By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI)’s exhibit “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” didn’t originate in Seattle. But MOHAI’s guest curator Amy Bhatt wanted to make sure that local audiences saw a special, unique version.
“Beyond Bollywood was developed by a fantastic team at the Smithsonian [in Washington, D.C.],” Dr. Bhatt explained. “After that, it began traveling to various institutions around the U.S. and even the U.K. …
“When it has been installed in each new venue, the exhibit has grown and shifted to reflect the experiences of the Indian American community in that region. MOHAI was lucky enough to bring ‘Beyond Bollywood’ to Seattle after a board member had seen it in Washington, D.C. I was invited to join the team when MOHAI was beginning to plan the exhibit last year.”
The exhibit, as presented by MOHAI, includes a great many objects, images, and artifacts, from the local Indian American population. The four sections of the whole reinforce each other and come together to render a complete narrative.
The first section asks the questions: Who is part of this community? What makes it unique, but also what divisions exist? Considering the incredible diversity in India, it is no surprise that the Indian American community also brings with it a vast variety of language, food, religious traditions, and histories. It’s also diverse in terms of class, generation, sexuality, gender, and in many other ways. And it has changed considerably over time.
The second section addresses how Indian Americans have contributed to the industries of the Pacific Northwest. We see how the Indian American population has grown in tandem with the region’s technology industries. But Indian Americans have also made their marks in biotechnology, healthcare, education, business, food and service industries, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, agriculture, and many other fields.
The third section examines the scope and range of arts and cultural contributions that Indian Americans have made in the Pacific Northwest. It highlights the work of pioneering South Asian drama troupes that pushed the boundaries of stereotypical stage performances.
At the same time, the exhibit profiles a local group using specially-commissioned South Indian puppets to tell traditional tales to children, as a way of preserving folk art forms abroad. And even though the show doesn’t include any conventional Bollywood, it does highlight the work of groups such as Tasveer, which provide an internationally recognized space to showcase alternative and progressive South Asian film and performance.
The fourth section revisits early stories of Indian American pioneers from the Pacific Northwest, such as Bhagat Singh Thind, a U.S. army veteran who fought in the U.S. Supreme Court for Indians to be granted citizenship. This section also recounts the infamous Bellingham Riots of 1907 that pushed Indians out of the towns where they had been living and working along the Pacific coast.
We see the legacies of anti-immigrant histories in contemporary debates over immigration and citizenship, particularly through the H-1B visa program, which brings in hundreds of thousands of Indians every year. This section also profiles the vital work that political leaders and social justice organizations do to push back against discrimination and to create community-led spaces for change.
The artwork of Aaliyah Gupta, a local Indian American artist and immigrant advocate, gives visitors a moment to reflect on the ways in which culture is fluid, dynamic, grounded in communities, and ever-changing.
“From the beginning, I wanted to bring my own training in feminist studies, critical ethnic and area studies, social justice and community engagement to the exhibit development,” said Dr. Bhatt. “Those lenses informed how we constructed the exhibit narrative and which artifacts were included. We invited a diverse group of Indian American leaders, academics, philanthropists, politicians, business owners, and advocates to serve on our community advisory board. This key group of individuals helped to create connections within the broader community.
“I also wanted to ensure that we showcased the deep history of the Indian American community in the Pacific Northwest, particularly because this region was one of the earliest ports of entry for this community. Because of that, Seattle has been a particularly important region to host ‘Beyond Bollywood.’”
“Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” runs through Jan. 26, 2020 at the Museum of History and Industry, 860 Terry Avenue North in Seattle. For prices, hours, and other information, visit mohai.org/exhibits/beyond-bollywood-indian-americans-shape-the-nation.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.