A slice of Indian life in America
SPAN/TWF | 11 Aug 2014
A slice of Indian life in America
A newly opened exhibit in the Smithsonian museum complex in Washington, D.C. gives a glimpse of the struggles and achievements of the Indian community in America. SPAN writer Jane Varner Malhotra reports

Tourists from around the world love the grassy expanse known as the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Stretching from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial, it is lined with the world-class Smithsonian museums, including the American History, American Indian and soon the African American Museum set to open in 2015. While not every group has its own building, the struggles and achievements of many of America’s ethnic and immigrant communities are represented in some form through the vast Smithsonian collection.


However, a group of D.C.-area Indian Americans noticed something was missing. These life-long supporters of the Smithsonian, who brought children and then grandchildren to the museums over the years, wondered: “Where are we in this story?” The community approached the Smithsonian Institution and, in response, received a commitment in 2007 to begin building a collection. Unveiled in February this year at the National Museum of Natural History, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” explores the ongoing story of the Indian American experience. The exhibit will be in Washington, D.C., until August 2015, when it will begin travelling to other parts of the United States for five more years.


To find artifacts for the exhibit, staff at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center reached out to Indian Americans of all ages, recent immigrants and longtime citizens, from urban and rural communities. Curator Masum Momaya emphasises the monumental effort of building such a collection. “It’s really hard to cram a whole community into an exhibit!” she laughs. “We see ‘Beyond Bollywood’ as both a starting point and a point of departure for the story of the Indian American experience.”


The colourful displays give a glimpse into the complex and diverse struggles and achievements of the Indian community in America. The story begins earlier than many people think:  Indians came to America’s shores over 200 years ago, to help build railroads, to farm, to trade. Most know of more recent Indian immigration from the 1960’s onward, when many doctors came from overseas to fill the needs of the new Medicare system, especially in poor and rural areas.


The exhibit does not gloss over a sometimes difficult past and reveals examples of prejudice and racism that impact South Asians—and many other immigrant communities—in America even today. From the history of the struggle for rights to citizenship and land ownership in the early 20th century, to the more current problems of racial profiling, employment discrimination and violence such as the 2012 killings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, “Beyond Bollywood” sheds light on the many challenges and the painful experiences of the Indian immigrant story. The turban of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh gas station owner gunned down in the days after 9/11 because of his appearance, offers a heartbreaking reminder of the progress yet to be made in building understanding and acceptance in America.


The exhibit celebrates the numerous achievements of the community as well. Highlights include a bejewelled white gown worn by First Lady Michelle Obama, which was designed by Indian American Naeem Khan. The first turbaned NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) basketball player, Darsh Singh’s college jersey hangs on the wall nearby. The “hall of fame” contributions continue with the doctor bag of acclaimed author Abraham Verghese, the Olympic medal of Mohini Bhardwaj, the national spelling bee trophy from the first of many Indian Americans to win the coveted prize and campaign materials from Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian American elected to the U.S. Congress.


Not everything here is star-studded, though. “Beyond Bollywood” also features personal, everyday artifacts. Momaya points out shoe racks placed at the two entrances to the exhibit, filled with everything from sneakers to sparkling slippers. “We collected shoes from Indian Americans around the country,” she explains, “so that people could materially contribute to the exhibit.” People sent in family photos as well, which are displayed along a wall in simple frames alongside mirrors so that the viewer is part of the family, too. The homey feeling continues throughout the exhibit, evoked in a dining table set for a crowd. A family-run motel lobby is designed to give the museum visitor the perspective from behind the desk, noting that over 50 percent of American motels are owned by Indian Americans and that the motel often doubles as home for the owners. Thus behind the desk, shelves display books, music and other objects typically found in Indian American homes, such as a small temple.


“Some of those items came from my parents’ basement!” laughs Momaya. She affirms that artifacts throughout the exhibit are from real homes, real people, from all over the United States. “We didn’t want people to feel distanced from the exhibit. Our stuff is in here.”


People of all ages from around the world are touring the exhibit, reflecting the broad visitorship of the Museum of  Natural History itself. Momaya estimates that roughly half of the visitors to the 5,000-square-foot exhibition are non-Indian. The title draws people in, as it did Salmaan Faraaz and his family.


When Arizona resident Faraaz brought family visiting from Bangalore to tour Washington, D.C., the Museum of Natural History topped their list of attractions. The museum boasts dinosaur bones, mummies and a rock collection no one—especially his geologist father—should miss. “I came to see and photograph fossils,” says Saleem Ahmed Khan, smiling as he touches the camera around his neck. But like many of the 10 million annual visitors to the museum, he stumbled upon another exhibit that piqued his curiosity. He saw a sign for the “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit, just down the hall and around the corner from the famed Hope Diamond. And so they wandered in to have a look.


Welcomed into the gallery with the sound of familiar Bollywood music, the family lingers at the large dining table set with real plates, but just photos of Indian delicacies. “Oooh, I was hoping those jalebis were real!” laughs Faraaz.

Before heading back to view more fossils, they look around the exhibit with pride. “I’m pleased to see this here,” says Faraaz, nodding. “And a little surprised!”




The photo credits are as follows:

NHB2014-00433.jpg: DONALD E. HURLBERT/Smithsonian Institution


Bollywood 2 Swami Vivekananda.jpg: Courtesy Eliot Baha’i Archives and Maine Memory Network/Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Program

(Credit to SPAN and TWF mandatory)