reviews and essays

True Stories

An exhibition on Indian Americans strives to present the community’s story on its own terms

By Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan | 1 May 2014

IN JOHNSON CITY, Tennessee, in 1982, an Ethiopia-born, India-trained medical resident named Abraham Verghese coveted Dr Steven Berk’s doctor bag. He saved enough money to purchase one for himself, then rubbed it with neatsfoot oil to approximate the well-worn, talismanic quality of his mentor’s bag. Verghese then filled it with his kit—eye drops, calipers, prescription pads—and his hopes of assimilating into the American medical establishment.

Three decades later, ‘The doctor bag of Abraham Verghese’ sits in a glass case in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in an exhibition on Indian Americans in the United States. In that time, Verghese has enjoyed a successful medical career—he is now a professor of medicine at Stanford University—and authored three books, including the celebrated memoir My Own Country (1994) and the bestselling novel Cutting for Stone (2009). The back of the display case features snippets of Verghese’s recollections of his early days: “I had to ask someone how to tie my tie with a thinner knot so I could fit in. And the only way I could eat the bland hospital food was to put Tabasco sauce on everything.”

Verghese’s words capture the familiar dual imperative of immigrant life: on the one hand, fitting in, with a tie knot of appropriate girth; on the other, maintaining one’s tastes, through the strategic application of chilli-approximating Tabasco. His story reminds us that even blue- and white-collar immigrants have to negotiate resistance to the perceived “Third World invasion” of the United States, whether through neutralising accents or by softening the stiffness of difference with neatsfoot oil.

Verghese’s doctor bag is just one of hundreds of objects in Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, the largest exhibition organised to date by the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center. The show, which opened in February and will run through August 2015 before touring the United States, is part of the APAC’s Indian American Heritage Project, which also includes an interactive website and digital exhibit that features content from Beyond Bollywood.

Pitched as an act of collective Indian American self-representation, Beyond Bollywood seeks to distinguish itself from ethnographic exhibits that put communities on display without involving them in the process of curation. Parag Mehta, a self-described “political operative” who was IAHP’s first volunteer and a key contributor to Beyond Bollywood, said the show is an example of “us taking responsibility for telling our story on our own terms.” Pawan Dhingra, who worked on the exhibition between 2011 and 2012, stressed that the show “is not an Indian American story brought to you by some other entity,” but rather “by the community itself.”

But self-representation may even raise the stakes of constructing a singular meta-narrative about a community as diverse as the Indian American one. In the case of Beyond Bollywood, the burden of speaking “as” a community rather than describing it introduces formidable expectations about what the exhibition can achieve and the extent to which the objects displayed can serve in metaphoric relation to their owners and producers.

At the entrance of Beyond Bollywood is a display of crowd-sourced shoes—beaded chappals, moccasins, patent leather dress shoes, the ubiquitous white sneakers worn by every bachelor engineer. Arranged in an oddly manicured alignment, this is not the typical haphazard pile of footwear strewn outside a Diwali gathering or cast off before a temple by worshippers. Yet the installation effectively signals the hospitality and sensibility of an Indian American welcome; Mehta has even seen “grannies trying to figure out if they should remove their shoes at the display by the glass doors.”

“Indian Americans: Who are WE?” asks an opening text panel. Stepping into the exhibition’s representational embrace, visitors are reflected in mirrors strategically hung on a wall amid family photographs of people clad in saris, wearing sunglasses, waving Indian flags. The Ghosh family at Samuel P Taylor State Park, 1970. The Persards in Brandon, Florida, 1988. As Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities, his seminal work on nationalism, “How strange it is to need another’s help to learn that this naked baby in the yellowed photograph, sprawled happily on rug or cot, is you.” Here, Indian American viewers are invited to see themselves through the taxonomic eye of the Natural History museum.

A soundtrack plays overhead, of songs from the Bollywood classics Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Mera Naam Joker (1970). Short clips from Liam Dalzell’s documentary Punjabi Cab (2004), which depicts a day in the life of three Sikh taxi drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area, play on repeat, the audio mingling with Hindi lyrics at certain points in the five-thousand-square-foot gallery.

Jeena yahan marna yahan / Iske siwa jaana kahan?” (You live here, die here / Where else would you go, but here?)

