Dr. Amarjit Singh Marwah
This Los Angeles-based dentist left his mark not only in his profession but also in the political, social, cultural, financial and charitable spheres in his adopted land as well as in his native India.
Movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck have been his clients. Included in his wide circle of friends are presidents, prime ministers, celebrities and business tycoons. His neighbors include the likes of Barbara Streisand and Martin Sheen. And he has, over the years, hosted a varitable who’s who of America and India.
For 18 long years, he served as a commissioner for Los Angeles and presided over the Hollywood Art Commission and the Cultural Heritage Commission.
Back then, according to Dr. Marwah, there were just 15-20 Indian students each in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Altogether, there were not more then 50 Indian students in the U.S.. India had a great image, but there were few Indians here. One could count them on one’s fingertips. At that time, there were two known Indian names – J.J. Singh Wallia and Bhagat Singh Thind – because of their fight for the rights of Asians and Indians,” recalls Marwah. See Bhagat Singh Thind: Turbaned American's Fight For Rights.
One historical event that stands out in his memory is the campaign of Dalip Singh Saund to become the first Asian Congressman in America in 1956.
“We had close family ties with Saund because his younger brother, Sardar Bahadur Karnail Singh, had worked under my uncle, Sardar Bhadur Ram Singh, who was chief engineer with the railways in Lahore.
When Saund first contested in 1956, I took two months’ leave from my teaching job in Chicago and flew to California to campaign for him. His congressional district comprised the Imperial Valley, Riverside and Palm Springs,” reminisces Dr. Marwah.
“You know, when I arrived in the U.S., there was virtually no Indian families in New York or elsewhere on the East Coast. Yes, on the West Coast there were 20 families in El Centro, 20-odd in Yuba City and maybe 10 in Fresno. That’s about all,” he recalls.
How does he compare these numbers with the about two millions Indians in America today?
With a smile, Dr. Marwah responds, “The flow of Indians into the U.S. began only in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, just about all Indian immigrants were professionals, mostly doctors. So much so, that whenever Americans ran into a Sikh in the 1960s, they used to address him as Dr. Singh because most of us were doctors. It was only in the 1970s and the 1980s that lots of people came here under family reunification. Then in the late 1990s, we had an influx of IT specialists.
When I set foot on U.S. soil, few knew anything about yoga and Transcendental Meditation (TM). No one knew anything about Indian music. Ravi Shankar, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Mahesh Yogi and Harbhajan Singh Yogi were yet years away. Mahesh Yogi, whom the Beatles made famous in the West in the 1960s used to come to LA at the invitation of an old couple known as the Olsons. I met Mahesh Yogi first in 1962. He used to be my patient.
I picked up Harbhajan Singh Khalsa from the Los Angeles airport when he first landed in America (before he became known as Yogiji) on December 6, 1968. He stayed with me for two months. Harbhajan Singh first met me at Delhi airport that year and sought my help to come to America. He first went to Toronto and then came to LA. Luckily, the hippie movement was at its peak and many became his followers. It’s then that yoga really became popular in America.”
NOTE: Dr. Marwah first met Harbhajan Singh Puri, aka Yogi Bhajan, in 1966, in New Delhi (India) at the international airport. At that meeting the Chief Customs officer, Harbhajan Singh, respectfully acknowledged Dr. Marwah who gave Harbhajan his business card, which Yogiji kept. In 1968, after receiving an invitation to the University of Toronto and being sent his visa, Yogi Harbhajan Singh flew to Canada. When he arrived, there was no one to great him. He soon discovered his host and sponsor had died in an auto accident. Yogiji found Dr. Marwah's card in his wallet. He contacted Dr. Marwah and reminded him of their meeting in 1966 in Delhi whereupon Dr. Marwah provided Yogiji with airline fare to Los Angeles.
Tracing his American journey, Dr. Marwah says the Guggenheim Foundation offered its first dental fellowship to India in 1950.
“I was a dentist in Punjab at that time, and was picked out of the 40-odd candidates interviewed in Bombay.”
Young Marwah landed in New York in August, 1950 to pursue higher studies in dentistry.
“I was there for one year. In 1951, I joined the University of Illinois in Chicago. On the side, I pursued my masters in pathology on a fellowship. After two years, I got another fellowship from Howard University in Washington DC to do my doctorate in dental at the University of Illinois to become a U.S. citizen,” he recounts.
In 1959, he went back to India for 18 months under an exchange program to teach at J.J. Hospital in Bombay.
“They, as well as the Punjab government, offered me a job, but on probation. I had a good job here and didn’t want to take chances. So I came back in 1961, though my father wanted me to stay back in India.”
On his return, Dr. Marwah spent one year in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles. Why? “Because of the weather.”
In Los Angeles, he joined the University of Southern California as a professor and started out as a professor and began his part-time practice in the evenings.
“I was one of the first Indian doctors to get my license to practice as early as 1954 in Chicago. When I came to LA in 1962, there were a few Indian students here. When I built my house on Baldwin Hill in 1962, it was the first Indian home here.”
After seven years, Dr. Marwah reversed his professional roles.
“I started full-time practice and became a part-time teacher. There was no practicing Indian doctor here before me,” he recalls.
Having made LA his home, Dr. Marwah soon became a distinguished and identifiable feature city life.
“As I have said, there were few Indians in California at that time. No Indian shops. No Indian religious places. From 1962 to 1969 Indians used to gather at my place once a month for lunch.”
The 1960s saw a big spurt in the growth of the Indian community in America.
