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Indian American stereotype busting 'Beyond Bollywood' exhibit now at Smithsonian

"Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation"


"Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation", a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, busts stereotypes by using fascinating art, artifacts, and facts.

The Sharma family in San Francisco, 1983. Photo by Prithvi Sharma. In "Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation" exhibit opening Feb. 27 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Photo by Prithvi Sharma. In "Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation", Smithsonian Nat'l Museum of Natural History

"Americans' first association with India is Bollywood, but this exhibition goes far beyond," curator Masum Momaya said. "Although Asian Indians have been here since 1790, and now number more than 3 million, we've been largely left out of this country’s history."

It's the first major exhibit to focus on Asian Indians in the U.S.

The opening section has photographs of early Indian immigrants to the U.S., and a poem "Bright Passages" by Indian American Meena Alexander. It ends with "...why have you brought us here?"

The free exhibit exquisitely illuminates the answers. The intriguing historical narrative of Indian Americans is interspersed with artifacts and artworks.

"Instead of hitting the audience over the head, I used art to expose the stereotypes," noted curator Momaya, who developed all content of the extensive exhibit.

Art illustrating these stereotypes includes posters of one of the best-known Indian Americans -- Apu, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart in "The Simpsons" -- and Rudolf Valentino as "The Young Rajah" in brown-face!

The film industries in America and in India began at the same time. India's cinema goes far beyond the exuberant, vibrant genre of Bollywood, a combo of Bombay and Hollywood.

One of the most effective of all the stereotype-busting artworks is a three-photo series "UnSuitable Girls" -- "Most Reluctant Housekeeper", "Least Dutiful Wife", and "Most Apprehensive Fiancée" -- by Anjali Bhargava and Swati Khurana.

In another striking photography series, "An Indian from India", Annu Palakunnathu Matthew frames her photographic self-portraits with similar ones of Native Americans -- before and after being assimilated.

Specific items are also very powerful in dispelling stereotypes and racial profiling that have sparked violence.

  • The royal blue Sikh turban worn by Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first South Asian person murdered in retaliation for September 11, 2001. He was shot to death in Mesa, Ariz. a few days after the terrorist attack.
  • A copy of a newspaper story about "Dotbusters", a New Jersey hate group named for the dot or "bindhi" some Indian women wear on their forehead. A "Dotbusters" leader tells the newspaper, "We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City...We will never be stopped."

The curator pointed out, "It was really important to put the violence section close to the front because it was and is an important part of Indian American history."

A far more positive approach throughout the 5,000-square-foot exhibition features outstanding Indian Americans, often the "firsts" -- a rather stereotypical but necessary way to break negative stereotypes and enforce positive ones.

  • A larger-than-life photo of Nina Davuluri, the current Miss America and the first Indian American to win the crown. As Miss New York, Davuluri performed a Bollywood dance for the talent competition.
  • Designer Naeem Khan is represented by the sequin-embroidered gown he created for First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012. Khan said he combines "the complicated Indian over-the-top Bollywood traditions with the clean lines I learned from Halston" while apprenticing with him. Khan, whose family has made garments for Indian royalty since the Mughal Empire (16th century-mid-19th century), designs for American "royalty" including Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Eva Longoria, among many others.
  • Zubin Mehta, the first person of Indian origin to become principal conductor of a major U.S. orchestra -- Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-1978), and later the New York Philharmonic (1978-1991).
  • Har Gobind Khorana, the first Indian American Nobel Prize winner, 1968, sharing it with two Columbia University colleagues, "for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis".
  • Mohini Bhardwaj, the first Indian American woman to win an Olympic medal, is shown along with her actual 2004 Olympic Silver Medal for gymnastics. (Other athletes include Super Bowler Brandon Chillar and his Green Bay Packers helmet from the 2011 championship).
  • Mindy Kaling (Vera Chokalingam), the first Indian American to star in and produce her own show, "The Mindy Project" that began in 2012. She also wrote and produced several episodes of "The Office".

Other "firsts" have their own exhibits, including U.S. Representative Dalip Singh Saund, the first person of Asian descent to be elected to Congress, in 1956. An enormous photo shows California Rep. Saund between then-Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1958. Rep. Saund's quote reproduced on the photo: "There is no room in the United States of America for second class citizenship."

A large portion of the show focuses on the difficulties Indian immigrants have had in attaining U.S. citizenship, and even being counted in the census.

In 1907, soon after the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted immigration from "Asiatic nations", a mob of almost 500 men attacked Punjabi lumber mill workers in Bellingham, Wash. Within two weeks, all Indian people left the city. And within months, additional attacks occurred elsewhere in that state, and also in California, and Vancouver, B.C.

Almost 40 years later, the Lance-Cellar Act of 1946 extended the right of naturalized citizenship "to persons or races indigenous to India."

However, only in 1980 did the census begin using the category "Asian Indian". Today, one in every 100 Americans is of Indian heritage. (Their prior census categories included "foreigner", and later "Hindu" -- regardless of their religion.)

The engrossing exhibit is further enlivened by installations:

  • In a National Spelling Bee set-up, you can match your a-b-c's with 1999 champion Nupur Lala, star of the documentary "Spellbound". I tried three words, and got only one right, "logorrhea" (verbosity)! I admired the 1985 trophy awarded to the first Indian American winner, Balu Natarajan. Indian Americans have won the National Spelling Bee for the past six years straight.
  • A tribute to the history of yoga in America is a "lotus room" reconstructed from one in Centreville, Virginia -- the country's first yoga studio to teach the philosophy as well as the practice of yoga. This dovetails on a recently concluded exhibit "Yoga: the Art of Transformation" at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery across the National Mall.
  • A large, long table is set with traditional Indian foods and spices, "an important part of America's cultural landscape," noted curator Momaya.
  • A mirrored hallway is decorated with stunning life-size images of Indian Americans performing various styles of classic Indian dances. "I wanted people to see themselves reflected among these figures," Momaya explained.

One quote on a wall says it all, "...your heart should burn with loving-kindness for all who cross your path."

For more info: "Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation", Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, on the National Mall at 1000 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. Free. On display Feb. 27 for one year, and then will travel around the country for five years. "Beyond Bollywood" is part of the Indian American Heritage Project of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Public programs include performances featuring Indian American art, comedy, cuisine, dance, film, television, literature and music.

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