Inderjit Singh Kallirai’s white whale was a performance of bhangra on ice. Four years ago, he was in talks with the San Jose Sharks to stage just such a performance between periods of a game. Having set up similar events in NBA arenas, he knew that bhangra, with its high-energy beats and whirling dance, could electrify the crowd.
The issue was this: How do you dance on ice? One idea was to lay mats over it, but the Sharks worried that might damage the playing surface. Then the kids, the troupe of dancers Kallirai had found, rebelled. “They turned around and said to me, ‘Uncle, you can’t do bhangra on ice’,” says Kallirai, now a 61-year-old retired state employee in Sacramento, says. “‘Bare feet and ice don’t mix.’”
There was a long back-and-forth, and the dance didn’t pan out. But it did break the ice, in another sense. In March 2017, the Sharks became the first NHL team to host Sikh Heritage Night. A few hundred community members, many of whom had never watched hockey live before, came for a game against the Vancouver Canucks. Their kids received special “Sikh Heritage” t-shirts and got to take photos at center ice.
There wasn’t any bhangra, but the community got to showcase its culture in other ways. Outside the arena, performers twirled swords in a traditional martial arts demonstration. Inside, on the concourse, community members manned a booth where fans could get their heads wrapped in that most visible of Sikh garments, a turban. Demand was high, especially for the teal ones. Every last turban was gone after one period of play.
These days, the organizers bring more turbans. Sikh Heritage Night has become an annual tradition in downtown San Jose, driven by the local gurdwara, or temple. For this often-misunderstood community, long accustomed to keeping a low profile in a country where they’ve often been targets of intimidation and violence, the event is a chance to stand at the center of one of the city’s iconic venues.
And other cities are following suit. Over the last five years, Sikh heritage events have become increasingly common at pro sports stadiums around the United States. They started in California, where half of America’s Sikh population lives, and have since popped up as far away as San Antonio, Detroit, and Philadelphia. They’ve been held at NBA, NFL, and NHL arenas. Many are spearheaded by Sikh “uncles” and “aunties” — that’s how South Asian-American kids refer to the grownups in their communities — who love sports. “Uncle Indi” Kallirai, who claims to be infected with a “desire not to be idle,” has organized about a half-dozen of them himself, and had a hand in many more.
At a time when many minority groups feel isolated, events like these are an unthreatening way to reach thousands of people. Teams appreciate them too; at a minimum, they are a great way to fill seats and inspire new fans. For Sikh-Americans, though, these events carry a greater charge.
Four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a gunman in Mesa, Arizona, drove to a gas station and shot dead its turban-wearing owner Balbir Singh Sodhi. This attack turned out to be among the first of hundreds of hate incidents targeting Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Middle Easterners among others that have occurred since 9/11. More recently, Sikhs have been targeted as part of the broader climate of racism and anti-immigrant bigotry in America. Anti-Sikh hate crimes surged almost 17 percent in 2017, according to FBI data. The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group, says even that figure reflects systemic underreporting by law enforcement and individuals.
Sikh advocacy groups have responded to the violence with aggressive outreach, concentrated toward public institutions like Congress, school districts, and courts. Still, 60 percent of Americans admit to knowing zero about Sikhs, according to a 2015 survey sponsored by the National Sikh Campaign. Sikhs are frequently confused for Muslims and Hindus, a double inaccuracy. Sikhism is not just a different religion; it forbids discrimination against people of any faith.
In California where the Sharks play, half of Sikh children say they’ve experienced bullying, according to the Sikh Coalition. In 2018, two Sikh men were viciously beaten in Northern California less than a week apart.
This climate can push Sikh-Americans to retreat to their communities, where they know they are safe. “Because of numbers, because of our own personal lifestyles, we don’t want to be too much in the face of anybody,” Kallirai says.
But as Kallirai tells it, a point comes when enough is enough. For him, that was in August 2012, when a gunman in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, went to a Sikh gurdwara and murdered six people before killing himself.
Kallirai grew up in England and has lived in America for 30 years. He has never felt any great affinity for sports, much less American sports. But to him, the Oak Creek tragedy showed that for all of Sikhs’ advocacy in America, it wasn’t reaching ordinary people.
He wanted a new frontier of outreach, one that could reach the masses.
