Pictorial feast: The Smithsonian’s “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit is rich with photographs depicting Indians in American history




At the Smithsonian, Indian Americans and their influence on American culture are portrayed in the first-ever exhibition dedicated to the community



WHAT DOES THE SUITCASE OF AN imaginary, nameless Indian immigrant to the US contain? Perhaps old wedding photos with groom in turban and bride in wedding sari; Hindi film music LPs; a chakla-belan for rolling chappatis and a sculpture of Ganesha.

“We included a statue of Ganesh in the display simulating a trunk that immigrants in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s would have brought,” says Dr. Masum Momaya, curator of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. “Ganesha was brought by not only Hindu immigrants but those of other faiths as well—as a cultural symbol of the Remover of Obstacles.” Momaya is herself the daughter of Indian immigrants.

As at a temple, gurudwara or mosque, the entrance to the exhibition is lined with rows of shoes, slippers and sandals. Some visitors automatically start to remove their own footwear, until they realize this is part of the exhibit, showing the Eastern attitude of respect before entering a sacred place or personal home.

Over 10 million visitors, many of them non-Indian, are expected to enjoy this truly Indian space created in the Smithsonian Museum. “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” is the first exhibition to spotlight the Indian-American community which, despite its small numbers, has impacted the US in many ways.

The first Indian migrants are recorded as landing in America in the 1700s. These early arrivals were known simply as “Hindoos”—no matter what their faith. Those brave souls left the comfort of their own culture and homeland to cross the seas to an unknown and bewildering new world. Until 1900 they were considered foreigners, “non-whites.” From 1940 to 1970, their race was “Other” on all forms. They came to be categorized as Asian Indians in 1980.


Years of photo collections: Smithsonian curators worked for several years reaching out to Indian Americans to share their photo collections with the museum.
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For the first time, their untold stories have been gathered together in this major exhibition. “Beyond Bollywood” presents rare photographs, public programs and artifacts donated to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, documenting their history and achievements. The exhibition will run for a year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, after which it will travel through the US for five years, through 2020.

“The Indian-American story has yet to be fully told,” says Dr. Konrad Ng, the Director. “This exhibition is about celebrating a community that embodies the American spirit.”

Over a million dollars were raised for this project, largely from the Indian community. Some of the key “Saffron Donors” ($100,000 apiece) were Rick and Sadhana Down, HR Shah, Kanu and Dakshu Shah, and TV Asia. Several other prominent Indian-Americans, organizations and hi-tech companies have donated at various levels. Donors were invited to a special opening-night ribbon cutting with Smithsonian bigwigs, Dr. Konrad Ng (brother-in-law of President Obama), Congressman Ami Bera, actor Madhur Jaffrey and artistes, athletes and writers participating in the exhibition. Later they joined over 450 guests at a glamorous opening reception in the spectacular rotunda of the National Museum, appropriately presided over by a sculpture of a life-size elephant.

Scope of the Exhibit

“Beyond Bollywood” strives to depict the Indian-American journey through migration, success stories, food, music, cinema and art. The exhibit’s name does not match the gravitas of the migration­—Bollywood is a recent, Mumbai-centered term—yet its content is rich, touching upon the history of the early immigrants from all over India.

“I think this is especially timely and important. Immigration is a core part of American history—America is a nation of immigrants—yet there are still strong sentiments that we are ‘foreigners’ and ‘outsiders,” says Momaya. “Our history here shows how false this is. It dates back to 1790, just 14 years after the nation was founded. Our hands have helped build the railroads and cultivate farms. We have established trade and small businesses five generations ago that still exist today.”

The exhibit includes rare images of Indian immigrants working on railroad construction back in 1906 and Indian migrants farming in California. Even today, 95 percent of farmers in Yuba City are Sikhs.


Items one might have found in the suitcase of an early Indian immigrant.
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Visitors learn some fun, offbeat facts: The first Indian restaurant to open in America may have been Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant in 1921, right on 42nd Street in New York, serving Persian and “Hindu” food. The first Indian cookbook published in America was Unique Hindu Recipes, in 1940. In 1969 Vijay Bhatt created Shalimar Restaurant in New York, offering Indian food to New Yorkers of all ethnicities. Bhatt even persuaded Weight Watchers to introduce Indian dishes in its offerings.

