The Sikh Art Gallery in Norwich seeks to connect with community

Rick Koster, The Day, New London, Conn.
·6 min read

Feb. 28—The small, one-story building sits on a commercially zoned street just around the corner from Backus Hospital in Norwich. At one time, it probably contained a medical clinic or dental practice.

Now, it provides succor in another context.

It's home to the Sikh Art Gallery, and within the compact layout is in fact plenty of artwork. As a relatively new business, the gallery is at present a COVID-era work in progress, awaiting larger traveling exhibitions and shows devoted to specific artists for when the pandemic subsides. Until then, visitors are allowed by appointment only.

But the gallery also serves as a welcome center, library, and headquarters from whence Swaranjit "Singh" Khalsa, the owner, does his estimable part to introduce Sikh culture and history to southeastern Connecticut. At the same time, Khalsa says, "It's not just about familiarizing the region with our community, but also educating our Sikh community about Connecticut and America. This is our home now. We want to be good Sikhs and honor Punjab, but we want to be good Americans and honor America."

Dressed in a dark suit with a yellow tie and matching Dastar — or turban, the traditional headwear worn by practicing Sikhs that symbolizes several virtues — Khalsa, who is a member of The Day's new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Board, happily gives a quick tour of the gallery. When a visitor enters, there's a low-slung table featuring a variety of brochures, bumper stickers, and informative pamphlets about Sikhism and Punjab — the state in India where the faith was founded and remains the spiritual home — along with a metal road sign that says the word WELCOME in 24 languages.

Just behind is Khalsa's desk, positioned in front of a wall featuring a variety of framed proclamations and citations of recognition from civic and cultural groups welcoming the Sikh community to Norwich and Connecticut. Colorful Sikh flags hang throughout, and shelves are crammed with informative books about Sikhism.

Khalsa says the religion is a very misunderstood faith, particularly in this country after 9-11, when fear and stereotypes gripped the Western world. But Sikhism in a universalist, egalitarian religion, founded in the 15th century in norther India by a young, high-caste Punjabi named Nanak after an epiphany that God was formless and is shared by all religions — that distinctions based on class, gender and race are illusory.

As on Sikh principle expresses it, "I see no stranger, I see no enemy, I look upon all with good will."

A wide array

Display cases are devoted to gleaming ceremonial weaponry, ornate works of jewelry, and sculptures including Lego representations of Sikh architecture. Khalsa points at the Lego building and says, "A big part of our mission is to interest people of all ages, from children up. Young people are very open to learning about new things without preconceived ideas."

The rest of the walls in the main room and down a small hallway are hung with scrolls, shields, and paintings and posters that reflect formative and indigenous Hindu and Mughal court painting styles, most depicting important figures from Punjab and/or Sikh history. But the work isn't confined in a classicist sense. Some are rendered in colorful, post-modern style and feature artists from well beyond Punjab, including Germany and Canada.

There is also a back courtyard that, Khalsa says, will be developed conceptually when the weather improves. Earlier this week, a virtual tour of the gallery was posted online, and there are also links to famous Sikh artists and art dealers on the Sikh Art Gallery home page.

None of the artwork presently in the gallery is for sale, which is by design. "Eventually, we will have traveling exhibits and show work by artists, some of whom will offer pieces for sale," Khalsa says. But the core group of art on display "is a resource for visitors who want to learn more about Sikhism or for schools or cultural groups who would like to see it.

"We needed a place to fully express ourselves on a variety of issues. I treat art and music and language as important opportunities to connect with one another. Art is something that brings an instant reaction or emotions, and we hope ours is in a positive way."

"We want people to think of this gallery as a place to come together, to have a cup of coffee, and to learn about one another," Khalsa says. "We are blessed to have this place, and our mission is to educate and be educated — not to proselytize." He points at the welcome sign. "Our religion welcomes diversity."

"The gallery is full of beautiful artwork. The colors are amazing, unique and symbolic," says Norwich mayor Peter Nystrom, who has spoken at numerous events in support of the Sikh community and will deliver remarks in Hamden at a March 14 event commemorating the Sikh flag and New Year. He adds, "More than just a place to see art, though, the gallery demonstrates Singh's commitment to his faith and his cause — which is to unite everyone. I've known him since 2010 and consider him a friend. He's a nice young man with a wonderful family, and the history of what Sikhs have faced and continue to face is somethng we all need to understand."

A bit of history

Khalsa says the gallery is a dream that started to coalesce for him in 2010. There is a growing Sikh community not just in Norwich — where, he says, 20 Sikh families now live — but also throughout the state, with five places of worship.

"I have been working for years to help break the ice, so to speak," he explains. "There is a tendency in all of us to fear those who look different, whether it's the family next door or in the workplace — when the reality is, we're just like you and you're just like us."

Among his other efforts on behalf of the Sikh community, Khalsa, who also owns a Norwichtown Shell gas station, was instrumental in establishing Nov. 30, 2018, as Sikh Genocide Remembrance Day in Connecticut. He also donated materials to Otis Library in 2019 for the installation of a memorial to thousands of Sikh victims killed 35 years ago in an attack by the Indian army, though the memorial was later taken down in part because of protests by the Indian government.

Understanding through art

"We're trying to preserve our history and, if people are curious, we're here to provide for them," Khalsa says. "These small efforts — and this gallery — are helping gain exposure. And Norwich — the community, the schools and libararies, and the government and businesses — has been extremely welcoming and responsive. We're hoping NFA and other schools in the district will be interested in learning about us, and we are happy to provide materials and artwork to those institutions."

"I had the honor of taking a tour at the gallery," says Angela Adams, executive director of the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce. "Singh has been a great partner not only to our local businesses but to our community as well. I look forward to learning more about the culture and ways the chamber can help support their mission and raise awareness about their religion."

"I have such hopes for this place in many ways," Khalsa says, waving his arm around the gallery in a paternal gesture. "At the same time, just look at this art work. Sometimes, I remember to just stop and think how beautiful it all is."