- Live Like the Banyan Tree: Images of the Indian American Experience
The banyan tree, with its amazing ability to drop down limbs that take root and become new entities while remaining firmly connected to the original trunk, is an apt indigenous metaphor for the transplanting of South Asians to the United States. With the vigorous interest in South Asian diasporan studies among scholars today, this display, initiated by the Balch Institute at the urging of influential members of the local Indian community who later served as consultants for the exhibition, is a timely undertaking. Folklorist Leela Prasad, herself an Indian living in the United States, was contracted to conceptualize the project and conduct the research on which it would be based. In collaboration with the staff at the Balch, Prasad has assembled an interesting collection of historical documents, artifacts, fragments of personal experience narratives culled from oral histories, and contemporary photographs (many shot by David H. Wells and reproduced in the accompanying catalog) in an attempt to provide a context for understanding her own culture's adaptation and growth in American soil. The result is an ambitious but modest attempt to convey some of the complexities of being East Indian in the United States.
The exhibit under review, like the banyan tree, begins at the original root as a point of departure: India. As one enters to the left, introductory label texts are arranged on the first panel to provide a historical and cultural overview of the logic underlying the global dispersion of South Asians, including demographic statistics of the approximately 20 million people of Indian descent living abroad today. Maps are also provided to orient the visitor, as are statistics for the number of Indians residing in each state of the United States. As one moves in a clockwise fashion, the common direction taken by pilgrims in the Hindu tradition, the display unfolds in a series of sections, each of which deals with a particular theme. The over-all picture we get is one of rich variety, warning us not to interpret the South Asian immigrant adventure as a homogenous one. As an Italian cab driver in Philadelphia once stated to me years ago when I described to him my own studies in this area, "The melting pot has been flavored with a bit of curry!" Live like the Banyan Treecompels us to move beyond such stereotypes to appreciate the complexity of the Indian experience in America. Of course, easy generalizations are not appropriate for the display of any ethnic community, but this relatively understudied minority faces its own unique set of problems in the politics of representation that must be interrogated to arrive at a more balanced interpretation. After describing the contents of the exhibit, I wish to take up some of the issues that arise directly from it and questions that are veiled by it.
The first section focuses on case studies pertaining to departure and arrival. We view the travel documents of Manju and Kishore Sheth, a couple of early settlers in the Delaware Valley, as well as "objects of memory," such as betal ( pan) nut containers, playing cards, a cricket bat, cookbooks printed in a variety of vernacular languages, kitchen utensils, and items of clothing. But lest the visitor get the impression that the traffic to North America was a direct route from India to Ellis Island in the past, some case studies of "Indians" who arrived in the United States from other parts of the world in the aftermath of British colonialism are also provided. The point here is to demonstrate that immigrant identities are complex and multifaceted. Not even all Indians living in North American were born in India, for many are what have come to be known as "twice" or "thrice" migrants; hence, we see, for example, descendents of Indians who were brought to the Caribbean by their British overlords as indentured...