Area Sikhs share their traditions

FAIRFIELD – Dining on Middle Eastern delicacies while she awaited a Sikh dance presentation, Janet Pine was exactly who leaders of the Punjabi-American Cultural Association were hoping would show up for their heritage festival Saturday.

While many of the attendees were Solano County Sikhs drawn to celebrate their culture, Pine is a Mormon who came to learn about an intriguing ethnicity.

“If the world was all the same, it would be pretty boring,” said Pine, a former librarian from Vacaville who was sitting among several Sikhs wearing turbans and other traditional Punjabi clothing.

“They should not get a bad rap for what’s happened.”

Pine referred to the principle goal of event organizers – to diminish the discrimination and physical attacks against Sikhs that developed in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. An increase of non-Sikh participation Saturday compared to last year indicated to organizers that they are making progress in efforts to educate about Sikh life.

The second annual Punjabi Heritage Festival, which was dedicated to the “victims and heroes of Sept. 11,” drew several hundred to the Fairfield Center for Creative Arts. After dining on Punjabi delights, guests settled in for musical performances and lectures about Sikh culture.

The event, added to the association’s educational efforts in local schools and businesses, is helping to reverse misunderstanding and fear of Sikhs, said association spokesperson Gurpreet Dhugga. He said the climate for Sikhs has improved dramatically since the months following the terrorist attacks.

“We don’t expect to see results too soon – it will take years and years of effort,” Dhugga said, with the hope that even more non-Sikhs will attend future events. “When people don’t know about other cultures, there is an apprehension about being accepted.”

While Sikhism denotes a religious affiliation, Dhugga said the festival is designed to celebrate the overall culture of the Punjabi region. It’s also a way for young Sikhs to learn more about their own traditions.

The Biring brothers of Fairfield started taking lessons several months ago to learn the Bhangra dance. Saturday’s performance with a troupe of other dancers was their first major exhibition, and their way of participating in their heritage.

“It’s something I didn’t know how to do,” said Amarjot Biring, a 24-year-old computer programmer, who added that the treatment of Sikhs in the workplace and elsewhere has improved. “The more (others) know, the less hate crimes there’ll be.”

His 19-year-old brother, Baljot, a Solano College freshman, said he simply wanted to know “how to do the moves” of the all-male dance. A group of female dancers performed a traditionally feminine dance called Giddha.

Offering the right mix of entertainment and a sampling of Punjabi food is a great way to attract non-Sikhs to the event, said another organizer, Devinder Singh Wadyal, who was dressed in a turban, navy pinstripe suit and patriotic American tie.

“We couldn’t ask for more than that,” Wadyal said of the large crowd gathering for dinner Saturday.

Besides the chicken curry, Basmati rice, Dal Makhani (lentil soup) and Samos (potato and onion fried dumplings), the main attraction for dinner were sweet cakes called Gulab Jamun and Barfi, Wadyal explained.

He said he’d like the event and the association’s activities to grow enough to require a larger location. “Some day I dream that we can have a hall of our own,” he said.

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