On February 27, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation will open at the Smithsonian. This landmark exhibition is part of the Smithsonian’s Indian American Heritage Project, an initiative “to chronicle the experience of immigrants from India and Indian Americans in the United States.”
Beyond Bollywood is the first major national exhibit to focus on Indians in America. Despite the fact that Indians have had a sizable presence in the United States for the past fifty years, now numbering over three million, until this exhibition, Indian Americans were largely left out of this country’s institutional history. So, Beyond Bollywood marks a significant step towards not only documenting the history of Indians in America but also imprinting this history onto the collective conscience of this country.
But given the diversity of stories reflected amongst Indians in America, how does one curate the Indian American experience? In this interview for The Aerogram, Beyond Bollywood’s curator Masum Momaya shared her insights on the joys and challenges of weaving together this momentous exhibition.
I know that the Smithsonian’s Indian American Heritage Project originally started in 2008 as the Homespun Project, but how did the Indian American Heritage Project come about and what was its aim?
A number of Indian American community members, some of whom lived and worked in the DC area, approached staff and leadership of the Smithsonian saying that they would like to see something that reflected the history of Indians in America. Richard The Smithsonian National Collection had 137 million objects but none that represented Indian Americans. Kurin, the Under Secretary for History Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian was someone who had lived and worked in India and had also had experience with Indian-focused exhibits so he understood and valued Indian culture. So, a partnership was created between the Smithsonian and these Indian American community members such that if they could raise some money from the Indian American community, the Smithsonian would also contribute and push forward because they understood the importance of (the Indian American Heritage Project), that it needed to be done.
The Smithsonian National Collection had 137 million objects but none that represented Indian Americans. Even though the Smithsonian has a stellar reputation in representing U.S. history, it is late in coming to this. We have never seen the history of the Indian American community here but what better place than at the Smithsonian?
So, the Beyond Bollywood exhibit grew out of the Indian American Heritage Project?After the exhibit shows at the Smithsonian, it will then travel around the country from 2015 through 2020.Yes. The intent of having an exhibit was there from the outset (of the establishment of the Indian American Heritage Project) because the Smithsonian is known for its research and publication but also for its public exhibits. That’s why it was planned that after the exhibit shows at the Smithsonian, it will then travel around the country from 2015 through 2020 because part of the Smithsonian’s commitment is to taking itself beyond its walls. This will be key to initiating conversations in areas with and without Indian American communities.
Describe the scope of the Beyond Bollywood exhibit both in terms of the exhibit and programming. Also, what are the aims of this exhibit?
We called it Beyond Bollywood because it was our intention to show that we’re a lot more than you think we are, to show the fingerprints and footprints we have left on this country.
— Smithsonian APA (@SmithsonianAPA) November 22, 2013
The first thing we did in the planning of the Beyond Bollywood exhibit was to canvas the Indian American community to understand what things they thought were important and get their input on how to tell their stories.
In terms of the aims, there are a couple of them. The first is to highlight the contributions of Indian immigrants and Indian We called it Beyond Bollywood because it was our intention to show that we’re a lot more than you think we are.Americans in shaping U.S. history. And we categorized those contributions into three categories: 1) Political — this includes political struggles that were for the Indian community but also that go beyond, to workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, 2) Professional — this aims to take visitors beyond the stereotypical Indian careers, doctors, taxi drivers, while also acknowledging the contributions in those areas, 3) Cultural — this includes contributions in the areas of food, fashion, film, music, and entertainment.
As the curator, the focus on contributions was very intentional. There’s always a tension between whether to focus on the struggles or the achievements, but I felt that by focusing on contributions we could honor and respect both the struggles and achievements. But on a broader level, as a curator I wanted to focus on contributions as a way of posing the question of who belongs here as it relates to conversations about immigration. And also to show that we’ve been here for centuries.
The second goal is the perpetual and subtle questioning: who is American and who is a foreigner? What is American history? Whose stories should be told as part of the history of America?
The third goal is that since a lot of the visitorship to the Smithsonian is children, I want children to walk away with a sense of the roots of this community. I’m hoping parents will feel this also.
But I would say, as the curator, my main goal is to show that the fingerprints and footprints of the Indian American community go beyond our community.
One thing that strikes me about the Beyond Bollywood exhibition is that it seems like an experience that brings together Indian families across generations — the parents and grandparents who immigrated here and their children and grandchildren who were born and raised in the US. What do you hope Indians who immigrated here take away from Beyond Bollywood? And similarly, what do you hope second generation Indian Americans take away from the exhibit?
I’m hoping that for Indian immigrants there is emotional resonance in having their experience reflected, in seeing their stories there. We collected things from Indian American families but we hope that there will be resonance beyond those families and will spark some emotions. I hope that they feel that everything they experienced was not for naught and that we’ve honored and respected their experiences.While most Indians came to the US in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, there were Indians in America in the 1790s.Also, we re-examined how far back our community dates. While most Indians came to the US in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, there were Indians in America in the 1790s. So, we want to look at both how far we’ve come in a short amount of time but also how long we’ve been here. And also how much is changing in terms of the inroads, contributions, and achievements of Indian immigrants.
For those of us who are children of immigrants and think of navigating that hyphen, as the first generation born in this country — and I’m part of this generation — we have needed the skills, the deftness, to have navigated this. It’s our common experience and we know that for those who immigrated here, it was not for nothing, and we think of the possibilities it opened up for us and for future generations. But I also want this generation to feel a sense of belonging, the sense that they don’t have to leave their roots behind to belong.
— Smithsonian APA (@SmithsonianAPA) November 21, 2013
What do you hope non-Indians take away from Beyond Bollywood?