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Tara Singh and Balwant Kaur Chattha, Gurbax Singh and Kirpal Kaur Brar Professorship in Sikh Studies
Sikh and Punjab Studies at the University of Michigan is supported by a generous endowment funded by the local Michigan Sikh community, and a major donation from Dr. Amrik Singh Chattha and Dr. Jaswinder Kaur Chattha. In 1999 the endowed chair was named as the Tara Singh and Balwant Kaur Chattha, Gurbax Singh and Kirpal Kaur Brar Professorship in Sikh Studies. The story of how the endowment came about is an interesting one, providing an inspiring example of a fruitful relationship between the University and the Sikh Community.
How It All Began
In 1984, three members of the Sikh Studies Association of Michigan (SSA-M), at the time based in Lansing, Dr. Virinder Grewal, Dr. Satnam Singh Bhugra and Dr. Jaswant Singh approached the University of Michigan with a proposal for a Sikh Studies Chair (see image, right, for a photograph of the first meeting between U-M and the Sikh community). Their initial point of contact was Dr. Karl Hutterer, a Professor of Anthropology and then Director of the Center for South and South East Asian Studies in the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts.
Dr. Hutterer’s initial letter expressed interest in the proposal stating that “we are certainly willing to pursue the idea of establishing at this university a chair relating to Sikh culture, history, and religion, and Punjabi language and literature”. A the same time, however, Dr. Hutterer also warned that “since such a development would involve both a major commitment on the part of the university and the need to raise a significant endowment from outside sources, it would be necessary first to engage in some preliminary discussions to clarify the various details entailed in such a plan”. So began a journey that would involve many more in the Sikh community and take several decades to come to fruition.
Negotiations between the SSA and the University continued for two years until 1986, when a Letter of Understanding was signed between the University and the Sikh Studies Association. This letter was essentially an agreement about the terms of the Endowment - including the educational goals of the Endowment and the level of funding required. The Michigan Sikh community was not the only one pursuing such a goal. Similar efforts were being undertaken at the University of Toronto which had initiated a pilot program in Sikh studies by 1986. The University of British Columbia would follow suit a couple of years later. Politically, this was a very challenging time to establish programs in Sikh studies, not least because of widespread misrepresentation of Sikhs and Sikhism stemming from the political conflict in Punjab and the Indian media’s labelling of Sikhs as a backward community.
As fundraising efforts began to stall, Dr. Karl Hutterer wrote a compelling letter – Why Sikh Studies? - which laid out a strong justification from the University and Sikh community perspectives. The letter had an immediate impact on potential donors and fundraising began again in earnest. Although early fundraising efforts were limited to the Lansing area, the funds raised allowed Punjabi language classes to be started at UM.
In 1990, Mr. Baldev Singh Dhaliwal joined the Sikh Studies Association’s and his connections in the community enabled fundraising effort to be expanded to the Metropolitan Detroit area. By early 1990s there were sufficient funds to allow teaching of culture classes housed in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Dr. Pashaura Singh was appointed as a lecturer in 1992 to teach Punjabi language and Sikh history, including classes on scripture and texts.
Fundraising efforts continued through the mid-1990s. With a dedicated team of fundraisers that included Mrs. Raman Singh, Baldev S. Dhaliwal, Dr. Virinder Grewal, Dr. Bhugra and Dr. Jaswant Singh, volunteers went from house to house collecting funds from scores of donors. In 1994 the first Sikh Heritage Dinner was held metro-Detroit which further helped to focus the fundraising. This was followed in 1996 with a Sikh Studies Conference jointly organized by Dr. Pashaura Singh (U-M) and the Sikh Studies Association.
By this time the community had managed to raise around 2/3rds of the funds required for the endowment. In 1998 the initial endowment agreement was revised and the final 1/3rd of the endowment was generously provided by Dr. Amrik Singh Chattha and Dr. Jaswinder Kaur Chattha.
Finally, in 1997, the Endowed Chair in Sikh Studies was established and named the: Tara Singh and Balwant Kaur Chattha, Gurbax Singh and Kirpal Kaur Brar Professorship in Sikh Studies. The Professorship is named in memory of the parents of Dr. Amrik Singh Chattha and Dr. Jaswinder Kaur Chattha. In 1999, coinciding with the tercentenary celebrations of the founding of the order of the Khalsa, the Endowed Chair was officially inaugurated following another academic conference and a celebration dinner. Shortly after this, an academic search was initiated to find a scholar specializing in Sikh and South Asian studies to fill this prestigious new position in the department of Asian Languages and Cultures. From the department’s point of view, this endowment would allow them to further consolidate their offerings in South Asian culture and languages.
Following a series of searches to fill the position, the Center for South Asian Studies and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures invited Dr. Arvind-Pal S. Mandair to present a lecture(s) at the U-M in Fall 2005 and Winter 2006. At the time, Dr. Mandair was Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Religion and held the Sardarni Kuljeet Kaur Bindra Chair of Sikh studies at Hofstra University, New York. The CSAS lecture on Dec 10th 2005 was titled: “The Politics of Non-Duality: Unravelling Modern Sikh Hermeneutics.” This was followed by his job-talk given on March 9th 2006, hosted by the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, and titled: "India, Hegel and the Problem of Historical Difference." Arvind-Pal S. Mandair joined the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures as Assistant Professor and Tara Singh, Balwant Kaur Chattha and Gurbax Singh and Kirpal Kaur Brar Professor of Sikh Studies.
In 2011, Dr. Mandair was tenured and was invited by LSA to give an Inaugural Lecture to mark the occasion. This event coincided with a conference on “Sikhs and Public Space” which was held a day after the inaugural lecture. A recording of the Inaugural lecture can be found below.
The following video is from the 2018 conference Reclaiming Diasporicty. The video contains a short presentation about the history of the Endowed Chair in Sikh Studies at the University of Michigan.