‘Beyond Bollywood’ explores Indian-American culture and history at the National Museum of Natural History

Of the 137 million objects owned by the Smithsonian, only a handful represent the history and experience of the roughly 3.3 million Americans with roots in the Indian subcontinent. So in 2008, when the institution decided to stage the exhibition “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” which opens Thursday, it sent out an open-ended call for, well, all sorts of stuff.

“We asked for photos, old documents, certificates and awards, newspaper clippings, works of art,” says Masum Momaya, the exhibit’s curator. “People sort of emptied out their basements and sent us boxes and boxes of things.”

Many of these ordinary items have made it into the exhibit. For instance, 60 pairs of shoes — sneakers, high-heels and baby shoes as well as traditional Indian flats known as juttis — are nailed to wooden platforms near the gallery entrances, as if slipped off by visitors on their way into the exhibit.

“In every Indian-American home and place of worship, people take their shoes off before entering,” Momaya says.

The shoes should help orient visitors, as “Beyond Bollywood” is somewhat confusingly housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit landed in a place best known for gemstones and dinosaur bones because the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, which organized the show, has no home of its own, Momaya says.

“The Museum of Natural History has a high visitorship,” she says. “Between 7 and 10 million people go through that museum annually, and we are really excited that so many people might see our exhibit, whether they are coming to it intentionally or not.”

“Beyond Bollywood,” which will remain open for at least a year, includes about two dozen historical artifacts, including a gown by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan that was worn by Michelle Obama; a football helmet worn by Brandon Chillar, who helped the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl in 2011; and a Pentium microprocessor developed by Indian-American engineer Vinod Dham.

“I would love for people to walk away with a sense of the deep and diverse contributions that Indian immigrants and Indian-Americans have made to shaping the United States,” Momaya says.

If people end up learning about Indian-American history while trying to find the Hope Diamond, well that’s just fine with her.

(Lawrence Jackson/Official White House Photo)
(Lawrence Jackson/Official White House Photo)

First lady’s gown

This dress, made by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan, was worn by Michelle Obama to the White House Governors Dinner in 2012. Khan comes from a long line of Indian textile embroiderers, says “Beyond Bollywood” curator Masum Momaya. “His ancestors embroidered in the Mughal Courts of India, and traditional techniques of embroidery have been passed down to him through the generations,” she says. Khan, who counts Beyonce and Eva Longoria among his clients, trained under American fashion designer Halston. “A lot of my work is inspired from the crosscurrents of culture between India and America,” Khan says. “I love the whole idea that you can mix the two worlds and create something new.”

Khan used semi-transparent tulle to show off the first lady’s great arms. “The one-shoulder gown on her looks so beautiful, and the Governors Dinner is well suited for that kind of glamour,” he says.

“The shape of the dress is so modern,” Khan says. “It’s a simple silhouette that’s tight on the waist — classic Hollywood meets Washington meets India.”

The gown was embroidered using a traditional Indian technique called zardosi, Momaya says. “It’s usually done with real gold or silver thread, which is very expensive. It’s intricate work that’s labor-intensive and time-consuming.” The floral motif, Khan says, was commonly worn by Indian royalty.

(Sandra Vuong/Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)
(Sandra Vuong/Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)

Diary of Balbir Singh Sodhi

This diary contains the haunting premonitions of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh owner of an Arizona gas station who was murdered following the Sept. 11 attacks. “In the diary, he talks about his fears, how he felt things were going to change for him and members of his family after 9/11,” says curator Masum Momaya. This was the first in a series of hate crimes against South Asians, Momaya says. “He was attacked because he wore a turban and wore a beard, and people equated turbans and beards with Osama bin Laden.”

helmet
Brandon Chillar’s helmet

This football helmet was once worn by Indian-American linebacker Brandon Chillar. “I think many people will be surprised to know there has been a Indian-American football player in the NFL and that he was part of the Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers team,” Momaya says. “I hope that children who come to the exhibit and see this will be inspired to know that not all Indian-Americans are doctors or engineers or taxi drivers.”

famer
Historic farmer photograph

This 1907 photo of a beet farmer in Hamilton City, Calif., illustrates Indian-Americans’ deep roots in this country. “Many Indian immigrants came to America in the ’60s and ’70s, but they started coming here in the 1800s and early 1900s as well,” Momaya says. Early waves of immigrants often settled in California, Oregon and Washington and worked on farms, she says. “There are some Indian families on the West Coast today that are fifth- and sixth-generation farmers.”

National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; opens Thu., free; 202-633-1000. (Smithsonian)

Photo credits: Lawrence Jackson (Official White House Photo); Cindy Ord (Getty Images);  Sandra Vuong (Smithsonian asian pacific american center); Christian Petersen; sandra vuong (Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center);  Ali Akbar Khan Foundation; California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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Sadie Dingfelder · February 27