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Beyond Bollywood TALKS...What's being said

We told you about Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, the exhibition showing at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) at Washington D.C. The exhibition that explores the heritage,  the experiences and the contributions that Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have made to shaping the United States.

We say, it's about time the contributions and experiences of people of Indian origin are showcased and celebrated in a very public manner.  Especially today. Particularly now when Indian Americans and the culture they bring is becoming more mainstream and the general awareness has been on a rise since second and third generation Indian Americans take on the task of being the new 'face' of Indians from India. We live in times when we are no longer confused with native American Indian. Various colleges across the country celebrate Indian festivals of Diwali and Holi with non-Indians participating with as much enthusiasm. Our kids are not the only Indian in the class. Our sari, bindi and henna are admired. Our custom of threading eyebrows is becoming mainstream too as many Indian owned salons are popping up. Our yoga is practiced as a form of fitness by people of all ages all across the country, with several yoga instructors even visiting Yoga camps in India to learn the art at it's source. Yes, it's about time we celebrate what we bring to this melting pot that is America. After all, according to the U.S Census Bureau, Indian Americans comprising of 1% of the nation's population, make the third largest Asian group in the U.S.

As the Simthsonian Asian Pacific American Center puts up the show displaying the Indian American experiences and contributions, everyone who's visiting the 5000 square feet pool of documented contributions at the NMNH, is coming out more educated and enlightened on the topic. Some are even surprised at what they didn't know, while all are full of pride at seeing what they always suspected and even knew- that the contributions of the community deserves a celebration of this stature.

Twitter and other social media have been abuzz with people returning from 'Beyond Bollywood' and their excitement is evident from their tweets. We complied together some of what has been written about 'Beyond Bollywood'-

 1. Rajendrani (Raj) Mukhopadhyay, who is the science writer and technical editor for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, was surprised to learn of Yellapragada Subbarow during her visit to the Beyond Bollywood exhibit. In an article entitled, 'The Indian-American I didn’t know: Yellapragada Subbarao', she describes her shock at her discovery, more so since Subbarao appreared to be known for his work in the same field as she herself  works for a living (Mukhopadhyay holds bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in biochemistry and writes about biochemistry). In the article Mukhopadhyay describes Subbarao's journey to US and his subsequent achievements. He came to America in 1923 on steamers to study at Harvard University School of Tropical Medicine and went on to provide significant contributions in isolation and characterization of ATP, designing methotrexate (an antifolate drug),  finding a drug for filariasis and discovering aureomycin, the first antibiotic that worked against both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. His achievements were so many that American Cyanamid later named a fungus in SubbaRow’s honor: Subbaromyces splendens. The Government of India released a commemorative stamp with him on it in 1995, his birthday centennial.

(Discovering Yellapragada Subbarao at the “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit. Photo by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay)

2. In the Daily Beast, Simran Jeet Singh, a scholar and activist who writes primarily on culture and religion, writes about Darsh Preet Singh who fought discrimination to become the first Sikh to play NCAA basketball in an article titled, 'The NCAA’s First Sikh Basketball Player Memorialized at the Smithsonian'. In the article, the author describes Darsh's story growing up in South Texas, his passion and skill with respect to basketball and how he handled himself with the utmost class and dignity when subjected to discriminatory and offensive behavior. Darsh wondered what his ceiling was as a Sikh and challenged himself to see how far he could go. 'Far' turned out to be NCAA, but he hopes to see the first turbaned player to break into the NBA.

The article also describes Darsh's visit to the Smithsonian exihibit on Feb 26th where his jersey is displayed. "I wanted to show  kids around the country that we can blaze our own trails and overcome any challenges that come our way", he said during his visit.

3. The Aerogram covered the exhibition with some very interesting details. Here's what we learn about the exhibit from them-

  • The curators revealed that when they surveyed people, Bollywood was the first thing people associated with Indians in America and so they paired it with Beyond, at once acknowledging this strong association, while also pushing the public to take a deeper look.
  •  A typical Indian American dining table is laid out partially with steel thalis and partially with Corelle plate ware, both staples of Indian American households. And thalis do double duty on the walls, framing key statistics on Indian Americans.
  • The exhibit also highlights the challenges and tragedies we’ve faced in America, including identity issues and discrimination. One of the most moving artifacts is Balbir Singh Sodhi’s turban. Sodhi was the first South Asian American to be killed in an act of retaliation following Sept 11, 2001.
  • The “Migration and Early Immigration” recounts the journeys to the US, from as early as the 1700s to present time. “Working Lives” portrays the professions of Indian Americans, including physicians and motel owners.

4. The Wall Street Journal points out some interesting statistics that form a part of Beyond Bollywood. These include-

  • 15% of companies in Silicon Valley are founded by people of Indian origin.
  • 79% of national spelling bee winners since 1999 are Indian Americans
  • Historically significant objects on display include variety of objects- from campaign materials from America’s first Indian congressman, Dalip Singh Saund, who represented the 29th District of California in the late 1950s, to a trophy that belonged to the first Indian-American national Spelling Bee winner, Balu Natarajan, in 1985.
  • A meticulously recreated motel entrance honors the surge of Gujarati entrepreneurs who entered the hospitality industry in the 1950s. The detailed installation draws inspiration from a series of photographs taken by artistsChiraag Bhakta and Mark Lewko( Chiraag Bhakta works under the name *Pardon My Hindi. He lives in San Francisco, CA)

5. Many people returning from the exhibit are tweeting some 'DYK?' facts like-

6. However, not all coverage is faltering.

  • According to an article on BBC, "the facts are interesting enough but they feel arbitrary and the entire exhibition, unfortunately, points more to what has been omitted than what has been included........there are no mentions or examples of the many Indian Americans who are becoming increasingly visible in US politics, journalism, academia, or business."

  • Aseem Chabbra of India Abroad is unimpressed by the exhibit as well. He points out that the title 'Beyond Bollywood' perpetuates the myth that Indian film industry is represented by Hindi movies. As per him, ultimately the exhibit is all on the surface, with little effort to portray the lived Indian-American experience.

We say, this is a first and it's been a long time coming. Like Masum Momaya, the curator of the exhibit, an Indian American herself, says, “Despite the fact that Indians, who helped build the nation’s railroads and farms, have been here since 1790 and now number more than three million, we’ve been largely left out of this country’s history. This exhibition marks a step towards imprinting that history onto America’s collective conscience.” (Quoted from WSJ)


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If ever there was a good time to visit Washington D.C. to see the various famous museums that it is host to, this is it. “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” will be on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  for a year. If a visit to D.C. is not in your travel plans within the next year, you might still be able to catch it somewhere within driving distance, for we hear that the exhibit will be embarking on a five-year journey across 15 cities in America that includes stops in libraries, community centers and museums.

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