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Inscrutable Indians

A first-of-its-kind exhibition compels the multicreedal American viewers at Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, to look beyond stereotypes of an Indian


March 17, 2014 12:31:25 am

SPICES, elephants, bindis, turbans, or Slumdog Millionaire — for a Westerner, it’s not difficult to construct the entire Indian subcontinent based on just these images. Much of it is to be credited to the popularity of Bollywood, another to the pervasive yet celebrated Indian characters on American television — The Simpson’s mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a nerd Raj Koothrapalli in The Big Bang Theory or Kumar Patel in Harold and Kumar, a natural in practising medicine. For the rest, there’s always misinformation and misrepresentation.

At the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, images of these popular figures form just a small cluster, overshadowed by over 300 images, historical artefacts, art and installations that go beyond those stereotypes. A black-and-white photograph, for instance, dates back to 1790 of a young Indian sailor, garlanded and posing in front of a ship, that documents the first Indian on US shores 14 years after the Declaration of Independence. A 1913 photograph of nationalist revolutionary Har Dayal and other immigrants was taken in Stockton, California. For a first-of-its-kind exhibition and project, titled “Beyond Bollywood”, these never-seen-before materials have been used to evoke a larger, parallel history of Indians on American soil.

“In the exhibition, we are clear that we want to explore the wide-reaching diversity of Indian Americans, including those who do not fit the stereotypes so as not to replicate what is already available in popular culture,” says Masum Momaya, the Indian American curator at the Asian Pacific American Center, Smithsonian Institute.
The project came about in 2008 when the Indian American community from Washington DC approached the Smithsonian and asked to be included in the American museums. With an exhaustive amount of stories and materials, Momaya, who joined the project in 2012, faced an inevitable question. “Deciding who and what to include was the most challenging aspect of the exhibition as we encountered so many meaningful stories, wonderful photographs, telling documents and resonant artefacts,” says Momaya, who has also contributed her family’s story, going back to 1965.

The show is categorised thematically — migration; early immigration; working lives and professional contributions; arts and activism; cultural contributions; groundbreakers; and religious and spiritual contributions. A significant discourse the project takes is the transnational connections. “These connections have existed for more than 200 years, including as early as 1900s when Indian immigrants in the US connected the struggle for India’s Independence with their own struggles for rights and citizenship,” says Momaya. Another dialogue is created around racial discrimination, the first of which was seen in 1907 with the Bellingham Riots. “It took nearly two decades to secure citizenship rights. Many Americans and Indian Americans may not be aware of these early instances of discrimination and how they echo discrimination even today,” says Momaya. A turban of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first Indian-American to be murdered in an act of retaliation after 9/11, is among some of the recent cases.

Apart from personal and cultural narrative, “Beyond Bollywood” doesn’t hesitate to put on pedestal some of the “accomplishments” by the community. Designer Naeem Khan’s dress worn by Michelle Obama at the 2012 National Governors Association Dinner, was the last and the most challenging acquisition. Others include Congressman Dalip Singh Saund and his campaign materials and football linebacker Brandon Chillar’s football helmet.

Even though the project is slated to travel only in the US for the next five years, Momaya is curious about how it might be received in the home country. “It would be particularly interesting to see if people in India identify with or are surprised by the stories we are telling in the exhibition, and what similarities and differences they see between their own lives, experiences, triumphs and struggles and those of the community here in the US,” she says. Momaya and her curatorial team are also working with the US Department of the State to get the project to India.

In the meantime, contributions are invited and so are reactions. “Some Indian Americans feel strongly about emphasising achievements, particularly of individuals, and others are passionate about highlighting collective struggles. This tension is not unique to the Indian American community and cannot be resolved in one exhibition. As we write in the exhibition text panel, ‘Indian Americans are as diverse as America itself’ — this includes their impressions of our history and how it should be told,” says Momaya.

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