“How long have you been driving cabs?”
“Do you like driving cabs?”

In the Smithsonian’s description, Beyond Bollywood is an exhibition of “history, art, and culture.” Masum Momaya, the show’s curator, calls the collection of photographs, documents, artefacts and three-dozen artworks a “multi-modal” telling of the story of Indian immigrant contributions to the United States and its national imagination. The show unfolds in seven parts: Migration; Early Immigration; Working Lives; Arts and Activism; Yoga, Religion, and Spirituality; Cultural Contributions; and Groundbreakers. One of the largest installations is a spelling bee stage where visitors can emulate the thirteen Indian Americans who, since 1985, have won the National Spelling Bee. Other installations include a mirrored yoga pavilion, a motel front desk, and a “kitchen table” at which visitors can view spice dabbas and read, on plates used as panels for display text, about Indian food in its American incarnations; for instance, the “Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts” that approximate the jhal murhi sold on Kolkata sidewalks, as described by Jhumpa Lahiri in her novel The Namesake.

At first view, Beyond Bollywood seems complicit not only in rehashing well-known tropes, but also in bowing to the cult of celebrity, which Susan Sontag described as the practice of “grant[ing] only the famous their names.” The most prominent image in the exhibition is of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian American Congressman, pictured with then-Senators John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. Headshots of celebrities, including television star Mindy Kaling and Olympic medalist Mohini Bhardwaj, are framed by stainless steel thalis on a wall displaying “Groundbreakers.”

On another wall, however, are quotations about religious life in the United States from a collection of non-celebrities, almost all of them aged under thirty, including Aviva Marer, Aditi Singh, Shivani Jain, Nupur Shambharkar and Neville Dusaj. Evidencing an unusual and refreshing curatorial principle of selection, these young Zoroastrians, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jains are allotted more of the exhibit’s coveted real estate than many well-known producers of Indian American diaspora culture. Indeed, some of the most recognised American desis are missing altogether: Anita and Kiran Desai, Fareed Zakaria, Vinod Khosla, Deepak Chopra, Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and others.

At the exhibition’s preview, Momaya explained that it was “impossible” to represent the Indian American community “comprehensively.” Instead, she strove for “balance in the narrative.” What feels like the exhibition’s somewhat arbitrary selection touches on the difficulty of clearly determining who, and what, qualifies as Indian American. Individuals may be included in the category by virtue of immigration or birth; phenomena are Indian by virtue of origin or association. The exhibit doesn’t feature Salman Rushdie, who has resided primarily in New York for many years, but includes Verghese, the film director M Night Shyamalan, and others born outside of the United States. Jhumpa Lahiri and the actor and civil servant Kal Penn appear on the margins, while the American football player Brandon Chillar shares space with the Nobel laureate and biochemist Har Gobind Khorana, and the astronaut Kalpana Chawla.

Though geared towards an intergenerational public, Beyond Bollywood is heavy on individual profiles and documents accompanied by explanatory text, which can be off-putting for audiences accustomed to the visual and sonic stimulation of the new media world. However, a few displays do live up to Momaya’s goal of creating a “vibrant, loud exhibition” in which children can “touch, poke, [and] point at things.” One of these is the motel installation, which features and is inspired by ‘The Arch Motel Project,’ a series of images from the photographer Mark Hewko and the artist Chiraag Bhakta (who goes by the name Pardon My Hindi). A facsimile of a reception desk enables viewers to stand in place for an Indian American motel owner, while also affording a voyeuristic peek into the owner’s living and working space.

The installation does not, however, fully adhere to Bhakta’s vision, which he shared with me, for a tri-partite division of the space into the customer’s domain (the lobby), the owner’s private living space, and the “transitional” space of the office, where smells, sounds, accents, and aromas from the private domain waft into the public, transactional setting. “Financial constraints,” Bhakta said wistfully in explanation. In his view, the installation could have captured the constantly mediated nature of the Indian American lived experience in a more sophisticated, subtle way.

