Dis­cov­ery of Amer­ica

A new ex­hi­bi­tion in Wash­ing­ton shows how In­di­ans have been part of US his­tory since 1790

India Today - - INSIDE - By Lav­ina Melwani

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.

Cour­tesy SMITH­SO­NIAN

Cour­tesy ERIC SAUND

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

LAV­INA MELWANI

LAV­INA MELWANI

DON­ALD E. HURL­BERT

Cour­tesy MAYUR PA­TEL

LAV­INA MELWANI

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