The Indian American (approx. 3.2 million) population has made significant strides in a relatively short amount of time in many fields including business, education, law, medicine, politics, policy, science and technology. Over the last 50 years (post Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), these achievements have been globally recognized by multiple organizations and Indian American leaders are receiving more accolades and awards with each passing year. Some of these acknowledgments showcase the solidifying strength among the US and India. One such organization providing a voice for the Indian American community that has been instrumental in organizing fundraisers, enhancing India-US political relations and by supporting Indian American leaders who have rewritten history in their own right is the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC). As a bi-partisan organization, USINPAC continuously supports Indian American candidates running for elected office and political appointments at federal and state levels, launched the US Senate Caucus in 2004 and served as a strong voice against Anti-India and Anti-Indian American rhetoric by Washington officials in the 2000s. USINPAC’s substantial impact in modern day American politics by providing ongoing support on issues pertinent to the Indian American community are solidified in US history.
Some of USINPAC’s notable feats on a larger scale are part of a brand new first of its kind and long overdue exhibit entitled Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation. This one of a kind presentation will be on display with the world renowned Smithsonian Institution starting February 2014 in Washington, DC. Specific topics include early immigrant experiences, struggles for citizenship in the first half of the 20th century, professional contributions from the 1960s and beyond, organizing for labor rights, women’s rights and labor rights and cultural contributions through food, music, dance and within the entertainment industry.
I recently had the privilege and honor to interview Dr. Masum Momaya, Curator for the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project.
1) AKO – What compelled you to come to Washington, DC and become the Curator for this project? What have you personally learned that you didn’t know about your heritage?
MM – Curating an exhibition for the Smithsonian is an opportunity like no other. 10 million people can visit a Smithsonian exhibition in a given year. The institution has a reputation for credible scholarship, great care of artifacts and objects and widespread, free public access to national and global audiences. It’s pretty hard to say “no” when the Smithsonian asks you to come work here!
Moreover, as an Indian American myself, it’s an honor to be able to curate Beyond Bollywood, the first-ever large-scale exhibition on our community. In putting this together, I’ve been awed – over and over – again but how deep and how nuanced our roots in the United States are.
2) AKO – When was this project first conceptualized and what has changed since it was an initial idea?
MM – The Indian American Heritage Project began in 2008 when a few Indian Americans in the DC-area approached the Smithsonian with the idea and some resources to plant the seeds for this exhibition. The Undersecretary for History, Art and Culture at the Smithsonian, Dr. Richard Kurin, has offered tremendous support to the project from its inception and throughout.
The goal all along has been to explore the experiences of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans and what has come about over time is a focus for the exhibition – namely that the Smithsonian will be exploring our unique cultural, political and professional contributions to shaping the US and American history.
3) AKO – What are some artifacts that have been donated or will be exhibited from Indian American politicians?
MM – We are very excited and privileged that the family of former Congressman Dalip Singh Saund has donated a bunch of artifacts from his life. Saund was the first person of Indian descent, Asian descent and non-Abrahamic faith elected to the US Congress. Artifacts such as his campaign materials and books will be on display in Beyond Bollywood, have been acquisitioned by the National Museum of American history and are now part of the national collection. This is historic.
4) AKO – In terms of education, who is the primary audience and why?
MM – The exhibition is designed with the diverse audience of the Smithsonian in mind, including kids, multiple generations of families visiting together, visitors from all over the United States and abroad, and Indians and non-Indians alike. Of all the museums in the US, the Smithsonian probably has the broadest and most diverse visitorship of all, and we design exhibitions with this in mind.
5) AKO – Why is this exhibit needed now?
MM- Honestly, given that the first person of Indian origin set foot on American soil in 1790 – and we’ve been contributing to this country since then, the exhibit is overdue! But better late than never. It’s especially important to me that my parents and people in their generation see this and feel proud that all the sacrifices and struggles they’ve made are valued and also that kids see this and learn that their roots here are deep and nuanced. Their American history textbooks certainly don’t convey that – not yet anyway….
6) AKO – Do you think this exhibit will change the mindset of Americans in regards to Indian Americans contributing to the fabric of the United Sates?
MM – If we’ve done a good job with the exhibition, yes! Let’s see how the public responds.
7) AKO – Being that this exhibit is the first of its kind for Indian Americans, what does this mean for future generations?
MM – Hopefully, with continued support from the community, this exhibition will be the first of many. Every single panel in the exhibition could be expanded into a separate exhibition in and of itself. Beyond Bollywood is just a point of departure.
8) AKO – Will this exhibit help to debunk common stereotypes of Indian Americans?
MM – We’ve been very intentional about naming and confronting the stereotypes head-on through the exhibition script and display. I hope that the exhibition will reduce the number of instances in which Indians in America are asked questions like ‘whether the “red dot” is permanent’ or ‘whether people in India ride elephants as moded of transportation.’ It’s high time these stereotypes are debunked. Our community is vast, diverse, deeply-rooted and nuanced, and this is the story that needs to be told.
9) AKO – Given the contributions of Indian Americans, do you think that our history will one day be placed in US history books for younger generations to read?
MM – I hope so, and I hope this exhibition contributes to that so that those writing and reading textbooks call for these revisions and incorporations. Telling history in more nuanced ways is an ongoing process and we at the Smithsonian are privileged to be able to contribute to this.
10) AKO – When and where can people find the exhibit? Will it be free? How long will it be touring and to what locations?
MM – Beyond Bollywood will show at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which is free and open to the public, from February 27, 2014 through February 2015. It will travel around the country from May 2015 through 2020 in other museums, historical societies, libraries, community centers and universities. More details about the traveling exhibition can be found here. We have just started identifying possible host venues, and I would welcome any suggestions at MomayaM@si.edu.
11) AKO – How can people get involved if they want to contribute?
MM – We are collecting stories here and donations here.