In its most attentive moments, though, Beyond Bollywood rises to Bhakta’s challenge. The food installation, for example, features vintage Corelle CorningWare plates (“lightweight, versatile, stackable, unbreakable, microwavable,” my mother recalled), a familiar object for many Indian immigrant families. In the Washington Post, the reporter Lavanya Ramanathan criticised this particular brand of ethnic representation through product placement. “Corelle doesn’t belong here,” she wrote, “mere feet from dinosaurs and great beasts whose existence is mind-boggling.” But the exhibit could have used more artefacts with the socio-historical specificity of the Corelle plates. For example, as Bhakta noted in our conversation, in Indian American homes, fennel seeds are more likely to be stored in reused Ragu pasta sauce jars than in the stainless steel containers on display in the exhibition. Indian American immigrants “recycle,” he said, they try “to adapt.” That, Bhakta said, “is what America is.”

IN 1999, US president Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13125, creating the White House’s Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which included the Smithsonian in its broad mandate “to improve the quality of life of Asian Americans … through increased participation in Federal programs.” Parag Mehta recalls that the initiative’s director, Shamina Singh, worked with historian Franklin Odo, the founding director of the APAC, to bring to light immigrant stories that were “missing in history.” Odo spearheaded a series of exhibits documenting the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese experiences in the United States, which included From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai’i (1999) and Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon: Vietnamese America since 1975 (2007).

In 2007, Mehta, then working for the Democratic Party’s National Committee (DNC), and Toby Chaudhuri, Al Gore’s former press secretary, met at Delhi Club, an Indian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, to brainstorm a way to present the experiences of Indian immigrants. By its own tally, the Smithsonian has over 137 millions objects in its permanent collections, but at the time it had nothing representing the 3.3 million people of Indian origin in the United States. With Gautam Raghavan, a prominent fundraiser for the DNC who is now the White House’s public engagement advisor, they began marketing an IAHP exhibition prospectively titled “HomeSpun: Made in the U.S.A.” to potential donors. “We [wanted to] spin our own yarn,” Mehta told me.

Konrad Ng, Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, succeeded Odo as director of the APAC in 2011, and the sociologist Pawan Dhingra was hired as the IAHP’s curator. Dhingra jumped at the opportunity “to be, to do, more” than what his academic job allowed, but in 2012 left for a tenured professorship. Momaya, a former curator at the San Francisco-based International Museum of Women, took his place. The exhibit was renamed “Beyond Bollywood,” and the project’s original logo, which featured the Statue of Liberty with the spokes of a spinning chakra for her crown and a bindi on her forehead, was scrapped. Dhingra was happy to see the IAHP dispense with the “highly gendered, religious and heteronormative” image of Lady Liberty. Momaya hoped the new title would be a good hook for an exhibition that could enter “mainstream public consciousness.” “We do this work to be seen,” she said.

The Natural History museum is one of the most popular in the world—second only to the Louvre—and ten million people are expected to view Beyond Bollywood over the course of its run. As the United States’ official historical archive, the Smithsonian is the “nation’s attic,” the place where school kids and tourists, citizens and foreigners, come to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939), handbills from the 1963 March on Washington, and a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth. To be included in the Smithsonian is to be accorded a place in the American story, to be not just known to other Americans but be of them.

Because the Smithsonian is a public trust, only a limited amount of its operating budget comes from the US government, and programmes like the IAHP are funded primarily by private donations. Mehta’s dream, still unrealised, was to collect $10 from every Indian American family to fund the exhibit, so that the entire community could feel like “they own a piece of this.”

Community participation, the organisers envisioned, would also ensure that Beyond Bollywood remained focused on the diaspora, and not the India from whence they came. “It was not [supposed to be] Holi and Diwali and Rangoli and Hinduism,” Mehta said, alluding to 1980s Smithsonian exhibitions like Aditi: The Living Arts of India and Mela! An Indian Fair. “It was, ‘Let’s tell the story of Indians in the United States, how they got here, where they came from, what they did, and why it mattered.”

Yet Beyond Bollywood also illustrates the difficulty of separating uniquely Indian American themes from representations of India in the United States. The slippage between “India” and “Indian” in America is evident right from the rhetorical invitation of the opening text panel (“In the western imagination, India conjures up … elephants, saris, and spices; gurus, gods, and goddesses; turbans, temples … But in America, India’s contributions stretch far beyond these stereotypes”), as well as in many of the artefacts on display: a 1960s Hills Brothers coffee tin featuring reductive images of the exotic East, a still of the actor Rudolph Valentino from the 1922 silent film The Young Rajah, photos of Marilyn Monroe in sexed-up yoga poses for a 1946 fitness ad.