”Even Nelson Mandela brought it up. That sports is one activity that’s based more on sporting rivalry than anything about culture, race, or anything,” Kallirai says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Manchester United fan, and you’re brown, green, whatever. The only person you don’t like is a Liverpool fan.”
Kallirai’s efforts began in his own backyard, with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and its legions of adoring Sikh fans. Sikhs’ history in California’s Central Valley goes back more than a century, when they were among the immigrant laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad. Some stayed in California and got into farming, a career choice reflective of their roots in agrarian Punjab, the region where Sikhism was born and that today sits on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. America’s first gurdwara went up in Stockton in 1912, 50 miles from where the Kings play today.
Sikh-Americans now work in a much broader range of fields, from gas stations and convenience stores, to trucking, engineering, medicine, and tech. Still, many Sikhs sense a distance from the neighbors and customers they see every day. They know they are marked, by clothing as well as race.
”Community can be difficult. You’re different,” says Jimmy Gill, a 37-year-old engineer who grew up outside Pittsburgh. “We have a lot of these light-touch relationships. Not very many deep relationships with people in the community.” On weekends, his family often drove to the Sikh temple more than an hour south.
Kallirai had been mulling putting together a Sikh-oriented sports event of some sort when an excellent opportunity came along. In 2013, Indian entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé became owner of the Kings. Ranadivé wasn’t Sikh, but Kallirai knew how to pique his interest.
There was the obvious, of course. Sacramento, one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., is home to scores of South Asian, and Sikh, Kings fans. Less obvious, but known to Desi uncles, was that Ranadivé had grown up in an era when many of India’s star athletes, particularly in field hockey, were Sikhs from Punjab. He would have known that Sikh men take the last name Singh, and women the last name Kaur, to signify, among other things, the equality of all people.
The owner didn’t need much convincing. Ranadivé quipped, according to Kallirai, that as a kid, he heard calls like “Singh passes to Singh and Singh scores!” on the radio.
The Kings’ first-ever Sikh Heritage Night took place on Sunday, April 13, 2014, the same day as the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi, which celebrates the spring harvest and the implementation of many of the core religious practices Sikhs observe today. “We reached out to the community and said, ‘We’re gonna do this,’” Kallirai says. “‘You’ve gotta go to the gurdwara to celebrate Vaisakhi, go do it. It’s over at one. Three o’clock, come over, four o’clock our thing starts.’”
Kallirai and two other “uncles” — Ravi Kahlon, a soft-spoken former bhangra teacher, and Guri Kang, a gregarious small businessman — spearheaded the event, playfully nicknamed “Kaurs, Singhs, and Kings.” The cultural tie-in worked even better than expected. Sikh fans drove in from all over Northern California.
Kallirai is proud of the event. The Kings even gave him and his partners a plaque for “Best Heritage Night.” But for him, the day’s greatest success was showing thousands of people that Sikh-Americans aren’t cloistered foreigners, but active participants in their community. At some level, he thinks, that message was received.
”When we had the bhangra performance at halftime, the audience all stood up and gave a standing ovation for the performance,” he says. “The excitement of the kids to be performing in an NBA arena, I don’t think anybody’s gonna take that away from those kids. Those kids were the first to do this in an NBA arena!”
The three uncles knew they were onto something. After the event, they found themselves on the phone with Sikhs around the country — cousins, friends, perfect strangers. Their question: How do we do this, too? Kallirai and his partners were happy to advise. Kang had an extensive personal network, Kahlon was the dance expert, and Kallirai was the hype man and promoter. They came up with a name befitting their ambition: K3 International. Why not? First Sacramento, then the world.
South Asian uncles come in every variety, from boisterous and charming to reserved and stern. Kallirai leans eccentric. He’s enthusiastic when talking about racial equality, but tight-lipped about his personal life. (The extent of it: He has three sons; the middle one is a Marine.) He gushes with the energy of a quasi retiree — even in retirement, he’s working part-time in a real estate office at a Sacramento strip mall — and sometimes edges into salesmanship. He holds ideals of racial equality that would resonate with many liberal Californians, but also thinks gender identities have become too fluid and that cops should get more benefit of the doubt in police-related shootings.
