An Indian Gem at the Smithsonian

Since 2008, when Smithsonian’s Indian American Heritage Project began, we’ve been hearing from Indian Americans all over the United States about their family connections to the Smithsonian.  Here’s a photograph and anecdote from Khalid Maricar.  Do you have a family connection to the Smithsonian?  Tell us about it.


Mr P.M.K Syed Mohammed Maricar (left), accompanied by his business partners, admiring an exceptional star sapphire, c. 1958.

Mr P.M.K Syed Mohammed Maricar (left), accompanied by his business partners, admiring an exceptional star sapphire, c. 1958.

In the early 1950s, my grandfather, Mr. PMK Syed Mohamed Maricar, presented “The Star of Asia,” a large, 330-carat cabochon-cut star sapphire to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  The gem was one of many acquired as he travelled from a small coastal town in South India to the United States.

Mr. PMK Syed Mohamed Maricar continued his travels across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom in 1958, where he ran, with several English business partners, a consignment house for gem merchants from Sri Lanka, India and Burma.

Specializing in fine Ceylon Sapphires, Burmese rubies and Colombian emeralds, the Maricar’s trade links allowed them to supply leading retailers and workshops in the day throughout the UK, Europe and US.

Today, the company in its third-generation of dealing. Mr. Syed Ahmed Maricar and his sons Mr. Hassan Maricar and Mr. Khalid Maricar continue the family tradition of buying and selling the finest gems and jewels to retailers and dealers worldwide.

-Khalid Maricar


Lakshmi Shankar: A Life Journey That Echoes Indian Music’s Journey to the West

Lakshmi Shankar

Lakshmi Shankar

By Kavita Das

In 2009, Lakshmi Shankar, an eighty-three year old acclaimed Indian classical music singer, received a Grammy Nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album. Many in the West came to know Lakshmi Shankar through her cross-cultural collaborations with George Harrison of The Beatles. But few know that offstage, they counted each other as good friends. Others discovered Lakshmi Shankar as the melodic voice on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning movie, Gandhi, but are unaware that as a child, she actually met Mahatma Gandhi several times.

Indians and Indian Americans have gotten to know Lakshmiji, as they affectionately call her, in all her incarnations over the decades. First, they saw her grace the stage as a teenage dancer in Uday Shankar’s groundbreaking Indian dance troupe. Later, they were charmed by Lakshmi as a Bollywood actress in early Tamil Talkies. Finally, they came to love and praise her for her amazing talents as a Hindustani or Indian classical music singer and their adoration continues today. But even amongst Indians, few know that illness prevented Lakshmi from continuing her career as a dancer, leaving her devastated but also laying the groundwork for her reinvention as an Indian classical singer, who would go on to win high accolades throughout the world.

Lakshmi’s story and her evolution as an artist and a person closely parallels the story of how Indian music made its way across thousands of miles to be met with great excitement and growing popularity amongst audiences in the West and globally. In my mind, the most fascinating elements of this story are the intrepid Indian musicians, who traveled as cultural ambassadors on a mission to share their art form with the world and their admiring and curious Western counterparts. These Western musicians, who spanned classical, pop, and jazz genres, were excited to help popularize and collaborate, creating the early strains of Indian fusion music. Amongst the first wave of Indian artists, sitarist Ravi Shankar, sarodist, Ali Akbar Khan, and tabla player, Allah Rakha are most recognized for their contribution to expanding the reach of Indian music. Similarly, in terms of their Western counterparts, American classical violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, British rock ‘n roll legend, George Harrison, and American jazz musician, John Coltrane are often credited with ushering in a greater awareness of Indian music in the West.

However, the story as it has been told is not complete. If it were a song, it would be missing some of its most poignant, albeit, softer strains and notes. And those notes reached worldwide audiences through the stirring melodies sung by Lakshmi Shankar from her initial world tour with Uday Shankar’s dance troupe as their music director and singer to Ravi Shankar’s Festival from India tour to George Harrison’s Material World tour, not to mention her many recordings including the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film, Gandhi, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. These incredible accomplishments culminated in her Grammy nomination. Beyond the accolades, through her unique gifts as a singer, Lakshmi Shankar has given Indian Americans the chance to experience nostalgia for their homeland, through a favorite melodic Bhajan or Thumri, while through her fusion collaborations, she has also pushed audiences to consider how the musical traditions of India and the West can be artfully woven together.

