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Tuesday, February 28, 2006 - Page updated at 06:33 PM

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Information in this article, originally published February 19, 2006, was corrected February 28, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the location where Sikhtoons.com creator Vishavjit Singh discussed his cartoons. Singh showed his cartoons at Theatre Off Jackson, not the Wing Luke Asian Museum as originally planned. The museum sponsored Singh's workshop.

Cartoonist draws on Sikh frustrations, aspirations

Seattle Times staff reporter

The cartoons of the Olympic snowboarder, New York City policeman or baseball player wouldn't get a second glance, except for the turbans.

The artist behind the cartoons, Vishavjit Singh, says there's a dearth of positive media images of Sikhs (pronounced "siks"), who wear turbans as an article of the Sikh faith, the world's fifth-largest religion. Singh makes a living as a software developer in White Plains, N.Y., but lives to make political cartoons that capture the frustration, heartache and aspirations of Sikhs in the United States and abroad.

About 20,000 Sikhs reside in the Seattle area today, and their presence here dates to the late 1800s, when railroads and lumber mills needed laborers.

Saturday, local Sikh families heard from Singh at Seattle's Theatre Off Jackson, which includes his cartoons in a special exhibit, "The Sikh Community: Over 100 Years in the Pacific Northwest," which runs through April 16. His cartoons can also be viewed online at www.sikhtoons.com.

"You will see a lot of things you don't like in this world, and it's OK to voice your opinion," said Singh, 34. "But if you really want to make a difference, you've got to create things yourself," such as cartoons, films and photographs.

In his cartoons, Singh's most frequent subject is the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in India. That June, Indian security forces killed thousands of religious pilgrims at Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, during a siege on Sikh separatists taking refuge there.

Then on Oct. 31 of that year, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Over several days, thousands of Sikhs in Delhi were stabbed, clubbed and burned by mobs orchestrated by leaders from Gandhi's political party, according to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization. Few of those responsible for those killings have been brought to justice, Human Rights Watch says.

Exhibit information


The Sikh Community: Over 100 Years in the Pacific Northwest: Through April 16 at the Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Ave S., Seattle; 206-623-5124

The subject is deeply personal for Singh because he was living in New Delhi when anti-Sikh riots began there. A mob came to kill his family, Singh says, and he credits their survival to the goodwill of Hindu neighbors who talked the mob into leaving.

"It was our 9/11," Singh says.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, there was a dramatic rise in assaults on Sikhs living in this country by people who confused them with Muslims, some of whom also wear turbans.

Despite having received death threats, Singh continues to satirize India's police and politicians for their failure to bring the perpetrators of the 1984 killings to justice.

But he also skewers the Sikh community for what he says is its hypocrisy about the caste system and women's equality.

Under the caste system, an ancient Hindu tradition that Sikhism rejects, men and women were assigned to one of roughly four social classes based on the family into which they were born. The caste system has been likened to Southern slavery because those at the bottom were condemned to live as sweepers and servants, forced to pray and eat in separate quarters and prohibited from marrying into the upper castes.

Many Sikhs today still choose where they worship and whom they marry based on caste, Singh said. "We live it every day, and yet we go out and tell people we don't believe in the caste system," he said.

And although Sikhism professes that everyone has equal status before God, Singh says that the killing of female Sikh babies still occurs in the northern Indian state of Punjab.

Harmanas Chopr, an aspiring journalist in Olympia who was in Saturday's audience, said he was glad Singh didn't dwell on how to draw a cartoon but focused on the cartoon's inspiration.

"Without that you can't make any great cartoons," he said.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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