Like many Americans, he holds views that are complicated and sometimes contradictory. But one thing always comes through: a passion for fighting religious and racial discrimination. He traces that passion back to growing up in Derby, England in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of deep hostility toward South Asian immigrants. He was nine years old in 1967, the year the far-right National Front party formed. He remembers the firebrand “Rivers of Blood” speech of 1968, when anti-immigrant politician Enoch Powell warned of demographic replacement by migrants. He remembers hearing about South Asian people — or anyone who could remotely pass for South Asian — getting beat up by skinhead gangs.
Sports brewed the same dangerous atmosphere. “We were pretty much accustomed to the thuggery or violence that would happen after soccer games,” he says. “Even after I came [to the U.S.] I read a local news report that some of these individuals were bank managers, accountants and many other things, by day and during the week. But when it came to Saturday soccer they were coordinating and planning these vandalistic activities. It was something you could not imagine of these people and the walks of life they come from.”
But when South Asians retracted from society, he felt, things just got worse. So he encouraged people to do the opposite. As a young teacher at a Derby-area junior college, he pushed South Asian students to organize outreach and charity events. In 1986, inspired by Live Aid, his students put on a show with South Asian bands from all around England and donated the proceeds to earthquake relief in Mexico.
Kallirai moved to America in 1989 and became a citizen 10 years later. Throughout, he kept up his charity work outside of his day job. He visited local senior centers. He sat on the World Bhangra Council. He helped raise money for local sheriffs and mayors.
After the 2012 attacks, he found himself talking to Kahlon and Kang about why it felt like nothing was working. How were Sikhs still not reaching the people who feared them, even more than a decade after 9/11? Then the insight hit them. How do you reach people? You go where the people are.
”Our concept was hey, why don’t we go where some of these people — we can call them hillbillies, rednecks, whatever they are — narrow-minded, we can label them many ways. But one thing they do, they are actually part of football, basketball, sports. The best way to be in these places is to be part of them,” he says. “We’re actually sitting and having direct contact with these people.”
Following the Kings event, K3 organized events with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015, then the Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns in 2016.
Teams were receptive, in part, because K3 had figured out all the little things. “In all these events, they’re timed to the T,” Kallirai says. “You can’t go in and put on a 10-minute bhangra show.”
In fact, NBA teams told Kallirai the performance had to be kept under three-and-a-half minutes. Simple enough. But there was another issue: Which way should the kids face?
”When you’re dancing on the stage it’s easy, you just face one side,” Kahlon, a former bhangra teacher, says. On a pro hardcourt? “North, South, East, West,” he says. “We took so many days, the whole choreography, so people can dance like that.”
Once the choreography was hammered down, it could be replicated.
Similar events popped up elsewhere, sometimes with K3’s help but not always. 2014: Los Angeles Clippers. 2015: San Antonio Spurs. 2016: Philadelphia 76ers. “Word gets around,” says Rucha Kaur, a community development director with the Sikh Coalition. “Folks talk to each other — teams talk to each other.”
Gurpaul Singh, who organized Sikh heritage events with the San Antonio Spurs, guesses that approximately 1,000 Sikhs live in the greater city area. He says the community wanted to broaden its reach beyond local parades and cultural festivals. “We wanted to take it to the next level in creating awareness. We wanted to reach a larger audience,” says Singh, CEO of a San Antonio consulting firm.
Heritage events are also a chance to add texture and depth to the public’s notions of Sikhs. Many of the events showcase Punjabi culture, whether it’s dance, music, or martial arts. One event had a Sikh UFC heavyweight fighter as its special guest. Many feature local Sikh kids performing the national anthem, or holding an American flag. An event put on by Sikh-American veterans had two representatives in combat fatigues. Gurpaul Singh’s school-aged son, Jeeve, sang the anthem once. “Our values are similar to the American values,” he says. “Religious freedom, equality, social justice.”
These displays of American patriotism by Sikhs aren’t without critics within the community. One performer, who asked not to be named, said that an “almost extra display” of patriotism has become the norm in post-9/11 Sikh-American advocacy, even though Sikhs have already lived in America for over a century. In academic quarters, some go further, questioning whether Sikhs should buy into American values if those values include imperialism, genocide of Native Americans and structural racism toward African-Americans.
