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An exhibition with more than 450 artefacts from the Sikh community opened on March 26, 2021. It was one of the largest displays of the community in Singapore's history. 

The Indian Heritage Centre in Little India became home to the exhibit ‘Sikhs in Singapore - A Tale Untold’, primarily made up of artefacts donated by the local Sikhism community over the past year. It describes the experiences of the 13,000 Sikhism adherents here.

History intertwined with Sikh culture in Singapore

The curators of the exhibition said that given the Singapore Sikh community's love of collecting, the items loaned to the centre had significance far beyond Singapore's borders. For instance, a gouache painting on paper from the 19th century was created at the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who in 1801 united Punjab against invaders to establish the first Sikh Empire.

Loans from the globally renowned Khanuja family collection and the Kapany collection in the United States, which were brought here despite the difficulties of shipping them due to the coronavirus limitations, were another attraction of the exhibition.

The closely packed exhibits, which took up about 230 square metres, were chosen from a deluge of more than 1,000 artefacts that the community contributed. According to the curatorial team, this indicates a willingness to publicly disclose stories that were previously kept private.

The exhibition curator, Malvika Agarwal, said, “Sikhs in Singapore are often reduced to their physical characteristics, or seen as just policemen or guards. We hope this (exhibition) helps people realise that there is more to know. Much of the Singaporean-Sikh identity has been kept alive by being passed down through successive generations of Sikhs and so it was crucial that we worked closely with the community."

The Indian Heritage Centre stated that March 26 was chosen for the exhibition's opening since it celebrated the 140th anniversary of the Sikhs' arrival in Singapore.

Since migrating from Punjab in the 19th century, Sikhs have established themselves solidly in Singapore over time. It is true that the majority of the first wave of immigrants were men who joined the Sikh police force during British colonial rule, but by the first quarter of the 20th century, they had assumed positions in businesses dealing with textiles, foods, electronics, and sporting goods.

Women from Punjab arrived in Singapore after their husbands had settled, first serving as custodians of Sikh craft and oral traditions, and subsequently becoming professionals who worked outside the home.

The organisers commissioned photographer Afiq Omar, to photograph 50 young Singaporean Sikh adults against local surroundings, to help the public better understand Sikhs and move beyond stereotypes. Visitors can listen to these young individuals talk about their lives and experiences in Singapore by scanning the photos on their phones.

Peek into the one-of-its-kind exhibition 

At the launch of the exhibition, the guest of honour, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, delivered a pre-recorded speech in which he stated that the Sikhs, as well as the exhibition, exemplify the spirit of chardi kala, which can be defined as the capacity to maintain a positive state of mind in the face of adversity.

In the same way that the complete collection was successfully put together during more than 20 Zoom sessions amid the pandemic, the Sikhs in Singapore have contributed to a wide variety of activities and occupations despite having a difficult start, he continued.

He said, "It is also about how people support each other. The Sikh community has always practised that seva (service) spirit...and we have seen that very much in Singapore over a century, through the gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and through other community organisations.”

Four key pieces at the exhibition 

1. Painting of 10 Sikh gurus

The painting was the exhibition's crowning achievement; it was created in India in the 19th century using colours, semi precious stones, and wood. It was taken from the extensive private collection of the Khanuja family in the United States and shows the 10 gurus who are  the spiritual guides of the Sikh faith. 

Guru Nanak, who lived in the 15th century, is considered to be the first guru. All ten gurus  spread the faith, established centres for education,codified  the sacred book, and ensured that the tradition of langar, or free kitchens, was maintained.

2. Instrument of Seva Singh Gandharab

Sarangis are stringed instruments that are commonly employed in Punjabi folk music. A particular sarangi was displayed at the exhibition. 

Seva Singh was a musician and an experienced singer of gurbani, which is another name for Sikh hymns. He also worked as a hospital assistant at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Seva Singh was born in Singapore in 1920.

In recognition of his contributions to Indian culture, he was given the highest honour in the country, which was a siropa (shawl), at the Golden Temple in Amritsar city. In addition, the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore presented him with a shield.

3. A pair of Sikh guard statues from Bukit Brown Cemetery

Since the Chinese trusted the Sikh guards more than their own deities, many Chinese cemeteries in Singapore incorporated statues of Sikh guards as grave guardians. The Sikh jaga statues reflect the predominant impression that Singaporeans have of Sikhs. They were crafted in the early part of the 20th century and were discovered in the grave of Madam Yap Woo Neo.

Young Sikh men who were unable to match the recruitment standards of the British Sikh contingent became security guards or watchmen during the times of colonial rule. These individuals were given the job title of jaga, which is the Sikh word for the guard.

4. Trilogy of films

New perspectives on what it means to be a Sikh in Singapore were presented in three videos that were commissioned especially for this exhibition. The title of the trilogy was Being Sikh, and its subject matter focuses on the part that women play in Sikh culture as well as spirituality. The first movie, for example, was based on a true story about an elderly woman who lived through many significant historical events. The movie uses this story to stress the role that women play as agents of stability and the well-being of their families.

Upneet Kaur Nagpal, a filmmaker who has won multiple awards, and Balli Kaur Jaswal, a writer, are the producers of these films.


*Based on an article by Clement Young, published in The Straits Times on 27th March 2021


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