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School of Arts and Sciences

Beyond Bollywood

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sociology Professor Pawan Dhingra Breaks New Ground with Smithsonian Exhibition on Indian American Heritage

Professor Pawan Dhingra

By Shehryar Nabi, A14

Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology Pawan Dhingra delivers a presentation of the Indian American Heritage Project by the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Center at the Embassy of India, with the Indian Ambassador to the United States in attendance in 2012.

Photo: Sandra Vuong, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Indian Youth Against Racism, a group from Columbia University, documented violence in the late 1980s against Indians in New Jersey and implemented educational programs on South Asian cultures in Jersey City schools. The group also helped pass a bill in the New Jersey legislature raising mandatory penalties for "bias" crimes.

Photo: Corky Lee

Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, with Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, 1958. Saund was the first Asian American and person of Sikh faith elected to U.S. Congress. Photograph and other memorabilia was received from Congressman Saund's grandson, Eric Saund.

Photo courtesy of Eric Saund

Family photographs collected from around the United States are featured in Beyond Bollywood. Here, Pandit Shankar Ghosh, Shrimati Sanjukta Ghosh, with Vikram (Boomba) Ghosh at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Lagunitas, Calif., ca. 1970.

Photo courtesy of the Ali Akbar Khan / Foundation Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program


Asians are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. In less than fifty years, it is projected that nearly 10% of Americans will claim an Asian heritage. Yet Indian Americans, one of the largest groups within America's Asian community, are seen and heard in the United States through mere snapshots such as Indian restaurants, Bollywood and stereotypes within popular culture. What these snapshots lack is a narrative to communicate the Indian American experience as a part of American history.

"Indians are known of in America but there is no cohesive, overarching story about the community," says Sociology Department Chair Pawan Dhingra.

With Professor Dhingra's help, the Smithsonian Institution's Asian Pacific American Center is trying to change that. In February, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., unveiled Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, a 5,000-square-foot co-curated exhibition on Indian American Heritage and the largest project ever undertaken by the center. Visitors will see pictures, objects, art and other media that weave together an Indian American history dating back to 1790. Professor Dhingra played a leading role in selecting materials for the exhibit while serving as its first curator before he joined Tufts in 2012.

"The curator's job is basically to conceive of and execute the exhibition," says Dhingra. "What's the vision of the exhibition that you have? What objects should be there?" While at the Smithsonian, Professor Dhingra gathered materials to both affirm and disrupt stereotypes of Indian Americans. He spent a year and a half working to showcase Indian American achievements within science and technology (the stereotypical career paths) and juxtapose them with achievements within athletics and the arts. For example, he included both the first Pentium computer chip, developed by Vinod Dham, as well as a football helmet from Brandon Chillar, an Indian American who won the Superbowl with the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Professor Dhingra expects the diversity of contributions to American society to surprise everybody "including Indian Americans. "Most Indians," he said, "don't know there are Indians in the NFL."

Adding to this diversity, Dhingra incorporated the work of Indian American civil rights organizations working on a variety of issues, including gender, sexuality and labor. He looks back on this work with pride. "Even reaching out to domestic violence shelters was considered surprising," recalls Dhingra. "Such outreach adds to the diversity of the public understanding of Indian Americans."

Professor Dhingra's contributions not only benefitted the exhibition, but also enriched the archive at the Asian Pacific American Center.

"He helped establish the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center as the national resource for discovering America's Asian Pacific heritages," said Konrad Ng, director of the center.

After Professor Dhingra left the Smithsonian to teach at Tufts, Dr. Masum Momaya was appointed curator of Beyond Bollywood. Among other contributions, Dr. Momaya expanded the repertoire of Indian American art offered at the exhibit by adding more works of photography. These pieces document Indian American life and further explore issues of sexism, portrayal and identity specific to Indian culture.

Importantly, the exhibition defines "Desi", a term that refers to transnational South Asian culture relevant not only to India but to other countries on the Indian Subcontinent such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Although the culture displayed at Beyond Bollywood speaks to these countries as well as India, the exhibition's contributions come solely from Americans of Indian origin. For this reason, the exhibit does not presume to represent greater South Asia.

Because of the sheer diversity within Indian heritage itself, the exhibition does not claim to present a complete picture of Indian Americans. Rather, it aims to set the tone for a much needed conversation on Indian American heritage that incorporates the Indian American narrative within the history of the United States. Dr. Momaya believes that this has implications for both popular understanding of Indian Americans and politics. "I think it's important for museums and cultural institutions to share history associated with current political and public policy debates "including debates around race and immigration" to add context."

Dr. Momaya also hopes the exhibit will evoke fundamental questions about American identity. "I want visitors to walk away questioning: who is American and who is a foreigner? What is American history? Whose stories should be told as part of the history of the United States?"

After spending a year in Washington, D.C., Beyond Bollywood will travel to fifteen cities across the United States, and may also go abroad to Canada, India, Denmark and the United Kingdom, with an expected viewership of more than one million people.

Reaching out to all of these people will be crucial to the exhibition's goals of promoting Indian culture and rethinking American history. But the traveling exhibition also wants to inspire Indian immigrants and their children to share their stories in order to build a more nuanced picture of the Indian American community. "Ultimately the goal is not to have a 'cohesive' picture of America but to complicate the picture that Americans, including Indian Americans, have of themselves," Dhingra said. "By recognizing how we connect to one another but also conflict, we can then move towards a more just society."

Visit the Smithsonian Institution's Indian Heritage Project

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