The traveling trunk says it all.
Placed at the entry of the exhibition “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” on view at the Museum of History and Industry through Jan. 26, the trunk is the kind of luggage someone would carry with them from India to the United States, presumably in the late 1960s. It also seems to encapsulate the Indian immigrant experience.
Nestled inside the trunk is a figurine of the Hindu elephant deity, Lord Ganesha, believed to grant good luck. Other objects include a Ravi Shankar vinyl record, a photo frame, kitchen utensils. They convey a sense of talismanic protection against the potential disorientating effect of immigration.
“Beyond Bollywood” is a traveling exhibition that started at the Smithsonian Asian American Pacific Center in 2014. At MOHAI, the exhibition’s intent is to educate viewers about the Indians who have come to America since the 1790s (there are now 3.3 million people of Indian origin who live in the U.S.), and to dispel stereotypes.
Large wall panels with charts, diagrams, graphs and statistics cover topics such as Indian customs, religions, traditions, visa processes. This is a data-heavy show, but curator Amy Bhatt makes learning pleasurable. Visitors will discover ways to drape a sari and get a primer on Indian spices, Hindu temples and deities, classical dance and music. But the exhibit also tends to focus too much on one socioeconomic segment of Indian Americans.
Bhatt has assembled many objects, big and small: old-time, black-and-white photographs plucked out of family albums, gorgeous saris, a pistachio grinder, a musical instrument and more. These are markers of the cultural heritage of Indians in America. The exhibition’s central premise is that rootedness in Indian traditions has allowed Indians in America to retain their distinct identity.
Two intertwined threads unspool as you walk down the gallery. One is about Indian Americans in the United States. The other is about Indian Americans in the state of Washington. They bring to the fore the grit that Indian Americans have shown, and their remarkable contributions in building the economy and culture of this country. The exhibition commemorates exemplary men and women in the fields of technology, agriculture, academics, medicine, science, arts and philanthropy. You can hear CEOs, academics, philanthropists and more tell their individual stories at audio stations.
The most compelling aspect of the show is its focus on faces. Radiant faces loom out from images on the walls. At a time when immigrants are being described as dangerous, faceless people, these faces ask visitors to pause and look.
Yet this exhibition focuses disproportionately on the work and cultural practices of the intellectual elite. Although the faces change, the story they tell is the same: academic brilliance, accomplished careers, strong work ethic, good parenting and so forth. If this strikes you as the old story of the model minority, it is.
It’s paradoxical that an exhibition that sets out to debunk stereotypes should fall back on another stereotype. Model minority is a comforting myth, but it is implicated in a long history of harmful inequality and hierarchy, within the United States and in India. A recent book, “The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” reveals that since 1965, the United States immigration policy has prioritized the immigration chances of Indians of dominant castes and socioeconomic privilege.
The truth is that many Indian Americans have attained impressive success, and the show is right to commemorate that. But this exhibition fails to convey a palpable sense of Indian Americans as living, breathing humans, far more complex than clichés. The faces you encounter here have about the same depth of characterization as passport photographs.
This narrow focus on the “top tier” reinforces hierarchy, obscuring other faces and voices of the community. Family unification, undocumented individuals, sharp juxtapositions in education and wealth have been important aspects of the Indian immigration story. These issues complicate the narrative of the model minority, creating alternative stories. We need to hear them.
Troublingly, too, there’s no real Muslim presence in this exhibition.
There are moments when the exhibition hints at something deeper, as in the case of the story of a motelier’s struggle to maintain what she calls an American face in public while retaining her Indian identity. There’s also a brief introductory section on the earliest generations of immigrants. Sepia-toned photographs show Indian men with Mexican wives. Here, you catch close-ups of ordinary immigrants’ lives in mundane, intimate contexts. The photographs pack a novel’s worth of commentary on rootlessness. But such displays are too few and fleeting.
Perhaps the exhibition’s avoidance of probing questions — about inequality, privilege, mental health — speaks of a nervousness about being misconstrued. The present, uncertain times ask for simplistic narratives without complications and ambiguity. Perhaps the show is really about the community’s search for a political identity; hence, its best face forward. The title, after all, predicts a celebratory stance. But the result is a missed opportunity to tell anew the Indian American immigration story.
“Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.” Through Jan. 26; Museum of History & Industry, 860 Terry Ave N.; $16.95-$21.95, youth 14 and under free; 206-324-1126, mohai.org