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Sikh Exhibit at Fresno Art Museum Has Smithsonian Pedigree





Walk into the new exhibition, "Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab" at the Fresno Art Museum and you will find, in a shiny display case direct from the Smithsonian Institution, a reproduction of an important work titled, "The Ten Gurus and Guru Gobind Singh's Four Sons."

The image is a montage of the revered founders of the Sikh religion, starting with Guru Nanak, born in 1469. Look closely and you can see the Gurus, considered spiritual Yeachers or Masters, in moments of everyday life. They were instrumental in forming the tenets of a religion that counts tens of millions of followers worldwide, including a substantial number in California's Central Valley.

But don't dwell on the reproduction too long. Instead, walk a few feet into an adjacent gallery and see the real thing: a delicate gouache, or painting, on paper from the early 19th century.

The presence of two versions of the image of "The Ten Gurus" is just one of the remarkable aspects of the new exhibition, an arts-and-culture experience that includes puhlkari textiles, weapons, miniature paintings, music, historical notes and a replica of the famed Sikh Golden Temple. (It continues through April 30.) Among the superlatives:

-  It's the first time a Smithsonian exhibition has traveled to the Fresno Art Museum.

-  The exhibition adds works that weren't included in the original Smithsonian show, which opened at the Natural History Museum in Washington in 2004. Linda Cano, director of the Fresno Art Museum, wanted to beef up the number of artworks used in the show. She and her staff arranged to borrow these additional works from members of the Sikh-American community, many of them from California.

-  It's the first time an exhibition at the museum has been fully funded by members of the community. Between $60,000 and $70,000 was raised by a group of local donors to mount the show, says Dr. Ajit Singh of Fresno, who helped spearhead the effort.

The result is an exhibition that offers a peek into the art and traditions of a culture that has been firmly enmeshed in the Valley's daily life since the 1920s, but that many people don't know much about.

"We want the community to come out and see where we came from, our customs, how we practice our religion, and to show off that we are in all walks of life," Ajit Singh says. "We are farmers, doctors, truckers, lawyers. We want to show off to the Central Valley that we are part of you."

In the years following 9/11, Sikh-Americans have experienced discrimination, which added to the need for public awareness, he says.

The exhibition has been two years in the making, Cano says, and was suggested by local citizens who were impressed by the exhibition when it ran in Washington.

This is the third venue for the show after Washington and Santa Barbara, says Paul Michael Taylor, director of the Asian Cultural History Program at the Smithsonian and curator of the show.

Unlike most traveling Smithsonian shows, which aren't changed except occasionally to remove some objects for space limitations, the "Sikhs" exhibition was given an opportunity to grow.

"You who see this show in Fresno are probably going to see the best incarnation of this exhibition so far," Taylor says. "The Fresno Art Museum has given it more space, and a few of the same donors to the original exhibition have acquired things that weren't available when we opened our show in 2004. I would have begged to have some of these items in our original exhibition."

Among those items: a number of paintings with Sikh themes, both 19th century and contemporary works; several gorgeous puhlkari textiles; a coin and a gold pendant; and an impressive seated sculpture of Maharaja Ranjit Singh made in 1900 of white marble.

Then there's "The 10 Gurus" painting. One of the most striking images is of Guru Gobind Singh. He's seated on a plush red cushion, his green garment a striking contrast, with a bejeweled turban and handsome sheathed sword at his side.

Annointed a Guru at age nine, he is remembered for strengthening the Sikh community. To unite Sikhs and emphasize their equality, he gave all Sikh men the surname Singh, which means "lion," and all Sikh women the surname Kaur, meaning "princess." Sikhs still use these names today, often along with other surnames.

If you'd attended the original "Sikhs" exhibition at the Smithsonian within a few months of its opening, you would have been able to see the original of "The 10 Gurus." But the work is so delicate in terms of sensitivity to light that it can't be displayed for more than a few months at a time, so it had to be removed from public view.

It's such an important work in terms of Sikh history that Taylor, the Smithsonian curator, used the reproduction in the explanatory case about the Sikh Gurus so that visitors who missed the opening months of the exhibition could see it.

It isn't until now that the original has rejoined the show.

"Fresno is extraordinarily lucky to have this piece," Taylor says.

He feels the same way about the show itself.

"Fresno is a significant center for Sikhs," he says, "and this exhibition is definitely a significant event for Fresno."


"Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab," 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through April 30. Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First St., Fresno, California, U.S.A., (559) 441-4221. $5. (Museum closed Sunday, Jan. 22, for private opening event).

Lecture by Curator Paul Michael Taylor, 10 a.m., on Monday, January 23, 2012.

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[Courtesy: The Fresno Bee. Edited for]

January 20, 2012

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Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 20, 2012, 7:55 AM.

This is happening because all of a sudden, through technology, Sikhs are being united on one issue - the urgent need to educate the world and ourselves ... about ourselves! Let us have an exhibition in every major city!

2: Jasvir Kaur (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), March 31, 2012, 9:10 AM.

Whereas awareness has grown for historical works of art, there is still a void by not doing enough. is doing good job by publicising important art events around the globe. I am surprised how you missed the Canadian Exhibition of Punjabi Artists recently held at Reach Museum. I hope Canadian Museums do more of these exhibits with artists living in our times. We praise artists after their death but there is more need to admire, exhibit and purchase their art during their lifetime. Let's come together and make an art council supporting our living artists of exceptional talent. [EDITOR: Our community has yet to learn that organizing or holding an event is merely half of the work. The other half is publicizing it ... before, during and after. received no organized overture, media-kit, phone-calls or publicity material from this Exhibition. Hence, no coverage. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears the sound ...!"]

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