightlife Web sites based in Philadelphia, with former housemate Nihal Mehta C/EAS’99. They began by marketing the service to friends on campus. Today Urban Groove’s total network reaches about half a million people a month in 11 cities: Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, London, Singapore, Vancouver, Dallas, Washington, and San Francisco. The company has since branched out into artist management and has become a wireless-applications service provider, licensing technology for sending nightlife information to users’ cell phones.
    Though Chattha is used to staying out late for work, he admits he gets nervous staying out much past midnight or 1 a.m. these days.
    “I don’t keep a turban, but I keep a beard and look very much like an Arab American, even though I’m not.” Chattha says. “We’ve had reports about Indian people attacked and beaten up in nightclubs.” Chattha’s father, who wears a turban, and his mother live in West Virginia. “I think they feel more safe there than in a big city because everybody knows them there,” he says.
    Knowledge, he hopes, will ultimately transcend ignorance. “As an American, you want to share with other Americans who you are,” he says. “That’s our real goal.”

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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/1/01