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Beyond Bollywood: New exhibit looks at immigrant experience

Wednesday - 2/26/2014, 7:34am  ET

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'Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation' is the Smithsonian's first in-depth look at the history of Indians in America. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)

WASHINGTON -- Indian-Americans are more than just national spelling bee champs or motel owners. They are lawmakers, athletes and fashion designers.

That's the message behind "Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation," a new exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. It aims to dispel stereotypes and myths that have followed Indian immigrants since they first arrived in the U.S. in 1790, says curator Masum Momaya.

"It's been a way to honor the struggle of my parents' generation and all the things they went through in terms of building a life for themselves here," she says.

Her father emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1965, and her mother came over in 1970. She grew up listening to Bollywood songs at their Illinois home and went to a diverse school with other children from Mexican, African and Asian backgrounds.

Being surrounded by people from different cultures helped Momaya cope with being seen as "other," she says.

"We were close to each other in part because of that and often exchanged parallels about our families," she says.

Through this exhibit, Momaya says she hopes to inspire children who might feel uncomfortable coming from immigrant families. The question "Where are you from?" shouldn't elicit anxiety or self-consciousness, she says, but should be a springboard to have a bigger conversation about identity, diversity and celebrating what makes people different.

Momaya drew on her own experience as an Indian-American to help curate this exhibit, which opens Thursday and will run for at least a year before traveling to other museums and cultural centers in the U.S.

Family photographs, traditional table settings and shoes left outside the home are just some of the memories Momaya incorporated into her work with the museum. Anyone from an immigrant family can identify with the cultural cues that separate them from mainstream American culture, she says.

"For those of us growing up here in Indian-American families - but also many families of immigrants - there are things that are a part of our culture that spark different kinds of emotion," Momaya says.

"Maybe we might have resented certain things because they made us different, but then, as we've gotten older, they are things that tie us to our heritage and to our own history."

"Beyond Bollywood" blends these traditional cultural cues - such as yoga, dance and food - with trivia.

Statistics such as "1 in 10 doctors in the U.S. is Indian" and "73 percent of National Spelling Bee champions are of Indian descent" adorn the walls of the colorful exhibit. A gown worn by first lady Michelle Obama at the 2012 Governors' Ball and designed by Naeem Khan stands tall enclosed in glass.

The exhibit also includes an Olympic medal, an NFL helmet and many stories of barrier-breaking Indian- Americans.

Learn more about "Beyond Bollywood".

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