Lakshmi’s story is uniquely compelling and relevant for several reasons. First, she provides a perspective on the journey of Indian music to the West that has rarely been heard from: a female Indian musician who was part of that movement. Second, while most musicians of her stature focused on cultivating one art form over their lifetimes, Lakshmi was forced to reinvent herself from an accomplished dancer, to an actress, and only much later in life, forged a new path forward as a Hindustani singer. Finally, while Lakshmi eventually found success as an artist and happiness through her family, she has endured tragedies as well, including the loss of her beloved only daughter and frequent singing companion, Viji. Indeed, one of the most powerful lessons that Lakshmi’s life story has to offer to Indian Americans today is to cultivate the strength to reinvent oneself and the ability to stay rooted in your culture, yet open to other cultures. This lesson is particularly relevant for the next generation of Indian American artists, who seek to build on the foundation created by artists like Shankar. Besides providing a beacon through her own life story, Lakshmi, now eighty-seven years old and a resident of Los Angeles since the 1980s, continues to teach a dedicated cadre of students, ensuring that her unique brand of Hindustani vocal music lives on.

While it is important to document Indian cultural traditions, it is just as important to tell the story of the artists who keep those traditions burning by not only cultivating the interests of enthusiasts and connoisseurs but by sparking an awareness and interest in new audiences across cultures. Lakshmi Shankar is one of these key ambassadors and her story is one that spans the globe, Indian and Western musical traditions, and some of the key moments of this century.

Lakshmi Shankar (right) with Kavita Das

Lakshmi Shankar (right) with Kavita Das

After 15 years developing and leading innovative programs in the social change sector, Kavita Das now serves as a nonprofit consultant and writes nonfiction and creative nonfiction. She is currently at work on a biography of Lakshmi Shankar. Kavita’s work has been published in The Aerogram, Quartz, The Rumpus, Colorlines, Thought Catalog, DashAmerican, The Sun, and will be featured in an upcoming anthology by Telling Our Stories. Connect with Kavita on Twitter @kavitamix


A Day of Light and Sweets

by Lavina Melwani

Diwali lights Photo: courtesy BAPS

Diwali lights Photo: courtesy BAPS

Diwali Comes to America

The fireworks still explode in the memory, and the taste of nuts and cream and sugar still linger on the tongue. For immigrants from India, the childhood memories of Diwali are strong, for it is a time when India transforms into one glittering celebration. Public buildings are illuminated with neon lights and every home, no matter how humble, is ablaze with earthen lamps. In fact, entire villages are turned into fairylands, dotted with millions of lamps, glowing in the dark of night.

Deepavali Memories

Diwali, also known as Deepavali,  was the biggest thing in childhood for most Indians and the lighted lamps, the sweet treats and the festive air are hard to forget, even as one walks in the anonymity of Manhattan where Diwali is just another ordinary day and the trains run and the crowds rush and nobody really cares.

Immigrants remember the three nationwide holidays for Diwali, Hinduism’s biggest celebration, with the gift of new clothes, the plethora of sweets and the endless firecrackers they set off as children. They remember the bichus, the anars and the phuljaris, each sparking with the touch of a match. Here in the U.S., there is no holiday and there’s a ban on fireworks, but Indians try to recreate some of the magic of Diwali with street fairs and celebration. Now, the landscape is indeed changing; where earlier there were no Indian stores, now there are hundreds. Walk in any Little India area, and you may as well be back in Apna Desh.

Food and memory are intricately linked and we asked Suvir Saran, the noted chef, to share his Diwali memories with us, and for his special dishes for the festive season

“Diwali in our Kayasth household was a showstopper,” recalls Saran. “A few days before Diwali is Dhanteras – and for Dhanteras you have to buy a new cooking utensil – that’s the most important thing that every Hindu has to do. The token utensil could be anything – a tawa, a degchi or a pressure cooker. Every year, I for one, would look forward to seeing what dadi and mummy were going to buy – that was when I knew Diwali was around the corner!”

