SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – The Sikh Foundation will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, beginning March 10 with a special exhibit at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum.
The exhibit, titled “Saints and Kings: Arts, Culture, and Legacy of the Sikhs,” will be on display at the Asian Art Museum through June 18. Portraits and treasures of the 18th century warrior Maharaja Ranjit Singh will be on display. The exhibit will also feature a timeline of the first Indians who arrived in America: pioneering Sikhs, who settled in California’s Central Valley in the early 1900s.
The exhibit will also feature works from Narinder Singh Kapany’s extensive collection of Sikh art. The Indian American physicist, who is known as the “father of fiber optics,” founded the Sikh Foundation in 1967 and currently serves as the organization’s chairman.
The 90-year-old Kapany, who lives on the San Francisco Peninsula, told India-West that many of the pieces in his collection were handed down through several generations of his family. Kapany has also added to his collection over the past 40 years, with works he has purchased in India and England.
Asked about his favorite piece in his collection, Kapany laughingly said: “This would be like choosing a favorite child.”
All of the works on display are from the Asian Art Museum’s collection. Kapany has donated the majority of the pieces – approximately 95 – Qamar Adamjee, who curated the exhibit, told India-West.
Adamjee – the associate curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco – said she has been working on the show for about a year. The display will focus on three themes, among which are a glimpse of the Sikh religion, with a focus on Guru Nanak; and the courtly art of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who unified several small kingdoms into one, with the capital in Lahore. Three portraits of Singh will be on display, along with a large, wooden box inlaid with ivory, and an emerald ring with his inscription.
Poet and illustrator Emily Eden – a visitor to Singh’s court in the 1830s, while her brother George Eden served as the governor-general of India – sketched several drawings of the maharajah, which were published in a book. The Asian Art Museum exhibit will feature two of Eden’s drawings: Singh with his favorite horse; and a compilation of several pieces of jewelry, including the Kohinoor diamond, which he possessed at the time.
The third theme of the exhibit focuses on courtly art after Singh’s death; the kingdom became splintered, and maharajahs became princes under the British Empire. Their portraits feature a mix of traditional robes with European military dress.
By the 1860s, photography had emerged as a medium; several of the portraits were inspired by photography, noted Adamjee. Two photos – including one of Jammu and Kashmir ruler Pratap Singh – will also be on display.
“There is a lot of material gathered together in one space. I’m hoping there’s something in the exhibit to appeal to everyone,” she said.
Kapany told India-West that he is collaborating with the Smithsonian to create a coffee-table book, featuring his entire collection of art.
The 50th year anniversary celebrations of the Sikh Foundation will also feature a series of lectures at Stanford University, and a three-day gala, beginning May 5. Two ministers from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet are expected to attend: Navdeep Singh Bains, minister of science and economic development, and Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Kapany laughingly noted that Trudeau has more Sikhs in his Cabinet – five – than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in his: two.
The Sikh Foundation is a cultural organization, not religious, said Kapany, adding that he wants Americans to understand the Sikh culture, especially in view of the current xenophobic climate of the country.
“50 years is a long time to sustain an organization. It’s worth a celebration,” he said.