Saturday, July 5, 2014

Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through August 16, 2015

You'll notice from the closing date that I'm well ahead in my viewing of exhibits.  Far from missing anything, I'm in danger of running out of shows to see!  Happily, the Smithsonian and National Gallery are always adding additional shows, so I'm sure I'll be able to keep viewing and blogging for the foreseeable future.

This show, which you have an abundance of time to see, is concerned with the impact of Indian Americans on the U.S.  I should make clear at the outset that we're discussing Indians from India, not Native Americans.  In fact, on display is a series of photographs entitled "An Indian from India" by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, an Indian-America who reflects on the similarities in how the British looked at Indians, and how Americans viewed their own "Indians."  She takes photographs of herself, in the same poses as Native Americans - the similarities are striking.  This was an interesting set of photos to see, right after having seen the "Indelible" show at NMAI.

The story of Indians in America is one of immigration.  Some came directly to the U.S., others came through other British territories with Indian enclaves.  A small suitcase, holding the possessions Indians brought with them from their homeland, reminded me of Camilla's Purse - in both cases, a container to hold those items that were most precious to the owner.  Now, one out of every 100 Americans can trace their ancestry to India; there are 121,000 in the D.C. area alone.

Indians were seeking freedom from British rule, which you would have thought would have endeared them to Americans, but no such thing.  Caught up in the discrimination against the Chinese, Indians were included, along with all other "Asiatic nations" in the Chinese Exclusion Act.  There were anti-Indian riots in Bellingham, WA in 1907 - within two weeks, the entire Indian population had left.  Indian women were discouraged from immigrating; I guess the hope was that this would prevent the production of more Indians.  Of course, the Indian men simply married members of other immigrant groups.  It was only in 1980 that the Census included Asian Indian as a racial designation.

The exhibit highlights the different occupations to which Indians have flocked in numbers; one of them was medicine.  In addition to photographs of actual doctors and other medical professionals, both Kal Penn and Mindy Kaling are featured.  Surely, the museum knows that they are not actual doctors, but actors portraying doctors?  I confess, although I have nothing against either one of them (I loved Mindy Kaling in "The Office"), I found it a bit disconcerting to see them in this section.

Perhaps my favorite fun fact in this display is that the most popular representation of Indian Americans is Apu, the manager of the Kwik-E-Mart on "The Simpsons."  Although there's no picture of him, or even better, video of one of his classic exchanges with Homer or Bart (copyright issues perhaps?), I was reminded of him and smiled.

Verdict: This is a very interesting exhibit.  I learned a lot about Indian Americans, their history in this country and their cultural impact.  I would recommend devoting a trip to this show, as it's large enough to take up a lunch hour.

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