Did you know that the Indian presence in the United States dates back to 1790? You will now, thanks to an exhibition opening later this year at the Smithsonian Museum.
They have dreamed the American Dream, working late shifts at 7-Elevens, driving yellow cabs and managing crumbling motels. They have also been physicians, academics, scientists, entrepreneurs and high-powered hoteliers. Touching 3.2 million, they are among the highest American achievers, and you know they have truly arrived as a community when the prestigious Smithsonian Museum decides to showcase their success.
We’re talking, of course, about the Indian-American community, which will be the focus of a major exhibition: “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.” Four years in the making, the exhibition is expected to debut at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, in December 2013, in Washington DC. It will occupy more than 5,000 square feet of space and is expected to draw more than 7 million visitors before embarking on a national tour in 2015.
“The Indian American story has yet to be fully told,” says Dr. Konrad Ng, Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, whose mandate is to highlight Asian communities in the U.S. This exhibition is part of the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project, and it is the largest project the Center has organised in its 15-year history, as well as the first to focus on Indian-American culture. Apart from the exhibition, there will be inter-connected public programmes, a curriculum guide for youth, an interactive website, and artefacts donated to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
Ng, President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, is a noted scholar of Asian-American cinema and digital media — even if, with his lean, lanky frame and long hair, he gives the appearance of a cool rock musician. He was in New York recently to introduce the upcoming exhibition to Indians of the tri-state area at a reception at the Consulate of India.
Himself an immigrant and part of a family of many races, he told the room full of Indian-Americans, “India, the people of India, Indian Americans, and Indian-American history, art and culture are no longer objects to be sold, bought, owned, or disenfranchised the way Asian-Pacific American life was during the colonial era and the early part of American history; rather, we are now active and proud participants in the American story, and, indeed, in the history of the world.”
He was accompanied by Dr. Masum Momaya, Curator of the Indian-American Project, and Sameen Piracha, Developmental Specialist. Momaya is a second-generation Indian American who recalls often being the only brown child in the group photos taken in her school in Illinois, where her immigrant parents had settled in the 1970s. She went on to study at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, and was earlier Curator at the International Museum of Women.
“The exhibition is simultaneously an enormous undertaking and a first step in the privileged platform of the Smithsonian, our national museum,” says Momaya, adding that it’s impossible to adequately ‘cover’ the diversity of identity or experience that is represented in the community. “But I have a two-pronged purpose: dismantling stereotypes and highlighting the contributions of Indians Americans to shaping this country — politically, professionally and culturally.”
Momaya feels that the exhibition is particularly important and timely because immigration is a core of part of American history and, in this nation of immigrants, there are still misconceptions that Indian-Americans are foreigners and outsiders. Indian presence in the U.S. dates back to 1790, just 14 years after the formation of the American nation. “Our hands have been part of building the railroads and cultivating farms and establishing trade and small businesses five generations ago, which still exist today,” says Momaya. “We fought for citizenship and civil rights for not just ourselves but many peoples. And, yes, we are doctors and engineers, and we drive taxis and own motels and Dunkin’ Donuts stores, but there is much more.”
Part of Momaya’s responsibility as curator is to choose characters whose experiences convey more than just the narrative of one individual, representing something larger about the collective experience. “Beyond Bollywood”, thus, will show that Indians have been a part of the American story in both expected and surprising ways. It will document both the ups and downs — the success stories, as well as incidents of discrimination, from the late 1800s to the present — through historic photographs and contemporary artefacts and mementos from noted Indian Americans. It will cover immigrant stories, the struggle for labour and women’s rights, professional successes, and the many contributions in art and entertainment.
Fortunately, the funding of the exhibition has not been that difficult. Over 60 per cent of the fundraising goal has been achieved; $325,000 still needs to be raised. While federal funding is a mainstay of the Smithsonian, the Asian Pacific American Center receives no direct funds from Congress and relies on private donations. Indian immigrant entrepreneur and philanthropist H.R. Shah, who owns the broadcast company TV Asia (media partner with the Smithsonian for this exhibition), has been among the prime donors in the Saffron category, which is $100,000. Other donors in that category are the Kanu R. Shah and Daksha K. Shah Foundation, and Rick and Sadhana Downs.
At the New York reception held at the packed ballroom of New India House, Ambassador Prabhu Dayal, who retired on the same day as the Pope, gave his last welcoming address to the guests, calling the Indian-American community a great catalyst in furthering the relations between India and America, and voicing the hope that the Smithsonian’s extraordinary exhibition would travel not only across the U.S. but also to Indian cities.
Momaya hopes that the exhibition will dismantle stereotypes and erroneous assumptions that are held about Indian Americans and for Indian Americans. “I hope they will leave with a sense of pride about the numerous ways we’ve shaped this country.”