“As our number grew, we set up the Indian American Society to promote understanding about India and hold Indian functions. Then we set up the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation in 1964. Its aim was to build a common hall for the Indian community. We raised some funds also, but the hall didn’t succeed but we continued our efforts for four or five years.”
Another milestone in the history of the Indian community in those days was the establishment of the sister-city relationship between Bombay and Los Angeles in 1968.
“I was chairman of the Bombay-Los Angeles Friendship Society. In 1971 and 1973, we took a delegation of Americans, including film personalities and writers, to Bombay. We even adopted the science wing of the Mahim High School. Which is now called the Los Angeles High School Wing, and our society gave them $10,000 annually for about 30 years. I still chair the sister-city committee.”
In 1969, which marked the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Dr Marwah donated a building on Vermont to the small Indian community for a Gurdwara.
“The Vermont Gurdwara became the focal point for the community. It was the first Indian religious place in the Los Angeles area. People used to come from far-off places on weekends. Some years ago, when we raised a new building, I gave $250,000 for it,” says Dr. Marwah, who was also appointed to the board of directors of the State Bank of India in 1972.
In the 1970s, Dr. Marwah formed a friendship with Tom Bradley, who became the first Black mayor of Los Angeles.
“Tom was a dear friend. He was a police lieutenant who later ran for the LA city council. I got involved in his campaign. He was elected and later went on to become mayor of the city. He was reelected five times, and remained mayor for 20 years. When he died, Al Gore and I were the pallbearers,”
Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Dr. Marwah a city commissioner in 1974.
“It was a great privilege and I was the first Indian to be appointed to this position.”
In this role, Dr. Marwah chaired the Cultural Heritage Commission and the Hollywood Art Commission for 18 years.
“Under my signature, 300 sites were declared as protected monuments, including the Walk of Fame, the Roosevelt Hotel, and the Ambassador Hotel. We followed an open process under which people could complain and ask the council to overturn our decisions,” he explains.
A close friend of the late inderjit Singh, founder of the Punjab and Sind Bank, Dr. Marwah joined hands with him to launch the Bank of Punjab in the 1990s.
“After his bank was nationalized in 1984. Inderjit Singh applied to open another bank, but he could secure permission only in 1994. I suggested that the new bank should be on the American pattern. From day one, the Bank of Punjab provided fully computerized services. We started off with a branch in Chandigarh and pretty soon opened many branches and crossed the 150 mark. The bank is rated A-1, and we have an overseas branch in Toronto and have appointed foreign promoters and board members."
Standing on his 14-acre Malibu ranch, Dr. Marwah points to the place where his neighbor Barbara Streisand lives.
"I had three daughters. One of them was classmate of Barbara’s son."
And with the sweep of his arm, he says, “Actor Martin Sheen was once my tenant. He is a very decent man.”
On his ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Dr. Marwah hosted presidents, prime ministers and celebrities.
“The wedding of President Ford’s son was held here. President Zail Singh, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Indian ministers and American celebrities have all been here,” he says.
Having played a high-profile American beginning, is Dr. Marwah winding down these days?
“Oh, no. I have a few things going. I am investing in education in my native Faridkot and Kotkapura, where I have opened a college and instituted scholarships, and at Mahindra College in Patiala, we are building an auditorium.”
And he still serves on the International Visitors’ Council.
“It is a federal agency whose job is to take care of foreign visitors who come to America. Actually, it is a PR agency of the federal government with headquarters in Washington. I sit on its 30-member board and we meet each month.”
Born at Bhera in Shahpur district of present-day Pakistan, Dr. Marwah belongs to a family of doctors.
“My father, Dr. Chanda Singh, was chief of medical services in Faridkot State in the mid-1910s. My grandfather, Dr Sucha Singh, also held the same post in the 1880s. I did my high school at Kotkapura in 1941 and then I went to Lahore for higher education.”
At Lahore’s Sikh National College, young Marwah was close observer of the Quit India movement that shook the nation.
“Those were tumultuous times. Demonstrations were the norm. I used to live in the hostel. Niranjan Singh, the younger brother of Master Tara Singh, started the Sikh National College. While Tara Singh was an Akali, Niranjan Singh was a Congressman. He was professor of chemistry as well as principal of the college.”
At college, his contemporaries included former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, former Punjab police chief Bhagwan Singh Danewalia, Indian minster of state (under Nehru Iqbal Singh, Frick India founder (late) Manmohan Singh, and former PGI director (Dr.) Jaswant Singh Neki.
“I knew Kartar Singh, Master Tara Singh, and Giani Gurumukh Singh Musafir who used to stay with my family whenever they visited Faridkot.”
After receiving his B.S. degree, Marwah joined the king Edward Medical College for his four-year dentistry course.
“It was the only college in India with a dental wing.” Hardly had he finished his degree when the partition occurred.
“As violence broke out, I moved to live with my uncle, Sardar Bahadur Ram Singh, who was chief engineer of the railways. On August 11, 1947, I left Lahore with my uncle where people were killing one another. It was raining heavily and one could see bodies lying around. I was 21 at that time.”
From Lahore, they reached Kotkapura. Within a couple of months, young Marwah was appinted a first-class officer.
“I was the only dentist in the whole of Faridkot state. Within six months, Faridkot merged with Pepsu (Patiala and East Punjab States Union) in 1948 and I was posted at the Rajendra Hospital in Patiala, and then in Mabha and Kapurthala.”
Then, America beckoned. -- Source.