The many artifacts of Indian life include the historic election posters of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian-American congressman; Vinod Dham’s original 80386 microchip, developed in 1985 by Intel (a precursor to the Pentium chip); and the physician’s bag carried by Dr. Abraham Verghese as a small-town physician in rural America during the AIDS crisis. The Indian spelling-bee champs get their place in the sun too, with a space set up for children to take the mike and attempt a difficult word.

A display devoted to contemporary Indian-American artists includes photos by Annu Matthew titled “An Indian from India,” pairing her self-portraits with early photographs of Native Americans. Matthew explores similarities between the photographic treatment of Native Americans and the colonial gaze of British photographers working in India.


First Hindu temple in the Western world: The Vedanta Society’s “old” temple on Webster Street in San Francisco was built by Swami Trigunatita in 1905
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Influence on Mainstream America

Migration is all about reinvention and re-creation. Indians, now 3.5 million of the American population, have had a far-reaching impact: more than 1 out of every 10 Indian Americans is a doctor, dentist, nurse or physical therapist; 30 percent of taxi drivers in New York are of Indian origin; and 50 percent of US motels are owned by Indian Americans.

The majority of immigrants from India have been Hindu, and their influence has infiltrated every aspect of life. The many temples across America, the many Indian grocery stores and the current emphasis on vegetarianism have surely been due to Hindu immigrants. Since the majority of Indians here are Hindu, I asked Momaya whether there should have been more about the grand temples built in the US.


Some exhibits miss the mark: The beautifully done exhibit on Indian food fell short with text descriptions of dishes on plates, as if this could capture culinary art
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“It was important for us to highlight the amazing architectural contributions that Indian Americans of all faiths, including Hindus, have made to the US, such as the building of grand temples, but we could not go into detail in this, given space limitations,” responded Momaya. “As you know, the full story of Indian Americans is vast and requires more than a 5,000-square-foot exhibition.”

Momaya said the research focused on how religious traditions were brought and practiced by Indian immigrants, contributing to the religious pluralism that has characterized the United States from its founding. So the exhibition explores philosophies that were shared and took root, traditions of prayer and worship that are now part of the American religious landscape and daily life and US Indian religious architecture such as temples, mosques, churches and synagogues.

In keeping with India’s affirmed spirit of pluralism, a video highlights all religions equally. Wall text explains to visitors: “In 1893, three religious teachers­­—Virchand Gandhi (Jainism), Anagarika Dharmapala (Buddhism), and Swami Vivekananda (Hinduism)—continued America’s founding principles of religious freedom and plurality, sharing their philosophies at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

“Today, Indian Americans identify as Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Zoroastrians, as well as atheists and agnostics. A typical American day now could include a Muslim employee performing namaaz, one of five daily prayers, during her lunch hour, or a Jain man working an early shift in order to observe chauvihar, the practice of fasting after sunset.

“America also looks different because of this plurality. It is no longer uncommon for an American city’s architectural landscape to include a dehrasar (Jain), gurudwara (Sikh), masjid (Islamic) and mandir (Hindu). In these houses of worship, Indian Americans congregate, contemplate, pray, and pass on their beliefs and traditions to the youth.”

The exhibition highlights the Indians who have owned hotels and motels. Many of these are Gujaratis, who carried their Hindu faith and vegetarianism into the motels. The display of a motel lobby peeks into the life of an Indian motel owner: Outside the manager’s desk it is all Western and mainstream, while the inside is desi, with a shrine to Hindu Gods. A series of photographs from The Arch Motel Project by Chiraag Bhakta and Mark Hewko features Indian motel owners living and working in their motels.

Bhakta writes: “This series was inspired by my parents’ first entrepreneurial step in America—my first home, The Arch Motel in New Jersey. The motel quickly became a hub for my extended family coming from farming villages of Gujarat. During a long stay at The Arch, they acclimated to America and learned the basics for running their own motels.” In 2006, Bhakta teamed up with photographer Mark Hewko to photograph motels run by Indian Americans across the country. The photos are part of an ongoing series, each capturing the dualities of two cultures in distinctive small-town settings.