By placing the still of Valentino alongside promotional materials for the director Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), and by decorating the yoga pavilion with America’s favourite pinup, the exhibit attempts to effect a connection between India’s influences on American popular culture and Indian American contributions to the political and cultural spheres. This is not in and of itself surprising, as the line between Indian culture and its diasporic derivates can often be thin. For instance, an eco-friendly “Green Holi” is now celebrated in Texas, and Congressman Ami Bera is leading an effort to have the US Postal Service create a stamp commemorating Diwali.

But the distinction is nevertheless key, and it suffuses the entire exhibit. For example, viewers may trace yoga’s journey from the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 to Bikram Choudhury’s innovations in the 1970s, and on to its inclusion in the 2013 White House Easter Egg Roll, an annual event meant to promote “healthy and active living” hosted by the US president and first lady on the White House lawn. This is a story of cultural appropriation and expedient marketing, involving Indian, non-Indian and Indian American ambassadors. The exhibit succeeds in describing the transmutation of a spiritual practice into a “big business” in the United States, but it fails to plumb the larger implications of the fact that yoga is “India’s most popular contribution to American culture,” and not necessarily an Indian American contribution.

A semantic quibble? I’m not sure. What’s at stake in the conflation of India’s influence on the United States and Indian American contributions is not just a forgetting of history, but an eclipse of the present, in which India has assumed new prominence on the world stage and diasporic subjects are increasingly returning “home,” or contemplating what a return might look like. One of the exhibited artworks is a series of photographs by Sejal Patel, titled “If I were Back in India, Who Would I Be?” (1996), in which Patel re-enacts scenes of Indian village life. Momaya’s explanatory text resorts to an essentialised view of rural India: “If she lived in India, [Sejal’s] days would consist of rolling rotis, making yogurt, carrying water, and fetching firewood. But because she lives in America, who can she, and other desi women, be?” While the images of rural domesticity are not themselves objectionable, the framing condition—“if she lived in India”—does not qualify the India to which it refers, and the pat “because she lives in America” reproduces a myth of American opportunity that is doubly self-congratulatory: first, to the non-Indian American viewer, who leaves with misplaced pride about the personal and professional opportunities supposedly provided women in the United States; and second, to the Indian American viewer, who leaves feeling smug about having left India in the first place. This is a discordant note for the exhibit to strike in 2014 in an Asia-rising world, one likely unrecognisable, perhaps even amusing, to many readers.

But in Patel’s own artist statement, available online, she suggests that her auto-ethnographic photography is not self-Orientalising or ignorant of India’s modernity, but a performative illustration of how she sees herself being seen. This more nuanced point is lost in Beyond Bollywood.

The show does a better job of presenting Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s photographic series “An Indian from India,” which is another response to the Orientalist gaze. Matthew juxtaposes images of Native Americans with her own theatrical portrayals of Indian immigrant women, and the text accompanying the work is her own: “I find similarities in how those photographers looked at Native Americans and the colonial gaze of British photographers working in India.” Matthew’s work is a compelling illustration of a common misrecognition to which Indian Americans are often subjected (“Are you a Dot Indian or Feather Indian?”), suggesting a community with a sense of humour and an awareness of the diverging trajectories of Native Americans and Indian Americans in the United States.

Further inquiry, however, is beyond the scope of the exhibit. Its eighty text panels were each limited to 150 words by Smithsonian convention, and written with school-age visitors in mind. “You just have to juggle how much you’re able to complicate things,” Momaya said. “What we’ve tried to do is plant the seed and pose some questions.”

BEYOND BOLLYWOOD touches on the preservation of Indian culture in the United States, and on the challenges of assimilation, but it is overarchingly concerned with what Momaya calls “contribution.” The show is, she stressed, an illustration of the “multidirectional relationship between communities and nation.” In practice, this means that the exhibition foregrounds people and phenomena that are assumed to resonate with non-Indian Americans: football players, Weight Watchers and yoga, rather than the Namaste America TV network or Shastha Foods, whose idli and dosa batter has fed an entire generation of Indian Americans, myself included. There is nothing included about Indian grocery stores, the Indian American ethnic media, or the Indian movie multiplexes scattered across the country. The inclusion of the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association in New York’s India Day Parade in 2000 is relegated to a strip of wall easily missed behind the section on hip-hop and desi beats. In this narrative, Nina Davuluri, the first Miss America of Indian origin, becomes the apotheosis of contribution, but there is little space for the outlets and organisations that explicitly serve the community.

