“Beyond Bollywood” at MOHAI digs deep into Indian American experience

An Indian American family poses in front of their car in the 1960s. “Beyond Bollywood,” an exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry, presents the story of Indian Americans in the Pacific Northwest, which spans two centuries. (Photo courtesy MOHAI)

Despite the growing population of Indian Americans, the stories of the ones who immigrated to the United States before the late 20th century are rarely told.

In the late-1800s and early-1900s Punjabi farmers and cannery workers came to the U.S. I was oblivious to this rich history until I sought out my own research as a high school student that led me to obscure books at my local library. I was surprised to learn that Indian Americans helped build the American experience long before the Immigration Act of 1965. They paved the way for many Indian immigrants, like my parents, who have settled in the region.

A new exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) brings this multilayered Indian American history to the forefront in “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.” The exhibit is scheduled through Jan. 26.

“Beyond Bollywood” chronicles the contributions of Indian immigrants to the United States beginning in the 1700s through the modern day. While the exhibit was created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service, the MOHAI iteration prominently features Pacific Northwest stories.

Amy Bhatt, associate professor of gender and women’s studies at University of Maryland and exhibit curator, said at a recent press briefing that the Indian American presence is deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest.

More than half of Whatcom County’s berry crop is produced by Sikh farmers. Boeing began recruiting from India in the 1940s, and the region’s Indian American population has grown greatly alongside Seattle’s tech boom. Today, India is the third most common birth country for Washington state residents.

“However, when we began to develop this exhibit, we wanted to tell a different kind of story,” said Bhatt, who is a leading scholar on Indian immigration to the Pacific Northwest. “Not just one about a community’s arrival and growth but one that is grounded in the struggles and challenges that immigrants in subsequent generations face as they form a place in the US.”

History Rooted Here

Indian American laborers contributed to the Transcontinental Railroad. (Photo courtesy MOHAI)

The exhibit is sectioned into four parts. The first, called “Community Takes Root” covers the spectrum of the Indian American community. India is diverse in its traditions, cultures, languages, and class and caste dynamics. Every region has its own subculture that plays out in new ways as people emigrate to the United States.

The second section examines how Indian Americans have contributed to local industries, not just in information technology, but also in the healthcare, biotechnology and food service industries. The third section, called “Stage, Screen, and Stereotypes,” looks at how Indian Americans have contributed to arts and culture, and features local drama group Pratidhwani and Seattle non-profit Tasveer, which hosts an annual festival of South Asian films.

Another section, called “Inciting Change” looks at Indian Americans activist working towards change and equality for over a century. The section features the story of Bhagat Singh Thind who fought the US Supreme Court for Indian American citizenship rights in 1923. It also looks at the impacts of racist rhetoric that led to events like the Bellingham riots that drove out many Punjabi laborers from Bellingham in 1907. This section illustrates the dynamism and constant cultural change that continues in the Indian American community.

Beyond narrow narratives

“Beyond Bollywood” breaks free of the narrow narrative of the model minority myth that plagues Indian Americans, as well as Asian American communities at-large. The myth broadly assumes Asian Americans have achieved greater socioeconomic success than the national average, but fails to recognize the disparities and struggles within Asian American communities.

“We wanted to make sure this exhibit told a story that was more complicated and didn’t reinforce the idea of linear progress,” Bhatt said. “Some of the ways we tried to [do] that was to really talk about the challenges of citizenship, of immigration, [and] about the visa process which is not linear.”

Despite the diversity of classes, industries and castes, Bhatt admitted she found it a challenge to show class diversity in the Pacific Northwest. A large proportion of Indian immigrants in the Seattle area came to the area for graduate studies.

Bhatt also wanted to make sure that the differences between generations were showcased in the exhibit. For example, she notes that second and third generation Indian Americans have an awareness of social justice and race that informs their identities.

“Those things are questions that our parents were less likely to engage with,” Bhatt said.

The exhibit will feature an interactive section where visitors can add to the narrative by sharing their own stories. Bhatt is especially excited about this section. She sees it as a way for young people, and second and third generation Indian Americans to contextualize their own experiences within the legacy of growing community history.

Bhatt also was influenced by her own young daughter. Bhatt hopes that young people like her will be able to find their own experiences as well as the experiences of their parents and grandparents in the exhibit’s layered narrative.

“Bollywood and Beyond” runs through Jan 26 at the MOHAI’s armory building. Related programming will also be happening throughout the run of the exhibit including “Sari Stories,” a storytelling event, a screening of the Tamil film “Vellai Pookal” (set in Seattle), and an evening of music and dance. For more information go to MOHAI’s exhibit website.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent writing – it is very informative. Thank you.
    I was wanting to learn more – as a product of the 1965 Immigration act – and I didn’t learn about the exhibit until now- I am looking forward to seeing it and adding my story – been here for a decade in Seattle.
    I also find nothing more interesting than a cup of chai, and sharing stories.

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