The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s first exhibit on Indian Americans celebrated its one-year anniversary Friday.

The 5,000-square-foot exhibition, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, spotlights the Indian American experience and the many contributions Indian Americans and immigrants have made to America since the early 1900s.

The Beyond Bollywood exhibit’s entrance features an assortment of shoes, reflecting an Indian custom to remove footwear before entering a home. (Brittany Britto/Bloc Reporter)
The Beyond Bollywood exhibit’s entrance features an assortment of shoes, reflecting an Indian custom to remove footwear before entering a home. (Brittany Britto/Bloc Reporter)

With the first step into Beyond Bollywood, attendees are greeted with rows of shoes in all shapes and sizes, depicting the common custom of removing footwear before entering a home.

At the exits, Bollywood tunes bid attendees farewell.

The exhibit itself explores the Indian American experience by showcasing more than 100 years of Indian American history and contribution.

Michelle Obama’s Bollywood-inspired dress, which she wore to the 2012 National Governors Association Dinner, designed by Naeem Khan sits inside of the exhibition, along with the football helmet of Brandon Chillar, the first Indian American football player to play in and win a National Football League Championship.

A portrait of Vinod Dham, the father of the Pentium chip used in computers around the world, sits on the wall as well as former gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj’s Olympic silver medals.

Beyond Bollywood docent, Shanthi Chandra-Sekar, 47, from North Potomac, Md., said the exhibit showcases a less talked about aspect of Indians in this country.

“We tend to hear about the Indian Americans more in terms of their achievements and usually in the fields of medicine, engineering and computers and, of course, the Spelling Bee,” Chandra-Sekar said. “This exhibit is about all this and more. It is about the story of their immigration and the challenges they had to face in settling down here and venturing into new directions.”

Split into different sections, the exhibit explores Indian Americans’ working lives, their contribution to food, music and dance, their activism as well as migration and early immigration.

“Being an Indian immigrant myself, I remember the challenges of moving to a new country with two very little children,” Chandra-Sekar said. “Hearing the stories of the early immigrants and their struggles impacted me a lot.”

Beyond Bollywood features a video display highlighting the experience of Indian American and immigrant taxi cab drivers. The exhibit notes that many cab drivers are Sikhs who left India following the 1984 Indian army attack on the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Gahndi. (Brittany Britto/Bloc Reporter)
Beyond Bollywood features a video display highlighting the experience of Indian American and immigrant taxi cab drivers. The exhibit notes that many cab drivers are Sikhs who left India following the 1984 Indian army attack on the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Gahndi. (Brittany Britto/Bloc Reporter)

Interactive sections of the Beyond Bollywood include a cab display featuring a video following an Indian American cab driver’s experience in New York, inviting all attendees to engage with history.

The exhibit also features a spelling bee stage with a working microphone, inspired by Balu Natarajan’s 1985 win in the National Spelling Bee. Natarajan’s trophy is also featured in the exhibit.

Beyond Bollywood driving force and volunteer Parag Mehta, an Indian American who has lived in the District for 15 years, has given 32 tours of Beyond Bollywood since its opening.

After seeing an exhibit on Filipino history displayed, Mehta said he thought “What about the brown people?”

Mehta began working with the Smithsonian and the Indian American community to assemble an exhibit that reflected Indian American history, presence and contribution in America.

“I recruited two of my friends that work the community and politics. We put together a list of donors and activists, and we held our launch event in 2008, called the Homespun Project,” Mehta said.

And from the Homespun Project, came the Smithsonian’s Indian American Heritage Project which produced Beyond Bollywood with the help of curator Masum Momaya.

Mehta, who trained for a full day-and-a-half before giving tours, said the first thing he noticed in Beyond Bollywood was the plates at the exhibit’s Indian dining table.

On one side of the table, there are durable steel plates that were commonly used in India, Mehta said. These steel plates are also used to frame many of the portraits in the museum.

This untitled graffiti mural created by artist collective Art Under Pressure was first featured in the District’s first desi hip-hop show, Drift Elemental. The mural is now hung on the walls in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Beyond Bollywood exhibit. (Brittany Britto/Bloc Reporter)
This untitled graffiti mural created by artist collective Art Under Pressure was first featured in the District’s first desi hip-hop show, Drift Elemental. The mural is now hung on the walls in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Beyond Bollywood exhibit. (Brittany Britto/Bloc Reporter)

“On the other side of the dinner table, there are Corelle ware plates that I ate off as a child,” said Mehta, who was surprised to see a part of his childhood displayed in the museum. “Those could be found in every Indian American home in the 1970s.”

Mehta, who was a driving force for the conception of Beyond Bollywood along with other Indian American volunteers who saw the need for their history to be represented, said the exhibit dismantles the idea that Indians are perpetual foreigners.

“I tell people to pay attention to that because that’s why we have this exhibit,” Mehta said. “It reminds ourselves and people of the public that we have contributed. We are not aliens. We are Americans. Our story is the American story, and I hope by educating, people will stop seeing us as outsiders.”

Beyond Bollywood will be open at the Smithsonian until August 2015. In May, the exhibit will continue to spread the word about Indian American culture on a five-year tour around the country.

head2Brittany Britto is a graduate student and can be reached at bbrittoa@gmail.com.

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