That’s the critical reading, one voiced by the writer Aseem Chhabra in the Indian American newspaper India Abroad (“The exhibit is all on the surface”), and also by S Mitra Kalita, ideas editor of the news outlet Quartz (“Trying to define Indian-Americans is an absolute setup for failure”). But neither vein of criticism gets it quite right. What Chhabra chafed against, namely an appeal to the lowest common denominator, is what Momaya called a “very intentional politics of accessibility.” As for defining Indian Americans, Beyond Bollywood does not define a population so much as call one into being. The challenge is to read Beyond Bollywood’s surface-level treatment not as a failing, but as an invitation; not an attempt to speak for an existent community, but an occasion for possible identification with an imagined and aspiring one.

The exhibit’s curator and advisors are keenly aware of the political potential of its location and positioning. From the show’s inception, Mehta, Chaudhuri and Raghavan insisted on framing the Indian American story as, in Mehta’s words, “a truly American story,” in order to “give the credit back to the country.”

This self-conscious, calculated framing inflects each of the exhibit’s other primary aims: historical documentation of the Indian presence in the United States since the arrival of the first immigrant in 1790; celebration of individual and collective achievement; giving voice to an underrepresented constituency in the Smithsonian’s archives; creating a meta-narrative about the Indian American community; and producing counter-narratives to correct mainstream misperceptions and stereotypes.

That’s a lot of balls for one exhibit to juggle, and for the most part it does surprisingly well. Art is often effectively used in place of a text panel or historical object, and despite the exhibit’s location in a state institution, it is rightly critical of how Indians have been treated in and by the United States. Beyond Bollywood highlights the race-based revocation of Army Sergeant Bhagat Singh Thind’s citizenship in the early 1900s, hate crimes performed by “dot busters” in the late 1980s, and—perhaps most poignantly—the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Such painful moments of Indian American history are handled with grace, and even President Barack Obama has congratulated the IAHP for “call[ing] on us to recognise ourselves in one another.”

On 15 September 2001, Sodhi was shot three times outside the Arizona gas station he owned as he was arranging American flags at its entrance. The flags were intended to ward off just the manner of hate crime to which Sodhi lost his life. Now, his signature blue turban is on display in Beyond Bollywood, and it has been acquired for the Museum of American History’s permanent collection. Sodhi’s turban is, on the one hand, a sign of Indian American difference—the symbol that provoked his murderous assailant. On the other hand, now encased in glass and labelled—“National Museum of American History / Gift of the Sodhi Family”—it is a hopeful indicator of the evolution of the idea of America.

IN JOHNSON CITY, Tennessee, in 1982, an Ethiopia-born, India-trained medical resident named Abraham Verghese coveted Dr Steven Berk’s doctor bag. He saved enough money to purchase one for himself, then rubbed it with neatsfoot oil to approximate the well-worn, talismanic quality of his mentor’s bag. Verghese then filled it with his kit—eye drops, calipers, prescription pads—and his hopes of assimilating into the American medical establishment.

Three decades later, ‘The doctor bag of Abraham Verghese’ sits in a glass case in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in an exhibition on Indian Americans in the United States. In that time, Verghese has enjoyed a successful medical career—he is now a professor of medicine at Stanford University—and authored three books, including the celebrated memoir My Own Country (1994) and the bestselling novel Cutting for Stone (2009). The back of the display case features snippets of Verghese’s recollections of his early days: “I had to ask someone how to tie my tie with a thinner knot so I could fit in. And the only way I could eat the bland hospital food was to put Tabasco sauce on everything.”

Verghese’s words capture the familiar dual imperative of immigrant life: on the one hand, fitting in, with a tie knot of appropriate girth; on the other, maintaining one’s tastes, through the strategic application of chilli-approximating Tabasco. His story reminds us that even blue- and white-collar immigrants have to negotiate resistance to the perceived “Third World invasion” of the United States, whether through neutralising accents or by softening the stiffness of difference with neatsfoot oil.

