The life of a Sikh in Derry

A section of the attendance at 'A Sikh Face in Ireland' exhibition held in the Tower Museum on Wednesday night. The exhibition highlights the presence of the Sikh community in Ireland. 0104JM18
A section of the attendance at 'A Sikh Face in Ireland' exhibition held in the Tower Museum on Wednesday night. The exhibition highlights the presence of the Sikh community in Ireland. 0104JM18

As a specialist in children’s surgery at Altnagelvin for over thirty years, consultant Kanwar Panesar faced more than a few questions about his turban.

He laughs looking back as he recalls how it was often an ice-breaker with many of the Derry children who were admitted to hospital for surgery.

“Children have no inhibitions and straight away they’d ask ‘what’s that on your head?” he explains.

“They just asked the most honest questions and I would explain to them what it was and why I wore it.”

The turban is just one aspect of an interesting exhibition currently taking place at Derry’s Tower Museum. A Sikh Face in Ireland is a photographic and life history exhibition exploring the Sikh presence on the island of Ireland. Kanwar and his wife Iqbal are featured in the exhibition which is running until the end of the month.

Born in India in 1941, Kanwar grew up the eldest in a family of eight in Kenya before moving to London to pursue a career in medicine. When he first came to the North in the mid-70s – against the advice of some English colleagues - it was initially planned as a one week stint in a hospital in Craigavon to ‘help out.’

Still here almost 40 years later, he has no regrets about staying on.

“It turned into a very long week!” he says.

The son of a property developer, the 69-year-old was one of the first Sikhs to settle in the North West when he was offered a consultant post at Altnagelvin in 1975.

“Derry was a very different place back then, quite depressing even, but the staff and facilities at the hospital were outstanding. Altnagelvin was the newest post-war hospital in Europe and my colleagues were wonderful.

“Politics didn’t enter the equation for me. As far as I was concerned my first duty was as a doctor and a surgeon and I was received so well by the community at large,” he says.

As Chairman of the Parent Teacher Association at Foyle College, where his sons Deshbal and Tej were pupils, Kanwar was regularly called to give talks to other students on what it meant to be a Sikh.

“It’s something I gladly explained and my family living and growing up here in Derry only had the most positive of experiences,” he says. “It was great going into the school because young people were always so inquisitive about what the Turban meant and what it meant to be Sikh. There was never any taboo around it. All of my sons’ lifelong friends are people they went to school with and we’ve been very happy here over the years.”

Encouraging Derry people to attend the exhibition, the Waterside based medical expert described it as an opportunity for local people to become more familiar with Sikh culture.

“It’s a good way for people to acquaint people with what Sikhs are. The Sikh presence in Ireland dates back to 1930s, when young Sikh men from the villages of Punjab (India) came to Northern Ireland in search of work. Early Sikhs immigrants got settled in Derry city. They worked as peddlers, selling cloths door to door in nearby towns, and gradually established their own businesses. In later years, their families joined them. Since the 70s, many Sikh doctors came to the North and are now part of Northern Irish society.”

The exhibition, which will travel to various museums and galleries across the island, is produced and supported by Forum on Migration and Communications (FOMACS), in collaboration with photographer/oral historian, Dr Glenn Jordan and researcher, Satwinder Singh.

The Mayor of Derry, Councillor Colum Eastwood welcoming the arrival of the exhibition to the city, ahead of its opening said:

 “This exhibition is set to provide an enlightening and thought provoking glance into the Sikh community and furthermore, a celebration of the cultural diversity within our City.”

 Bernadette Walsh from Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service also welcomed the opportunity to co-ordinate the exhibition and said: 

 “We are delighted to host this exhibition in Derry over the next few months and I would encourage as many people as possible to come along.”

“A Sikh Face in Ireland” will run in The Tower Museum until May 28th