BY INDIRA PRAHST
Department of Sociology
CLOSE to 200 students gathered last Wednesday at Langara’s Student Union Building at Langara to celebrate Vaisakhi. The event was organized by the Langara Sikh Association (LSA) and according to the president of the association, Sukhmandeep Singh Bassi, the purpose was to provide a Sikh perspective of Vaisakhi and to educate people. They used posters to explain what Sikhi is, the meaning of the turban and the Kirpan and had a table with a display of weapons used for Gatka.
Bassi elaborated: “We wanted to explain to people what Vaisakhi is. It has often been associated only with Bhangra, but we wanted to describe it from a Sikh lens. We have Gatka at the event, which is our martial art which we wanted to showcase to the public who may not know this part of our identity.”
Several Sikhs were deeply moved which was quite evident as they watched the spectacular Gatka performance by Sikh youth from the Gatka Federation of Canada who came from Surrey, Abbotsford, New Westminster and Richmond. One of them was Ramandeep Singh, who has supported and mentored Sikh youth for several years.
Manjot Sandhu, a former Langara student of mine, said: “I feel proud. I can imagine all the Sikh history while I am watching Gatka.” Indeed, Sikh history and identity were at the forefront of the event which also evoked feelings of nostalgia. The Gatka instructor, Jagdish Singh, guided and joined in Gatka with the Sikh youth. Afterwards, he explained the significance of the weapons in the context of Sikh history that were on display. I asked him what the event meant for him and he said that he came out to support the Sikh students at Langara and that he enjoys teaching Gatka. He added: “We need more spaces to explain what the value of weapons are, why we have used them and why we should take care of them. They are part of our roots. If we don’t have them, then what is our Sikh tradition?”
A concern often expressed to me by the Sikh Diaspora are the issues of preserving the distinct identity of Sikhs, the religious significance of events and misrepresentations of their articles of faith. The event bridged many gaps in perception and created spaces for their own voices to be heard. This was manifest in the careful wording of posters with “Sikh Vaisakhi” to underscore a distinct identity for Sikhs.
Jagdish Singh said that Vaisakhi was a harvest celebration because this was the key source of income for families in Punjab; so it was a joyous occasion, but after the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh ji, it became a religious event.
Other important aspects of Sikh identity such as uncut hair and the kirpan were also told from a Sikh perspective. This was important in light of current geopolitical climates and the upsurge of racist sentiments towards the “turban” especially with the media barrage of negative stereotypes that have marred the image of Sikhs and framed them as being inherently violent, associating the turban with terrorism and misrepresenting the Kirpan.
This resonated with a sociology student of mine and Langara Sikh Association member, Parmdeep Singh Gill, who was handing out free samosas and juice at the event. He said: “It is very welcoming that they [Caucasian students] wanted to know about Sikhi and were asking about the basics of Sikhi: ‘why do you have a beard? Why do you wear a Kirpan?’” The event provided a space for him to explain his identity to others from a Sikh lens rather than through media frames.
In closing, the Vaisakhi celebration brought back to the forefront what a Sikh is, underscoring the link between identity and history and through Gatka, illuminated the inseparability of the political rooted in Sikhi. Indeed, the event was a resounding success and despite it being held so close to the final exams, students from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds still came out to celebrate. The Langara Sikh Association is to be commended for organizing the event, and Langara for creating spaces for Sikhs to both express and showcase their identity with pride, including the Sikh tradition of the Saint Warrior. The event made Sikhs proud of their identity and in the words of Arashpreet Kaur, a member of LSA and a student at Langara, “We are able to represent ourselves freely, and our uniqueness and without fear. Gatka, is a martial art usually not allowed in some places [for security reasons], but we got permission to perform it here. This allows people to know that we use weapons for self-defence. I am so proud to be a Sikh today.”