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    Monday, March 27, 2023

    Sikh Art Gallery serves as educational tool for local community

    Creative director Swaranjit Singh Khalsa tells Lynne Love of Lisbon, with her granddaughter, Natasha Diaz, 1, of Norwich, about what the diversity monument represents while giving them a tour Saturday, April 24, 2021, of the Sikh Art Gallery in Norwich. The monument represents the diversity of the home countries of residents in Norwich and that it's a place for everyone. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich — It's called the Sikh Art Gallery, but owner Swaranjit "Singh" Khalsa is eager to point out to visitors that his gallery is as much about education as it is art.

    Khalsa opened the doors to the gallery at 7 Clinic Drive for an open house on Saturday, talking to visitors about the various aspects of the Sikh religion and history, handing out brochures and answering questions from the curious.

    "This community is new and the religion is pretty young compared to other world religions," Khalsa said. "So, we need to have opportunities where we can explain to people who we are and where we're from."

    "We are from Punjab, which was a separate country until 1849," he explains to one group of visitors, going on to talk about persecution by the Indian government and the widespread killing of Sikhs in India in 1984.

    Khalsa said there are about 20 Sikh families in Norwich and a growing number in the state, as evidenced by the increase of the number of gurdwaras, the places of worship for Sikhs. There are now five in the state, he said.

    For those not familiar with Sikhism, it is a monotheistic religion that claims more than 25 million followers worldwide, putting it among the largest organized religions in the world, though it has a fraction of followers compared to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

    It was founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of what is now India. There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, while the majority of Sikhs — more than 20 million — live in India. The basic principles of the religion are honesty, meditation and service to humanity.

    Khalsa is a small business owner, a member of the Norwich Board of Education and The Day's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Board. He said he is constantly seeking opportunities to educate people not just about Sikhism but about all of the faiths and nationalities present in the United States and in southeastern Connecticut.

    On Saturday, visitors were greeted with a small memorial with candles, flowers and photos of the eight victims of a shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. Four of those killed were members of the Sikh community. While a motive for the killing has not yet been determined, Khalsa said he believes they were targeted.

    He said educating people can only help to address hate crimes that he said appear to have risen in recent years.

    "When we go on the streets, people don't know everything about us. What background or history that person has especially when they are practicing the faith and have on a Dastar, which is a turban, they might think we are Muslim or Arab. Let's create opportunities where they can have the ability to understand us," he said.

    He said the gallery will remain, perhaps someday with regular open hours, as a resource center for people to come in, have coffee, chat, read a book about Sikhism or about what contributions Sikhs have made in America so far.

    Khalsa opened the gallery in November but it is currently open by appointment only because of the tight confines and pandemic safety protocols. He recently opened a back outside sitting area with several picnic tables and a way finding sign pointing toward places around the world — including China, Haiti, Mexico and Punjab — that reflect the diversity in Norwich.

    Norwich resident and local business owner Suki Lagrito visited the gallery on Saturday and credited Khalsa with helping to bring awareness to the diversity in the community. The two serve on the Celebrate Cultural Diversity Committee together.

    "I think it's really amazing," Lagrito said of the gallery. "He's bringing awareness and knowledge and education to this area. This is a small New England town. The global reach through education is really the key and power to helping people get connected with what's happening all over the world. The diversity here already exists. It needs to be highlighted."

    The Rev. David Good, minister emeritus of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, visited on Saturday hoping to connect with Khalsa as part of a project of the Community Foundation of a Eastern Connecticut called Public Art for Racial Justice Education.

    "They're using art as a way to celebrate Sikh culture but also to raise up awareness about what kind of suffering and injustices they've experienced," Good said.


    Creative director Swaranjit Singh Khalsa gives Lynne Love, of Lisbon with her granddaughter, Natasha Diaz, 1, of Norwich, a tour Saturday, April 24, 2021, of the Sikh Art Gallery in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Creative director Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, left, and Lynne Love of Lisbon, with granddaughter, Natasha Diaz, 1, of Norwich, stand in front of a portrait of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a key leader in the Sikh civil rights movement, while he tells her about the man Saturday, April 24, 2021, during a tour of the Sikh Art Gallery in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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