In 1790, America was beginning its relationship with one kind of Indian – our kind -- and ending it with another in a series of official wars against the natives of the land. The first Indian, whose name is unknown, had jumped off a ship that had set sail from Madras and then docked at Salem, Massachusetts. The ‘Red Indian’, also, ironically enough, makes an entry in the Beyond Bollywood exhibition being held at the Smithsonian, Washington DC, to celebrate how the Indians from the subcontinent shaped America. In an article on the exhibition blog on artist Annu Mathew’s work, meant to compare, among other things, the histories of the two communities with accompanying photographs of the two kinds of Indians, sits a somewhat self-congratulatory title: ‘Dots, not Feathers’. If the message is that we are different – we got that.
As with most immigrant stories, the chronicle of Indians from India vis-à-vis their host country began on a note of non-acceptance, negotiation and eventual assimilation. The Indian-American story now is one of identification, collaboration and partnership. The current exhibition, billed as one of the largest on the Indian-American community, in any American museum, showcases the positives of that journey in a 5,000-square-foot space with 300 historical and contemporary photographs, two dozen objects and artefacts and three dozen works of art.
Dr Masum Momaya, an Indian-American who curated the exhibition, spoke over the phone to elaborate on the selection and to point out areas of interest. Sociology, not psychology, is the area being mapped, she said. “We are looking at Indian-American contributions that went into shaping this country. The exhibition is not an exploration of individual negotiations of identity,” she said when asked about the upbeat character of the collection.
The seven themes of the exhibition – Migration, Early Immigrants, Professional Contribution, Arts and Activism, Cultural Contribution, Groundbreakers, Contribution to Religion and Spirituality – show that the relationship of Indians with America is on solid ground. There is give and take, reward and recognition. Among the famous and the not-so-famous, whose time in America has been marked out include Dhan Gopal Mukherji (the first Indian-American who won the Newbery Medal, a literary prize for a work of children’s fiction), Gay Neck: the Story of a Pigeon (1927), Congressman Dalip Singh Saund standing in a photograph with two American presidents, gymnast Mohini Bharadwaj, a silver medallist in the 2004 Olympics; Naeem Khan, who designed Michelle Obama’s dress for the 2013 Oscars, Madhur Jaffrey, who introduced the American public to Indian food, and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Isn’t Shankar an unusual choice? Did he have dual citizenship?
“We are not strictly looking at the criterion of citizenship,” explains Momaya. “He has had a history of collaboration with American musicians.” India-born writer Salman Rushdie, who made America his home in 2000 and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, however, stands out in his exclusion from any list in the exhibition. “Rushdie is not here, not because of any controversy but because we were looking at people who influenced America in some way,” said Momaya, in reply to a question on the subject. Even Sanjaya Malakar, the goofy, unmelodious kid who took a beating from the judges most of the times he appeared in the reality show, American Idol, season 6, has made the cut!
There are other unusual pairings. In the section on Professions, four have been showcased – Physicians, Engineering and Science, Motel and Hotel Owners and Taxi-drivers – to show Indians’ role in the American economy. But is that all Indians do in America? It’s also unclear what are the common grounds between the four to be grouped so, unless it is about the life of any immigrant working in any profession – and who is to say that their stories should not be told?
Clichés, however, can be a useful tool to trace an immigrant journey, and they hold a sentimental value in the life of a people trying to make their place in a foreign land. The need, then, to say ‘who we are’ and ‘where we come from’ is usually expressed through overstatement and success stories. Seen in this light, Beyond Bollywood perhaps has its meaning and may yet strike a chord.