But these arguments don’t get far with most of the Sikh-night organizers. They argue that sports, unlike politics, is a universal language. And it’s one that Sikhs love as much as their fellow Americans.
This love runs deep, all the way back to Punjab. One village, Sansarpur, has produced at least a dozen Olympians. Athletes of Punjabi heritage have distinguished themselves in cricket and pro basketball, in addition to field hockey. As for non-athletes, many Punjabis who move to America have no trouble transferring their love of Indian sports to Western ones like baseball, basketball, and ice hockey. Reflecting that, both the NBA and NHL have Punjabi-language broadcasts.
That love of sports has been passed down to people like Sachdeep Singh Arora, who grew up in New Jersey.
”Basketball around here is like a gospel. You go to anybody’s house during the Finals, there’s a party or reception. Everybody — the men at least — is crowded around the TV watching the game,” says Arora, a civil engineer who still lives in the Princeton area. “You go to any Sikh kid in this state and they love basketball. They want to be the next Michael Jordan.”
Arora used to be one of those kids, but now he admits he’s an uncle. “I mean, I guess I would identify as an uncle. I got four gray hairs this year.”
Arora also grew up looking for ways to promote interfaith understanding in his diverse Jersey community. He ended up volunteering with an interfaith charity, ONE Project, that had connections to the Philadelphia 76ers.
As a diehard 76ers fan, Arora had seen members of his faith recognized before. He says an early form of Sikh night occurred in 2015, when a Sikh colleague of his bought a bundle of Sixers tickets and gave them away to local communities. Then Arora saw events being held in San Antonio and L.A. that had a totally different scale of outreach, with dancing, anthem performances, info booths, the works. “I said, you know what, we can make this one bigger,” he says.
He talked to the 76ers, and at the end of 2016, the team held its first official Sikh Heritage Night. The event has become an annual fixture. Last year, it featured traditional drumming and bhangra. The color guard included a Sikh Boy Scout and a Sikh U.S. Navy servicewoman.
Like others, the event got attention in the region. Arora was recruited to help set up the first-ever Sikh heritage event for the New Jersey Devils, held earlier this year.
Arora is well aware of the discrimination directed at people who look like him. He experienced some of it after 9/11. But he says his faith is not about victimhood. It’s about everlasting optimism in the face of injustice.
Maybe that’s why his favorite part of the Sikh heritage events is when people sit down with a Sikh and get their heads wrapped with a turban like his. “Obviously tying turbans on random fans could go either way,” he says. But “it’s a very intimate experience, because you get a four-to-five-minute window to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody.”
”I think that what happens in our communities is, [Sikhs] get objectified, they get racism against them. The issue is that they cower. They hide. People are going to make comments so let’s just go cower in the corner and not come out,” he says. “The thing that I’m trying to promote differently is we have to be out there. You don’t have to do anything different. You have to be you, but you have to be out there.”
Among the many Sikh heritage events that have been held over the last five years, some have become annual, some biennial. Organizers say more teams, and more leagues, are inquiring. In a few cases, they’ve ended for lack of anyone to take charge.
Indi Kallirai, for his part, has stepped back from doing these events. He never figured out Bhangra on Ice, and his talks with NHL teams died. He says he and the Kings were all set to host an event in 2017, but it fell through at the last minute, and K3 hasn’t organized one since. (Others stepped in, and the event continues. The Kings did not reply to a request for comment for this story.) Work, personal matters, and fatigue took his focus off K3. There was a website, but they took it down three years ago.
”If somebody else wants to do it, we’ll help them, but we’ll take a step back. That’s pretty much where it ended,” he says. Sometimes, he and his buddies talk about getting involved again.
The headlines often remind them of how much work remains. In August, a 62-year-old Sikh man in Tracy, Calif., was stabbed to death while taking an evening walk in the park. Police arrested the 21-year-old white male suspect at his Tracy home, and he has pled not guilty.
Maybe that’s why Kallirai, the man who can’t fully retire, can’t fully let go. He’s never found anything that reaches people, that touches people, quite like sports.
”You’re not going to change somebody just by doing bhangra in front of them. But when it’s in front of a large audience and there’s a minor piece of education ...” he trails off.
”There are individuals who’ve been turned around, even in Oak Creek,” he says. “If you converted one to come back onto the humanitarian side, it’s been a success.”