Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation

In a first-of-its-kind exhibition at the Smithsonian, the Asian Pacific American Center will will open “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” detailing the history of Indian Americans and their contributions to the United States from the 1700s to the present. The 5,000-square-foot exhibition opens at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Feb. 27.

The Sharma family in San Francisco, 1983.  Photo by Prithvi Sharma

The Sharma family in San Francisco, 1983. Photo by Prithvi Sharma

“The vibrant life, culture and history of immigrants from India and Indian Americans is the story of America,” said Konrad Ng, APAC director.  “This wonderful exhibition deepens our understanding of the American experience as lived by the Asian Pacific American communities who have journeyed from being exotic outsiders to being the faces and voices of the future. We are excited to present an exhibition that we hope will excite and inspire generations.”

The exhibition features Indian Americans’ migration experiences, working lives, political struggles and cultural and religious contributions. Highlighted artifacts include a dress worn by First Lady Michelle Obama designed by Indian American Naeem Khan; the 1985 National Spelling Bee trophy awarded to the first Indian American winner, Balu Natarajan; and Mohini Bhardwaj’s 2004 Olympic Silver Medal for gymnastics.

Approximately 17 million people in the United States are of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, and the number is expected to climb to 41 million by 2050. One in every 100 Americans has a family connection to India. Indian immigrants helped build the nation’s railroads, worked in lumber mills, toiled on farms and established prosperous trading routes that are still in use today. Through a vibrant collection of photographs, artifacts, art and interactive learning stations, visitors will experience the Indian American story and explore the many dynamic roles Indian Americans have played in shaping America.

“Beyond Bollywood” is the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s largest exhibition and will be on display on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History for at least one year. It will then travel around the country to libraries, museums, universities and community centers as a part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service beginning May 2015 for five years.

Emily Grebenstein recently chatted with Masum Momaya, curator at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center and an expert on women’s and human rights, race and social justice. Momaya developed all content for “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” the largest exhibition designed by the center to date.

You’ve been at the Smithsonian for about a year and a half. What were you doing before you came here?

I was doing curatorial work at the International Museum of Women in San Francisco, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development in Toronto and Cape Town and the Indo-American Heritage Museum in Chicago.  I was also writing extensively.  My career has straddled focusing on global issues and issues in the United States and working against difference types of inequality (including race and gender).  I see all these things as interconnected.

How did you and your team come up with the idea behind this exhibit?

‘Team’ is the key word in that question.  This exhibition is the result of extensive collaboration – with many folks at SI that make exhibitions come alive (designers, printers, fabricators, conservators, developers and folks who do fundraising and marketing).  We also drew upon stories and advice from Indian American community members, artists, academics and activists from around the country.

We chose the title and the theme Beyond Bollywood very intentionally to attract visitors and suggest that we intended to go beyond stereotypes.  When we surveyed the public as to the first word that came up when they thought of Indians, India or Indians in America, “Bollywood” emerged most frequently. While the exhibition takes Bollywood as a point of departure for the stories we’re telling, we paired it with the word “Beyond” to show that we’re a lot more than you think we are, to show the fingerprints and footprints that Indian Americans have left and are leaving on this country.  As with any group, we are a lot more than popular stereotypes suggest and my intention as a curator has been to focus on cultural, political and professional contributions that Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have made to shaping U.S. history.

Masum Momaya

Masum Momaya

The Asian Pacific American Program is a very small unit located in an office building. How did you and your team build a 5,000-square-foot exhibit without a museum or collection?

With a hard-working APAC team and tons of support from those in other units, especially the Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, the Natural History Museum,  the Office of Public Affairs, the Office of Exhibits Central and the Traveling Exhibition Service.  This exhibition embodies and would not be possible without the collaborative spirit of the Smithsonian.

What do you want visitors to take away from the exhibit?

As curator, I am aiming for five main takeaways.

First, I want visitors to walk away with an understanding of the vast and deep contributions of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans in shaping U.S. history.

Second, I want visitors to walk away questioning: who is American and who is a foreigner? What is American history? Whose stories should be told as part of the history of the United States?

Third, since a lot of the visitors at the Smithsonian are children, I want children to walk away with a sense of the roots of this community. I’m hoping their parents will feel this also.

Fourth, I’m hoping that for Indian immigrants there is emotional resonance in having their experience reflected and honored in seeing their stories as part of the Smithsonian.

Finally, for those of us who are children of immigrants, I want us to feel a sense of belonging but that we don’t have to leave our roots behind in order to belong.

Everyone has a “Smithsonian moment” when they start working here. What was yours?

I have “the moment” every time I go to NMNH and I, as a petite person, am nearly knocked down by droves of kids who are running around the galleries, excited about things we show there. I think about myself visiting the Smithsonian as a kid and of the generations of children and their parents and grandparents who’ve come before and will come after.  These moments remind me that this is why we do the work – to spark the curiosity and learning in everyone.


Posted: 12 February 2014
About the Author:

A public affairs assistant in the Office of Communications and External Affairs, Emily Grebenstein is a recent graduate of The George Washington University with a degree in art history and a concentration in Italian. Emily is originally from Hingham, Mass.