Verghese’s doctor bag is just one of hundreds of objects in Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, the largest exhibition organised to date by the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center. The show, which opened in February and will run through August 2015 before touring the United States, is part of the APAC’s Indian American Heritage Project, which also includes an interactive website and digital exhibit that features content from Beyond Bollywood.

Pitched as an act of collective Indian American self-representation, Beyond Bollywood seeks to distinguish itself from ethnographic exhibits that put communities on display without involving them in the process of curation. Parag Mehta, a self-described “political operative” who was IAHP’s first volunteer and a key contributor to Beyond Bollywood, said the show is an example of “us taking responsibility for telling our story on our own terms.” Pawan Dhingra, who worked on the exhibition between 2011 and 2012, stressed that the show “is not an Indian American story brought to you by some other entity,” but rather “by the community itself.”

But self-representation may even raise the stakes of constructing a singular meta-narrative about a community as diverse as the Indian American one. In the case of Beyond Bollywood, the burden of speaking “as” a community rather than describing it introduces formidable expectations about what the exhibition can achieve and the extent to which the objects displayed can serve in metaphoric relation to their owners and producers.

At the entrance of Beyond Bollywood is a display of crowd-sourced shoes—beaded chappals, moccasins, patent leather dress shoes, the ubiquitous white sneakers worn by every bachelor engineer. Arranged in an oddly manicured alignment, this is not the typical haphazard pile of footwear strewn outside a Diwali gathering or cast off before a temple by worshippers. Yet the installation effectively signals the hospitality and sensibility of an Indian American welcome; Mehta has even seen “grannies trying to figure out if they should remove their shoes at the display by the glass doors.”

“Indian Americans: Who are WE?” asks an opening text panel. Stepping into the exhibition’s representational embrace, visitors are reflected in mirrors strategically hung on a wall amid family photographs of people clad in saris, wearing sunglasses, waving Indian flags. The Ghosh family at Samuel P Taylor State Park, 1970. The Persards in Brandon, Florida, 1988. As Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities, his seminal work on nationalism, “How strange it is to need another’s help to learn that this naked baby in the yellowed photograph, sprawled happily on rug or cot, is you.” Here, Indian American viewers are invited to see themselves through the taxonomic eye of the Natural History museum.

A soundtrack plays overhead, of songs from the Bollywood classics Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Mera Naam Joker (1970). Short clips from Liam Dalzell’s documentary Punjabi Cab (2004), which depicts a day in the life of three Sikh taxi drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area, play on repeat, the audio mingling with Hindi lyrics at certain points in the five-thousand-square-foot gallery.

Jeena yahan marna yahan / Iske siwa jaana kahan?” (You live here, die here / Where else would you go, but here?)

“How long have you been driving cabs?”
“Do you like driving cabs?”

In the Smithsonian’s description, Beyond Bollywood is an exhibition of “history, art, and culture.” Masum Momaya, the show’s curator, calls the collection of photographs, documents, artefacts and three-dozen artworks a “multi-modal” telling of the story of Indian immigrant contributions to the United States and its national imagination. The show unfolds in seven parts: Migration; Early Immigration; Working Lives; Arts and Activism; Yoga, Religion, and Spirituality; Cultural Contributions; and Groundbreakers. One of the largest installations is a spelling bee stage where visitors can emulate the thirteen Indian Americans who, since 1985, have won the National Spelling Bee. Other installations include a mirrored yoga pavilion, a motel front desk, and a “kitchen table” at which visitors can view spice dabbas and read, on plates used as panels for display text, about Indian food in its American incarnations; for instance, the “Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts” that approximate the jhal murhi sold on Kolkata sidewalks, as described by Jhumpa Lahiri in her novel The Namesake.

At first view, Beyond Bollywood seems complicit not only in rehashing well-known tropes, but also in bowing to the cult of celebrity, which Susan Sontag described as the practice of “grant[ing] only the famous their names.” The most prominent image in the exhibition is of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian American Congressman, pictured with then-Senators John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. Headshots of celebrities, including television star Mindy Kaling and Olympic medalist Mohini Bhardwaj, are framed by stainless steel thalis on a wall displaying “Groundbreakers.”

