‘Beyond Bollywood’ in Seattle: Exhibition traces centuries old Indian immigration to America

Indian tabla player Pandit Shankar Ghosh and classical vocalist Shrimati Sanjukta Ghosh with Vikram (Boomba) Ghosh at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Lagunita, California, circa. 1970.
Indian tabla player Pandit Shankar Ghosh and classical vocalist Shrimati Sanjukta Ghosh with Vikram (Boomba) Ghosh at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Lagunita, California, circa. 1970. Photo credit: Ali Akbar Khan Foundation

‘Beyond Bollywood’ at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry tells stories of earliest Indian immigrant families.

If you were to picture Indian immigrants and their contributions in America today, chances are you will think about the easy confidence exuded by the likes of Priyanka Chopra and Hasan Minhaj on screen.

Or perhaps you would think about the diligent Indian physician workforce in the country or else you may think of the staggering number of Indian IT professionals dotting every small and big city in America.

While, the images of these immigrants give a comfortable and accurate picture of the Indian immigration in the country, what is often overlooked are the earliest stories of Indian immigration in the country, ones that began as early as the late 18th century and the early 1900s.

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Not much is written about the earliest Indian immigrants in America who came much before the Naturalization Act of 1965. An ongoing exhibition in Seattle, takes a look at this early process and recognizes the contributions and struggles of some of these immigrants that made America their home, much before the time when a sari was considered cool or an Indian store was found in every city across the U.S.

Aptly titled, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” the exhibition at Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, is like relishing a blast from the past — except that for many new immigrants to America, this past has never been shown in its riveting details.

The expo scheduled through Jan. 26, 2020 also showcases the journey through artifacts, photographs as well as audio stories.

It shows contributions of the earliest Indians in the country ranging from building the earliest railroads and farms in the country to participating in the civil rights movement.

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The exhibition created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service is presented in Seattle by MOHAI.

“Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” was first showcased at Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in the fall of 2013.  It was at Smithsonian till the spring of 2015 and since then the exhibition has been traveling to various parts of the United States.

In a 2013 interview, Dr. Masum Momaya, who curated “Beyond Bollywood” for the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project spoke about the origin of the largest ever exhibition on the Indian American community in the United States. She said: “It began in 2007. There was a group of Indian American community members, both in the young professional generation and those who emigrated in the 1960s and 1970s, who approached the Smithsonian to say ‘we would love to have something to document our heritage as part of American history, would you consider engaging in collections and research to be able to create some sort of initiative that would document and exhibit Indian culture and history in the United States?’ The Smithsonian has had a history of showing Indian art as well as historical pieces about India and the Indian subcontinent, but had never done anything comprehensive about Indian immigrants and their descendants in the United States. So the Indian-American Heritage Project was born out of this request from community members that was then received and taken up by the Smithsonian as something that they committed to doing. The Smithsonian gave some money for the project, community members gave some money as well.”

Dr Amy Bhatt, co-author of Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest curated MOHAI’s locally focused addition with insights from the museum’s exhibit advisory committee.

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