Father of Fibre Optics

Roopinder Singh

Narinder Singh Kapany Father of Fibre Optics

Sikh Foundation

Both Satinder and Narinder had set up the Sikh Foundation that in 1967. Through it, they sought to spread awareness through lectures, museums exhibitions and books. They also brought out a quarterly magazine, The Sikh Sansar.

They collected over 500 pieces of Sikh art at auctions and a few hundred more from galleries and private collectors. They were especially proud of the portrait of Rani Jind Kaur, which they bought from a famous American collector of Indian art, Dr William Ehrenfeld. When not on loan to museums, it hung in their living room. You can’t get it all! He never managed to acquire any work by Amrita Pritam, something that he coveted.

Narinder and Satinder gifted the foundation a significant collection of Sikh art, which it regularly lent to American museums, and also provided funds for hosting presentations. They gave a substantial collection to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and funded a gallery for its display in 1991. During the commemoration of the Tercentenary of the Khalsa, they played a prominent role in the international “Sikh Arts Exhibit” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Prince Charles inaugurated it on March 22, 1999.

Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery in the Asian Art Museum San Francisco Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery in the Asian Art Museum San Francisco

In 2019, the book Sikh Art from the Kapany Collection showcased the art and articles by 15 top international Sikh art scholars. They were the most prominent patrons of Sikh arts.

Receiving honours

Narinder had over 120 patents, though as he told me once: “after the first hundred, Roopinder, you stop counting.” He was a member of the (American) National Inventors Council, “a scintillating group of many of the nation’s most credible original and prescient inventors. The brainchild of President Franklin Roosevelt, the club continued under four of his successors. President Nixon’s disdain for eggheads and geeks, however, ensured that the government support dried up.

He was also the youngest member of the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, and the Young Presidents’ Organization. Naturally, he hobnobbed with top political leaders, scientists, and other eminent persons not only in the USA but worldwide.

Narinder was a fellow of the British Royal Academy of Engineering, the Optical Society of America, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In his lifetime, he was given several awards. They include 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.

Satinder’s failing health 

In all this, his wife, Satinder, was his partner. “Oh, Satinder! So much of what was my success in business, in science, in the family, in collecting art, in life, was truly ours. I couldn’t have done half the things I’ve done without you and your never-ending support. No one ever loved me as well as you. I know that I always knew that.” Narinder’s ode to his lifelong companion begins thus in his autobiography. “She was a very powerful and unassuming force behind my father’s life; she was the woman behind the man,” remembers Kiki.

Satinder fell ill while the couple was vacationing in Hawaii in 1990 and was flown to Honolulu. She recovered soon, and they continued on their journey to various destinations, including India.

In London, Narinder noticed that her hand was shaking and eventually realised that she was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Naturally, all that could be done was done, every remedy sought, and medical advancements eagerly pursued. Satinder continued to live a relatively normal life for years, but after 15 years or so, she stopped driving.

In 2014, she had trouble breathing and was transferred to the hospital, where she had a stroke. She could recover somewhat but was left half paralysed. Kiki played a significant role in her care at this time.

“When I used to hide behind my mother’s saree as a young girl, she would push me out and say you have to meet people; you have to learn to talk with anyone. Perhaps, that’s why I am where I am,” says the California-based attorney who has practised law for three and a half decades and acted as a temporary judge too. She is the CEO and Executive Producer at Kikim Media, a company that her husband, Michael Schwarz (1953 -2019), a storied documentary film-maker, founded in 1996. The company has won some of the top awards for their documentaries.

Satinder survived for two years with loving care, and she died on June 25, 2016.

The family soldered on. As Kiki says, “a deep friendship and admiration developed in our old age.” She lived nearby and spent much time with her father.

Narinder finished his autobiography. He worked to ensure that his cultural legacy in the form of the Sikh Foundation would continue after him. He did what he had to, preparing for the inevitable, even as his health deteriorated.

Dr Narinder Singh Kapany passed away on December 3, 2020. He was 94. “Fortune” magazine, in 1999, featured him among the “Unsung Heroes of the 20th century”. Many still contend that he had a stronger claim than Charles Kao, who got the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009.

The lad from Moga had come far. Obituary references to him were carried worldwide. A man whose inventions are used wherever fibre optics play a role had devoted much of the millions he earned to advancing education in his chosen fields and Sikh art. As his posthumous honour of the Padma Vibushan by the Government of India shows, he remained larger-than-life even after his death.

Photos: Courtesy The Sikh Foundation

Roopinder Singh
Roopinder Singh is the author of MIAF Arjan Singh DFC (2002) Guru Nanak: His Life and Teachings (2004), and Delhi ’84 (2014). He is co-author of Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics (2012). He has edited two festschrifts: Giani Gurdit Singh 2023-2007 and Inderjit Kaur Sandhu: An Inspiring Journey. The Chandigarh-based author was Senior Associate Editor of The Tribune. He wrote extensively in his three decades, held many charges, and founded the Internet edition. An award-winning photographer, he has been speaking extensively at academic and public forums. Website: www.roopinder.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/singh.roopinder