Indian Americans get place of pride in US history and Smithsonian gallery

Indians who immigrated to the United States helped build railroads, till the land, make and change laws and fight bigotry. Now, they have found a place in US history: a gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Pics inside

india Updated: Feb 26, 2014 13:05 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
United States,Indian americans,Indian immigrants to US

The first Indian came to the United States in 1790, just 14 years after the country was born. He came on a ship with British crew, stayed for a while perhaps and left.

Or so it seems. Though there are plenty of references to the man — no name, though — in literature from that time, he didn't leave behind much of a story. Nothing actually.

Many more Indians followed over the next centuries, and stayed.

They helped build railroads, till the land, make and change laws, fight bigotry, and, ultimately found a place in US history: a gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The gallery called Beyond Bollywood opens on February 27 as a tribute to Indian Americans, whose role has received scant or no attention yet in the making of this country.

"It is not a hall of fame. It's not meant to be an exhaustive record of individual achievements of all Indian Americans," said Masum Momaya, who has curated the exhibition.

"It's about what we, as Indian immigrants and Indian Americans, have contributed to shaping this country," she added.

Her parents came here from Gujarat in the 1960s.

For instance, the turbaned men standing stiffly by railway tracks in a black and white picture from Oregon in 1906, that welcomes visitors at the entrance.

"They helped build the railroads as much as Chinese immigrants, but not many people know that," said Momaya.

And, the picture is indeed stunning in its starkness.

Indian immigrants work on railway construction, Pacific and Eastern Railroad, Oregon, ca. 1906. (Photo courtesy: Southern Oregon Historical Society (#1603)/Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program)

Sikh immigrants from India usually landed on the west coast, as the railroad workers in the Oregon photograph. And that is a story told many times before.

Dalip Singh Saund came here in 1920. He studied maths but had to turn to farming for a living. He became a citizen in 1949, ran for the Congress eight years later, and won.

Little known, however, are the stories of Bengalis who came to the east coast and brought exotic eastern items such as silk. And settled down, traveling south to Louisiana and married Creoles.

Spread over 5,000 square feet, the gallery has 200 historical and contemporary images, three dozen works of art, two dozen historical objects and artifacts.

They include the helmet of Brandon Chillar, who played football for one of the top teams Green Bay Packers, and Mohini Bhardwaj's 2004 Olympic silver medal in gymnastics.

The Smithsonian has hosted such galleries before recognising the role of immigrants such as Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean in the making of the country.

Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, with senators John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, 1958. (Photo courtesy: Eric Saund)

"We were looking for another interesting idea when some friends suggested the 'greatest idea ever'," said Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Center.

That was in 2008-2009. Five years hence, the gallery is ready.

When asked if President Barack Obama knows of the Beyond Bollywood gallery, Ng, who is married to Obama's sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, said he does and wants to visit.

"(But) you know when you are president, you can't show up for things," said Ng, adding, "He is looking forward to being able to check out some of the things."

So Ng told him: "Any time, we will open the door for you."

A dress used by the first lady Michelle Obama is among the exhibits, as it was made for her by Naeem Khan, an Indian-American designer based in New York.

(The pictures were provided to HT by Smithsonian)

First Published: Feb 26, 2014 11:36 IST