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Beyond Bollywood – New Smithsonian Exhibition Showcases Indian Americans

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by Damien Tomkins
"1 Out Of Every 100 Americans Is Indian American" reads this exhibit, part of the new Beyond Bollywood exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. Image: Damien Tomkins

There are almost three million Indian Americans in the United States and the contributions of this community to US culture and history are explored in a new exhibition in Washington, D.C. titled Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.”

The primary goal of the display is “to highlight the contributions of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans in shaping US history,” according to Beyond Bollywood curator Masum Momaya. She further explained that these contributions are divided into three main categories: “Political — this includes political struggles that were for the Indian community but also that go beyond, to workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights; Professional — this aims to take visitors beyond the stereotypical Indian careers, doctors, taxi drivers, while also acknowledging the contributions in those areas; Cultural — this includes contributions in the areas of food, fashion, film, music, and entertainment.”

Within the field of politics, Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American to be elected to Congress in 1957 opening the door for others to follow. Professionally, many Indian Americans were recipients of the H-1B visa program--a trend that continues to this day--for highly qualified and educated experts to come and work in the United States. Regarding cultural influence, Indian culture is found across the United States from culinary delights to spiritual practices.

Beyond Bollywood includes exhibits of Indian American contributions that go beyond the United States to impact the world. Within the realm of engineering, Vinod Dham is known as the “father” of the Pentium Chip, a research project that he led at the Intel Corporation in the early 1990s; Sabeer Bhatia is credited with having been a co-founder of the email server Hotmail in 1996, and Dr. Amar G. Bose invented noise-canceling headphones for Bose, a company that he started in 1964. Today, it is estimated that around 15% of companies in Silicon Valley are founded by persons of Indian origin.

Within the United States, the non-violent civil disobedience teachings of Mahatma Gandhi had a profound and lasting influence upon U.S. civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. On the spiritual spectrum, the practice of Yoga—derived from the Sanskrit word Yog—is widely practiced throughout the United States as both a spiritual practice and/or physical exercise.

Other highlights on display include a dress by designer Naeem Khan that was worn by First Lady Michelle Obama, a football helmet worn by victorious Green Bay Packers linebacker Brandon Chillar in the 2011 Super Bowl, and a tribute to Nina Davuluri who was crowned Miss America 2014.

When Beyond Bollywood closes in Washington, D.C. in 2015 there are plans for it to travel around the United States as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service for up to five years.