On another wall, however, are quotations about religious life in the United States from a collection of non-celebrities, almost all of them aged under thirty, including Aviva Marer, Aditi Singh, Shivani Jain, Nupur Shambharkar and Neville Dusaj. Evidencing an unusual and refreshing curatorial principle of selection, these young Zoroastrians, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jains are allotted more of the exhibit’s coveted real estate than many well-known producers of Indian American diaspora culture. Indeed, some of the most recognised American desis are missing altogether: Anita and Kiran Desai, Fareed Zakaria, Vinod Khosla, Deepak Chopra, Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and others.

At the exhibition’s preview, Momaya explained that it was “impossible” to represent the Indian American community “comprehensively.” Instead, she strove for “balance in the narrative.” What feels like the exhibition’s somewhat arbitrary selection touches on the difficulty of clearly determining who, and what, qualifies as Indian American. Individuals may be included in the category by virtue of immigration or birth; phenomena are Indian by virtue of origin or association. The exhibit doesn’t feature Salman Rushdie, who has resided primarily in New York for many years, but includes Verghese, the film director M Night Shyamalan, and others born outside of the United States. Jhumpa Lahiri and the actor and civil servant Kal Penn appear on the margins, while the American football player Brandon Chillar shares space with the Nobel laureate and biochemist Har Gobind Khorana, and the astronaut Kalpana Chawla.

Though geared towards an intergenerational public, Beyond Bollywood is heavy on individual profiles and documents accompanied by explanatory text, which can be off-putting for audiences accustomed to the visual and sonic stimulation of the new media world. However, a few displays do live up to Momaya’s goal of creating a “vibrant, loud exhibition” in which children can “touch, poke, [and] point at things.” One of these is the motel installation, which features and is inspired by ‘The Arch Motel Project,’ a series of images from the photographer Mark Hewko and the artist Chiraag Bhakta (who goes by the name Pardon My Hindi). A facsimile of a reception desk enables viewers to stand in place for an Indian American motel owner, while also affording a voyeuristic peek into the owner’s living and working space.

The installation does not, however, fully adhere to Bhakta’s vision, which he shared with me, for a tri-partite division of the space into the customer’s domain (the lobby), the owner’s private living space, and the “transitional” space of the office, where smells, sounds, accents, and aromas from the private domain waft into the public, transactional setting. “Financial constraints,” Bhakta said wistfully in explanation. In his view, the installation could have captured the constantly mediated nature of the Indian American lived experience in a more sophisticated, subtle way.

In its most attentive moments, though, Beyond Bollywood rises to Bhakta’s challenge. The food installation, for example, features vintage Corelle CorningWare plates (“lightweight, versatile, stackable, unbreakable, microwavable,” my mother recalled), a familiar object for many Indian immigrant families. In the Washington Post, the reporter Lavanya Ramanathan criticised this particular brand of ethnic representation through product placement. “Corelle doesn’t belong here,” she wrote, “mere feet from dinosaurs and great beasts whose existence is mind-boggling.” But the exhibit could have used more artefacts with the socio-historical specificity of the Corelle plates. For example, as Bhakta noted in our conversation, in Indian American homes, fennel seeds are more likely to be stored in reused Ragu pasta sauce jars than in the stainless steel containers on display in the exhibition. Indian American immigrants “recycle,” he said, they try “to adapt.” That, Bhakta said, “is what America is.”

IN 1999, US president Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13125, creating the White House’s Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which included the Smithsonian in its broad mandate “to improve the quality of life of Asian Americans … through increased participation in Federal programs.” Parag Mehta recalls that the initiative’s director, Shamina Singh, worked with historian Franklin Odo, the founding director of the APAC, to bring to light immigrant stories that were “missing in history.” Odo spearheaded a series of exhibits documenting the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese experiences in the United States, which included From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai’i (1999) and Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon: Vietnamese America since 1975 (2007).

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Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a PhD candidate in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. She has written for publications including Public BooksWomen & PerformanceSouth Asian Review and openDemocracy. She was formerly the editor of India Currents, for which she writes an award-winning syndicated column.

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