Sonia Dhami is trustee, Sikh Foundation; president, ArtandTolerance.com; and commissioner, Fine Arts, City of Cupertino, California. The views expressed are her own.
“Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter if you are a lion or gazelle. When the sun comes up you’d better be running…”
This framed quote on his office bookshelf gives a good insight into the mind of Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, widely known as the “father of fiber optics”.
Dr Kapany passed away peacefully in Woodside, California on December 3, 2020.
Amongst the most acclaimed scientists, researchers, academicians, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and art collectors in the world, his contributions span the fields of lasers, optics, medicine, academics, entrepreneurship, arts & philanthropy.
Throughout his life he took immense pride in his Sikh identity and heritage even headlining a newspaper article in 1957 as “Scientist wears turban and tie” (Chicago Daily News, Wedneday, July 31, 1957)
Born on October 31, 1926 in the town of Moga in Punjab, India, he grew up in the Himalayan foothill city of Dehradun and graduated in 1948 from Agra University.
As early as 1947, he challenged the concept that light only travels in straight lines.
He moved to London for his advanced studies in optics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, where in 1952 he successfully demonstrated that light can be bent.
This discovery changed the world forever. Coining the term fiber optics, he laid the foundations for the Internet age, which was to follow.
Soon after his marriage to Satinder Kaur, the couple migrated to the United States in 1955. He thrived as a research scientist first at Rochester University, NY and then at the Illinois Institute of Technology at Chicago.
His research in fiber optics, lasers, solar energy and its applications in defense, bio-medical instruments, communications and pollution control monitoring earned him more than 100 important patents.
In 1961, his next big move was to San Francisco where he founded Optics Technology Inc and successfully took it public in 1967. The San Francisco Examiner described him as “…the most dashing corporate officer in the area” (February 9, 1961).
He also founded Kaptron Inc in 1973. Ever the entrepreneur and scientist, at age 83, he set up his another company to work on solar energy.
He and his wife, Satinder, were both artists and also avid art collectors. They scoured the globe for all things Sikh, making their home in Woodside a virtual museum.
Narinder defined Sikh art as art by, for and about Sikhs. Their expansive and magnificent Sikh art collection is representative of Sikh artistic expression in all its forms — paintings, manuscripts, textiles, stamps, coins, arms and armor, sculpture, etc.
They not only put together a collection unparalleled in its range and quality, but also were happy to share it with the world.
Artworks were loaned out to numerous museums including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian In Washington, DC and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York for exhibits.
The seal ring of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the delicate Sikh sketches by Emily Eden, the vibrant phulkaris embroidered by deft hands, the Nanak Shahi coins, symbols of sikh sovereignty, and so much more was shared readily with the world.
I wonder how else would we, as a community, be able to experience the totality of our rich Sikh artistic heritage if it was not for this magnificent collection.
In 2003, he gifted 100 magnificent Sikh artworks to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, establishing for perpetuity the Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery of Sikh Art, the first permanent Sikh art gallery in the west.
Recently, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art was the beneficiary of another significant gift of 150 artworks, leading the way for Canada’s first permanent Sikh art gallery.
Philanthropy is not something he set out to do in his later years. Dr Kapany set up the Sikh Foundation as early as in 1967, with the promise to create an understanding of the history, art and culture of Sikhs.
Speaking at the 50th Anniversary Gala of the Sikh Foundation at the Asian Art Museum San Francisco, on May 5, 2017, he addressed the audience and said: ” We should ensure that our friends of other faiths, races and cultures understand who and what we are. We must present the beauty of our heritage without chauvinism. The wisdom, philosophy and arts of the Sikh faith belong to the world.”
He fully lived the Sikh concept of “Dasvandh” which is sharing one tenth of your earnings with others.
His commitment to education inspired him to establish the first of its kind Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Sikh & Punjabi Language Studies in 1991 at UC Santa Barbara, which is named in honor of his mother.
He also endowed a chair of Opto-Electronics and a professorship in Entrepreneurship at UC Santa Cruz.
Honoring his father, Sundar Singh Kapany, he gifted his extensive collection of Sikh books to the McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz along with the dedication of a reading room.
He led community efforts to establish three other chairs of Sikh Studies at university campuses in California, generously contributing both time and resources. He regularly contributed to support Sikh youth in the Punjab.
As an author and researcher, he published over 100 scientific papers and four books on Opto-electronics and entrepreneurship.
He was Regents Professor at the UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz and visiting scholar to Stanford University in the Physics department and consulting professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. In 1979 he started the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurial Development (CIED) at UC Santa Cruz.
He was an active member of the US National Inventors Council, Young Presidents Organization, The India-America Council, and Rotary Club of Palo Alto.
Dr Kapany received numerous awards including The Excellence 2000 Award from the USA Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce in 1998, the Pravasi Bharati Award by the Indian government in 2008, an honorary doctorate by the Guru Nanak Dev University, the Fiat Lux Award by the University of California in 2008 and the Asia Game Changer West Award in 2019.
His faith and pride in his Sikh heritage was deep rooted and motivated his entire life.
He spent the last years of his life writing his memoirs, The Man Who Bent Light, which should be available in spring 2021.
In his office at the Sikh Foundation in Palo Alto, California hung a huge oil painting of the Kar Sewa at the Golden Temple by artist Sukhpreet Singh.
In front of his desk stood the majestic bronze sculpture of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
I fondly recall him saying: “I am a lucky man. I have my Guru behind me and my Maharaja in front.”
Indeed, so I am for having had the opportunity to work with him for almost 15 years and be inspired by his vision, character, personality, intellect, energy and his famous booming laughter.