Annakut celebration in Chicago - Photo BAPS

Annakut celebration in Chicago – Photo BAPS

Diwali: Days of Feasting

In the Saran household, the signs of Diwali approaching were all over the place. Even ten days before Diwali, he would come home from school to find the most tantalizing aromas. “I’d see my grandmother sitting at the entrance of the kitchen giving instructions to Panditji, our family chef and to my mother. Normally it was Panditji’s kitchen – and everyone else was out of it! But because it was Diwali, the bahu had to be there, cooking, and what they were making was matri and gujjias which our family was famous for.”

All day they would buno or stir the khoya, to which they would add raisins, almonds and cardamom. “The khusboo around the house would be phenomenal!” says Saran.  This aromatic khoya mix would then be stuffed into the crescent shaped gujjias.

Those two pre-Diwali weeks were heaven for Saran because it was like open season on sweets. He especially enjoyed the gujjias as they came out hot from the searing heat of the karai. His mother knew to keep the gujjias away from her son’s notorious sweet tooth: “She knew if she kept frying them and feeding me, I’d finish hundreds in one night!”

The Saran family’s traditional Diwali rituals included making big, flaky matris, with layers like puff pastry. These would be served with achar or pickles: “Every time people came to the house in the evening during the festive season these gujjias and matris were served to all the guests, along with khoya ki barfi, all sorts of dried nuts and fresh mithai.”

The other Diwali treat was gulgulas – an Indian version of fried Italian dough balls made with atta and saunf  – when they are deep fried, the gur caramelizes so they are sticky and chewy and nothing is tastier, says Saran. His job was to light all the diyas on the ledges of the house so he would be with the cook and servants, reaching up with the matches because they had to be lit by a family member.

“We’d have 30-40 people come for Diwali night dinner and hundreds of samosas would be made by Panditji, rolling the pastry from scratch,” he recalls. “ Dinner had to be totally vegetarian – biryani made out of katal or jackfruit, which is vegetarian but has a meaty texture.” In fact, this is a dish that is quite uncommon in India too, and Saran likes to serve it at Devi.

The other specialties on the family table were Rasawalle aloo and Gobhi Mussalam, a full head of cauliflower steamed in milk and deep fried, and served with tomato gravy poured on it.  There would always be paneer in some form, sabut matar – green peas cooked with the pod – and karari bindhi, crispy okra, which is also served at Devi to give crunch to the Katal biryani.

Since the family was from UP, one of the Diwali specialties was pitta ki kachori, which is stuffed with urad daal inside. Kheer would be an unusual one, Makane ki kheer made out of lotus seed or phool makanas. These are fried in ghee and cooked like a rice pudding for hours till the milk thickens, and enhanced with raisins, nuts and kesar. Other must haves included Halwa puri:  Says Saran, “It was all about deep frying – for puja you have to deep fry things and keep for ghee is purifying.”

The table was studded with sweets of every color, including dhanedar barfi and fresh kalakand. Says Saran with nostalgic yearning: “It would be one big sugar festival!”

Now in New York does he carry on any of these traditions? He says, “I don’t do as much as I’d like to – but we do a puja at home, Lakshmiji ki arti – and I always make the aloos and the kachoris and some kind of kheer.”

Diwali celebrations

Diwali celebrations

At Diwali, Faith Rejuvenated

Indeed, at its heart the celebration of Diwali is about prayer, rejuvenation and new beginnings. In temples across the country, in family shrines and in offices, prayer rituals take place as the icons are bathed in milk and honey, and offered fresh flowers and sweets.

On Dhanteras, when special prayers are offered to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, many devotees buy token amounts of gold or silver to assure continued prosperity. A day before Diwali, temples observes Anakutam, which means Gathering of Food. The worshippers bring in hundreds of offerings of sweets and fruits to be blessed by the Goddess Lakshmi. On Diwali day, the devotees receive these gifts back as a benediction. The highlight of the puja ceremony is the lighting of one hundred and eight silver lamps amidst chanting from the priests.

Diwali is about tradition, and even fast-food eaters and those who cook up a quick pot of pasta after work, suddenly yearn to recreate the meals of the holiday season. Young professionals living on their own return home to their parents for the remembered taste of Diwali delicacies. Immigrants try to recreate the meals that were served in their homeland, and depending on which part of the country, they are bound to be different. Each area has its version of Diwali and festive delicacies.