Much space is devoted to yoga, India’s most popular contribution to America, featuring its history and the many different schools of yoga in America. The wall text explains, “Spiritual teacher Swami Vivekananda introduced this ancient philosophy to America in 1893. Years later, in the tumultuous 1960s, yoga intrigued Americans intent on embracing Eastern spirituality and rejecting Western materialism. In the 70s and 80s, Americans increasingly took up yoga as part of a national enthusiasm for exercise and a desire to “feel the burn!”

Several photos show the rise of yoga in America, including one of Swami Vivekananda and guests at Green Acre School, Eliot, Maine, ca. 1894. This school, a meeting-place for the study of world religions, was just one stop on a tour in which Vivekenanda introduced the West to Hinduism and yoga. Another image shows yoga master Swami Satchidananda at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Bethel, New York, 1969. Satchidananda later founded Yogaville, a yoga retreat in Buckingham, Virginia. A photo of kids doing yoga at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2009 shows how yoga has permeated American life.

What is Missing?

While the exhibit covers a lot of ground, it has received mixed reviews from visitors and critics. Documenting a vibrant community spanning several hundred years is a difficult exercise. Perhaps another 5,000 sq feet were needed so the exhibit could be more show, less tell. Larger images—maybe a mock-up of a Little India market or large-scale murals of festive celebrations—would help convey the sheer vibrancy and energy of Indian culture in America.

A large dining table is laid out with steel thalis, spice boxes and Corelle plates, familiar to all immigrants. Yet the table feels empty. Wall photos of mouth-watering Indian dishes might have been more effective, and this space could have been used for models of Indian temples, mosques and gurudwaras.


Indian youth’s intellectual prowess: This display features national spelling bee winners
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Depicting the religions, food and ceremony of Indian culture would be a challenge even in a much greater space. “Any of these topics can be the subject of multiple museums, and it was difficult to depict so many topics within one gallery of 5,000 square feet,” says Momaya. “That said, we focused on highlighting how Indian religion and food have shaped the American religious and culinary landscapes, rather than trying to assemble an exhaustive treatment of either topic.”

Many of the pioneering names in art, politics and business are not represented here. The “groundbreakers” section of notable achievers does makes no mention of Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita and Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Zakir Husain, Nora Jones or Deepak Chopra, political powerhouses like governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, or academics like Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School.

Upcoming young Indian-American artists and musicians are well represented, but Dr. Mahinder Tak, a prominent Indian-American community leader and art collector in Washington, regretted the exclusion of important artists like Zarina Hashmi, Natvar Bhavsar and Anil Revri.

“Our goal with ‘Beyond Bollywood’ is to share research, seed stories and conversations about how Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have shaped American history in numerous and nuanced ways,” says Momaya. “Since a lot of the visitors at the Smithsonian are children, I want children to walk away with a sense of the roots of this community. I’m hoping their parents will feel this also. For those of us who are children of immigrants, I’d like us to feel a sense of belonging—that we don’t have to leave our roots behind in order to belong.”

The photographs are the exhibition’s strength. At several spots in the exhibition visitors are asked to share their photographs, which are then posted on the website and social media channels. When the exhibition travels, local communities will have an opportunity to augment the exhibition with stories, artifacts, photographs and art that are meaningful to them.

Thus, the exhibition is still evolving, with visitors bringing in their own thoughts and aspirations. It’s the first show about Indian Americans, and the Indian-American story is a continuing one.

Momaya grew up in Iowa, the only brown child in her class. “The best compliment I’ve received was from my dad on the first day it opened. My parents had spent the afternoon touring the gallery. I was in my office answering emails when my dad called to say I had honored their experience and those of so many that came before them and with them to the United States.  He couldn’t finish his sentence before tearing up, and that brought tears to my eyes, too.”

Indian Americans can take pride in this ground-breaking exhibit at the nation’s museum, which acknowledges our contributions to American culture and finally gives us a place at the table.

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LAVINA MELWANI is a New York-based journalist who writes about the arts on []. Follow her on Google+.