Discovery of America
A new exhibition in Washington shows how Indians have been part of US history since 1790
A new exhibition in Washington shows how Indians have been part of US history since 1790.
They left villages, towns, cities and even loved ones for foreign shores. And today, one in every 100 Americans is of Indian origin, and each has a story to tell of discovery and challenges, of loss and gain. These wandering Indians were considered foreigners until 1900, then ‘non-white Hindus’, no matter what their religion. From 1940 to 1970, their race was just ‘Other’ on all forms. It was only in 1980 that they came to be categorised as Asian Indians.
For the first time, their untold story has been gathered in an exhibition at the prestigious Smithsonian in Washington, DC. ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans shape the Nation’ gathers rare photographs and artefacts to document the history and achievements of this community. The exhibition, which opened on February 27, 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. Over a million dollars were raised for this project, largely from the Indian community.
“The Indian-American story has yet to be fully told,” says Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, which has organised Beyond Bollywood. “This exhibition is about celebrating a community that embodies the American spirit.” It includes public programmes, an interactive website, and artefacts donated to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. It is curated by Masum Momaya, of the Asian Pacific American Center
and an expert on women’s issued and human rights, race and social justice. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants and was born in Chicago.
“Although we are a nation of immigrants, there are still strong sentiments that we are ‘outsiders’,” says Momaya. “The history of us here shows how false this is. It dates back to 1790, just 14 years after the nation was founded. Our hands have been part of building railroads and cultivating farms and establishing trade and small businesses five generations ago that still exist today.”
The walls of the exhibition are immersed in purple, orange, pink and turquoise colours, and the seven divisions cover different aspects of the Indian-American story. This exhibition covers a lot of ground from Swami Vivekananda, yoga and religion to art, cinema, music and dance to the lives of taxi drivers. Even Spelling Bee champs are given a space here. There are rare images of Indian immigrants working on railroad construction back in 1906 and of Indian migrants harvesting beets in California.
There are statistics that surprise you: 30 per cent of taxi drivers in New York are of Indian origin, and 50 per cent of motels are owned by Indian-
Americans. You also glean some offbeat facts: The first Indian restaurant to open in America was Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant in 1921, serving Persian and ‘Hindu’ food. Stories of achievement and loss are told through objects—the turban of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered after 9/11, as well as the 2004 Olympic silver medal won by gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj.
There are many historic artefacts such as election posters of Dalip Singh Saund, who was the first Indian-American Congressman, and Vinod Dham’s original 80386 microchip developed in 1985 by Intel, which was a precursor to the Pentium chip. The exhibition also features a series of photographs from The Arch Motel Project by Chiraag Bhakta and Mark Hewko, who photographed Indian motel owners living and working in their motels.
Perhaps another 5,000 sq ft would cover all aspects of the Indian-American story so it is more show, less tell. INDIA EXOTICA The photograph of a reclining lady was part of the “exotic” India-themed playing cards packed into coffee tins by the McLaughlin Coffee Company in the early 1900s Larger images, maybe a mock-up of a Little India market or large-scale murals of local Holi, Navratri and Diwali celebrations would have conveyed to the mainstream the sheer energy of Indian culture which these immigrants strive to keep alive.
“It’s my belief that an exhibition isn’t finished when it opens to the public but is just the beginning of an expanding and extended sharing that lives in the gallery, on social media, in classrooms and at dining tables through conversations,” says Momaya. “At the Smithsonian, we also see this exhibition as a first step rather than a definitive account.”
The Indian-American story is a continuing one, with many more chapters to come.
SWAMI AND THE WEST Swami Vivekananda and guests at Green Acre School in Eliot, Maine in 1894. This school, a meeting place for the study of world religions, was one stop on a tour in which Vivekananda introduced the West
to Hinduism and yoga.
CREATING HISTORY Congressman Dalip Singh Saund (centre) with senators John F. Kennedy (left) and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1958. Saund, a California farmer, mathematician, and judge from Imperial County, made history in 1957 by becoming the first Asian Congressman.
(From left) Aplaque honouring Vinod Dham, mounted with the Intel 486 Pentium chip; the bag carried by Dr Abraham Verghese, who arrived in the US in the ’80s at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the Naeem Khan gown worn by First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2012 Governors’ Dinner
DONALD E. HURLBERT One half of a large dining table is set with steel thalis, the other half with Corelle dinnerware, that great obsession of NRIs
(Left) The 1960s saw both a boom in motel-building and a surge of Patels entering the country; (Below) Most immigrants came with trunks containing clothes and a few items to remind them of home
DONALD E. HURLBERT
Courtesy MAYUR PATEL