BEARING TOO MANY BURDENS: BEYOND BOLLYWOOD, THE SMITHSONIAN EXHIBIT ON INDIAN AMERICANS

September 01, 2018

 

By Sushumna Kannan

Beyond Bollywood is a promising title—to go beyond a culture's stereotypes is as hard as any task could get. As we walk through this much-awaited exhibit on Indian Americans that is currently showing across different cities in the US and will do so until 2020, we realize that perhaps we expected a little too much of the title. For, in attempting to rid ourselves of one set of stereotypes, we often find them replaced with others—others that are somehow better or more positive stereotypes to have than the older ones. This is not to say that Beyond Bollywood is less important and could have been given a miss. Instead, in Beyond Bollywood, we witness a genuine and deep struggle to redefine a community against the current of simplistic, consumerish, dismissive understanding. However, such a redefinition is too arduous a task.

To replace Bollywood with a more realistic understanding of Indian Americans, the exhibit invokes yoga, fusion music born in the US with bhangra and hip hop, Indian art forms, festivals, Indian American doctors, dentists, engineers, motel owners and more. With orange-pink displays of catalogs accompanying large and small photographs--the exhibit is alluring and sleek. It is complete with multimedia installations that allow us to listen to music, watch videos and such. It has a hodge-podge of showcased items ranging from Indian jewellery, footwear, idols, lamps, postcards of miniature paintings, crafted jewellery boxes, musical instruments and other knick-knacks.

In a display titled, Desis, united we stand--a narrative on the aftermath of racial profiling of desis and protests against it is recorded. The "we" here is a proud Indian American community somewhat inclusive of other South Asians. The "we" includes second generation Indian American kids born in the US as well as Indians who migrated a generation ago and still are. This kind of clubbing of a large and diverse set of people makes it hard to understand who the intended viewer of this exhibit might be. The intended viewer appears to shift from the Desi community, to the second generation kid to White Americans who eye us suspiciously in malls, parks and neighbourhoods. While the exhibit is celebratory for the first two groups, it is informative for the last. Yet, it is not clear if talking of yoga and henna helped take the conversation forward.

In an accompanying display titled "divided we fall," we are shown desis demonstrating for women's rights and LGBT rights and protesting against racial discrimination, domestic violence. This nicely contemporaizes the community's involevment in American society, displacing the stereotype of the placid and safe Indian American. In a display titled "Let's Dance," again a celebratory tone takes over--"America has embraced Bollywood style dancing..." In a display titled "Freedom of Religion," --another celebratory note on how diverse Indian Americans are. Yet, the true reference of this celebration is India itself--not just the fact that we enrich American landscapes with different architectural structures. Often, this reference back to India is missing. This leaves us feeling somehwat inadequate about the display...like we might have just heard one half of a sentence with elipses at the end. An underlying assertion in this display is that Indian Americans are indeed a part of America--which is tragic because a number of White Americans do not think so--this sentiment of rejection accentuated by Trump's recent policies.

In  a display titled, "Freedom Here and There," there is reference briefly to India and its freedom's struggle. It reveals interesting facts about early immigrants who connected the struggles for freedom in India from British as well as their own for "dignity and rights" in the USA. More history on early immigrants from Punjab is intriguing. The history of Bhagat Singh Thind's citizenship is extraordinarily fascinating. Yet, the ones on Spelling Bee, Cab drivers, motel owners and the like introduces Indian Americans to White Americans too sporadically rather than telling a more complicated story and capturing the less celebratory aspects of Indian Americans with dignity. A display on the American stereotypes on India with an update on how Indian Americans now play themselves onscreen and Bollywood has taken a hold in America is another celebratory voice. A display asking "Who are Indian Americans?" kind of shifts to the White American as the intended audience, taking on the burden of providing information.

Beyond Bollywood has many interesting and arresting moments but no one vision that holds it together. It does not talk about the uncomfortable and the celebratory voice loses its charm after a point. It could have, for instance, talked about how Yoga has adapted to America, with most teachers being non American Indian. Or even invoked controversies about Yoga's religious nature which parents often object to in schools. There could have been something more on Indian contributions to science and philosophy that connected to Indian Americans and something more on Indian dance forms--they appeared to lack details of the spiritual basis that is their bedrock. Arranged marriage, dowry and caste system should have been explained--unflinchingly, even if our theories of these appear impoverished, embarrassed, apologetic and un-decolonized at the moment.

How Indian Americans feel and relate should have been explored instead of an enumerative catalogue. The enumeration makes us wonder if nothing has changed since the British history of India at all and if India's diversity still unnerves the western mind. At least, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, one sees an explanatory note on the excessive classification and categorization that was thought to produce knowledge. There should have been a mention of the summer holidays that second generation Indian American kids spend in India, what they love and hate about them, the parent-child conflict, the H4 work visa issue, immigration as such, home-sickness even when mostly at home in America and so on.

Lacking all these diverse narratives undercutting each other and offering only one grand narrative on Indian Americans, the Smithsonian's curation of Beyond Bollywood reads like the State's narrative through a government spokesperson who aims to please one and all, and educates and informs in a diplomatic manner as well. On the whole, the exhibit bears too many burdens all at once--of being current, proud and useful. Despite this, the exhibit is timely, not because there is a rich narrative played out but because there is widespread ignorance about Indian Americans in American society, in 2018--more than a full century after the East and West met as never before, in the 19th century!