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A Different Kind of Song And Dance

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Our director Konrad Ng speaks at the opening ceremony of Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation at the National Museum of Natural History on February 21, 2014.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center opened the doors to its largest and most ambitious exhibition to date — Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nationon February 27, 2014. Hosted by the National Museum of Natural History, Beyond Bollywood consists of 5,000 square feet of photos, art, interactive features, and artifacts illustrating the Indian American experience from the 1700s to the present.

Congressman Ami Bera presents the US Congress's recognition of Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation</i> exhibition into the country's historical record.

Congressman Ami Bera presents the US Congress’s recognition of Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation exhibition into the country’s historical record.

Both the exhibit’s title and design aesthetics — which include wall colors in vibrant shades of mustard, magenta, and plum — reference Bollywood cinema, perhaps the most widely recognizable touchstone for contemporary Indian and Indian American culture for the public at large. But, as the title suggests, the exhibit takes visitors beyond the exoticism and romance of Bollywood and other popular tropes to give a fuller account of the Indian American experience. For instance, materials exemplifying Indian American migration experiences make clear that not all Indian Americans are from India. In fact, many arrived in the United States by way of the Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

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Darsh Singh posing for pictures with his NCAA jersey in the exhibition. Singh made history by petitioning the NCAA’s ban on headgear for the right to wear his turban on court.

A section on Indian Americans’ professional contributions to America’s culture and economic life reflects the concentration of Indian Americans in the fields of engineering, medicine, hospitality, small business entrepreneurship, and cab driving. It encourages visitors to question assumptions underlying reductionist views of Indian Americans’ roles in America’s labor force by presenting stories and experiences that are individualized and yet universally recognizable. As the exhibit’s curator Masum Momaya explained in The Washington Post, “[W]e went for the most stereotypical [professions] with the idea of dismantling the stereotypes.”

Besides taking on common stereotypes about Indian Americans, Beyond Bollywood sheds light on aspects of the Indian American experience that are not a part of those popular perceptions, including the struggles and triumphs of Indian Americans seeking acceptance or striving for social justice. Rarely discussed aspects of the Indian American experience — such as how the American public’s negative, and sometimes even violent, reactions to migrants from India in the 1950s and 1960s inspired a generation to community activism and civic engagement — are juxtaposed with more high-profile achievements, such as those of Darsh Singh, who was the first turbaned Sikh to captain an NCAA college basketball team.

A letter from President Obama celebrating Beyond Bollywood

A letter from President Obama celebrating Beyond Bollywood

Beyond Bollywood is not solely concerned about enriching the historical record. It also investigates the ways in which Indian American culture and the broader American culture exist in dialogue with each other. Beyond Bollywood invites visitors to consider the ways that Indian American culture has adapted elements of broader American culture and the ways that broader American culture has been influenced by Indian American culture. Beyond Bollywood thus showcases a rich variety of objects from the Corelle dishes of the 1970s and 80s that have become an Indian American equivalent of the thali to an exquisite evening gown worn by First Lady Michelle Obama and designed by Naeem Khan. Beyond Bollywood invites viewers to contemplate the dynamic interplay between the commonplace and the spectacular, between continuity and change, and between timelessness and modernity that characterizes not only the Indian American experience, but the American experience as a whole.

Within a month of its opening, Beyond Bollywood was discussed in 422 articles published in 41 states and in 21 countries worldwide. It has generated Facebook posts that have been viewed by 25,600 accounts and twitter activities that have reached over 62,000 individual users. In addition, Beyond Bollywood and its curator, Masum Momaya, have embarked on a country-wide tour of major cities in India, in partnership with the United States Department of State and the United States Embassy and United States Consulates in India. The 24-panel exhibition was displayed at the American Center in New Delhi, the BITS-Pilani Campus in Goa, the Lalit Kala Art Akademi in Chennai and Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. It will continue to travel throughout India in the coming months, with possible future locations including Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Pune.

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(L to R) Chairman & CEO of TV Asia HR Shah, Smithsonian Under Secretary Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, Congressman Ami Bera, Asian Pacific American Center Director Konrad Ng, Smithsonian Board of Regents Chairman John McCarter, Congresswoman Grace Meng, and National Museum of Natural History Director Kirk Johnson

 

 

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