Kids Corner


Turning Adversity Into Strength:
1469’s Harinder Singh and Kirandeep Kaur






Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002.

Then 33, he and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture.

Then they heard the taunts of nearby students: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

Some in the group of around 60 school children were pointing at Harinder and his white turban.

“Oh my God,” he exclaimed to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Harinder explained to them that they were from the subcontinent and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“My wife and I started talking about our first Guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Harinder says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity, to increase awareness about it.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to back home, Harinder began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikh and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called ‘1469‘, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh Master, Guru Nanak – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach.

They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, the homeland of the Sikhs.

Scarves and salwar-kameezes in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh icons and symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me, I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “from the countryside” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

Punjabi culture is the oldest in India, harking back to the ancient Indus Valley civilization. The region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. Punjab was unified under the great Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh ‘wars‘, occupying and administering the region as a province of its Raj until Partition in 1947, when Punjab was divided between the two newly created and formated countries called India and Pakistan.

Kirandeep described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Harinder, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word ‘Fateh’ – or “victory” in Punjabi – emphasized ‘1469’ is not a religious brand or store because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Hindu and Muslim also, and the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Sharma, a Hindu, explains that though he is not a Sikh, he too is a Punjabi. He describes Harinder’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Harinder and Kirandeep’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in the country came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to create a nice t-shirt,” he says.

A year later, Harinder started his own clothing company, ‘Uni Style Image‘. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in the nation’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Harinder decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhi and Punjab. But he also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s straight-forward.”

Harinder observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, adds Kirandeep.

Going forward, Harinder and Kirandeep hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kirandeep says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kirandeep says, “it does not revolve around rituals and superstitions. It’s about the way you live.”

[Courtesy: Narratively. Edited for]

June 21, 2017

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