Diwali Rungoli  - photo: BAPS

Diwali Rungoli – photo: BAPS

Diwali on Main Street, USA

Now America is criss-crossed with Indian grocery stores so finding the ingredients or the spices is never a problem – in fact, these amazing stores carry the products of all of South Asia and even from the UK, Canada and locally made Indian foods. Diwali is about the past and so many families still try to make the sweets from scratch, as a token. Vanita Sakhrani, who has lived in Rego Park for 33 years, remembers a very different scene when she came as a new immigrant in 1977. “There were no mithai shops in New York at that time and we made the sweets at home from scratch. When the first one opened in 1973, it was our first taste of mithai from an outside source. Now it’s so easy to go to a shop and buy.”

Sakhrani, however, has a passion for mithai-making and still keeps the tradition alive by making some of her specialties as offerings for the Gods and for close family. Most Hindu women do make some token sweets at home but for all of them this proliferation of sweet shops has been a real time-saver, for sweets are an integral part of Diwali and you wouldn’t visit friends without a box of sweets in your hand.

As Diwali approaches and there is a decided nip in the air, you stop at stores and admire the jewel-like sweets piled up behind glass: the orange jalebis, the pink chumchums, the golden son papri and gulab jamuns, the diamond like barfis, and the emerald pista mithai. The traditional Diwali treats have followed the immigrants to America and now it’s possible to have the delicacies that were a part of an Indian growing up.

The festive season is particularly busy for sweets stores, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of sweets being sold.  Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi sweetshops are on overdrive – and Diwali truly becomes a festival involving so many different people.

Diwali Inc.

While Diwali day means a vegetarian meal and prayer, the festivities surrounding Diwali ensure the community is a-buzz with card parties, Diwali lunches, Diwali galas and dinners during the holiday week. The Sindhi community has a huge Diwali Ball in Manhattan while other communities have festive dinners and lunches. There are ladies lunches at private homes and Indian restaurants. The whole idea is to get together for Diwali and celebrate the festival together.

Diwali has become commercialized with busy people with no time to cook often buying ready to eat or going out to eat. Restaurants from the biggest to the smallest dhabas do a brisk business during Diwali. For restaurants this is the busiest time of the year with parties in-house as well as catering orders across the boroughs and in the suburbs. Many of the restaurants come up with specials for Diwali but the usual menu is rich enough too. Some of the restaurants are lit up for Diwali and complimentary sweets are offered to the patrons.

Catering has become big business and it’s become easy to create your own menu and ask the restaurant to cook it up for your guests. Diwali parties for the community are held in an array of catering halls and restaurants.  As the social circles have increased, the number of parties, many organized by deejays and party impresarios, are also adding a sparkle to the Diwali season.

For those trying to have a Diwali party on a budget, there are some other options too: there are cooks who will come to your home and create the meal or cater from their home at a flat rate. In Queens and New Jersey – and even as far as North Carolina – there are Indian women who will cook you the meal of your dreams from home! The trick is knowing where these wonder women are – and it’s usually by word of mouth in the community grapevine for they rarely advertise.

Another resource that many families turn to at Diwali time is their own close circle of friends. Every year these families get together at each other’s home for a potluck Diwali dinner. Each brings her own specialty so that by the end of it the entire table is flooded with over 20 dishes and desserts, with very little effort on the hostess’ part. There’s usually such a surfeit of riches that in the end friends are given doggy bags or yogurt containers filled with Diwali leftovers!

In India, Diwali dinner would never be served on paper plates but here, with little domestic help, it’s perfectly acceptable to use paper goods and every other time-cutting resource available. In this, the countless Indian groceries are a great help with their endless supply of frozen snacks.

Since none of us have Suvir Saran’s Panditji to make the samosa patris from scratch, we just open the freezer in Patel Brothers or Apna Bazaar and pull out ready packs of samosas! In fact, the manufacturers of frozen goods have become increasingly innovative, offering everything from large spinach and paneer samosas to those stuffed with jalapeno peppers! Then there are bite-sized spring rolls, vadas, and dhoklas – all ready to be fried.

Snack shops like Rajbhog, Dimple, Rasraj, Maharaja and Usha Sweets also offer catering and a huge assortment of ready to eat snacks and sweets, ranging from bhel to mirchi pakoras and daal kachoris. Add these to your home-cooked menu and the meal immediately gets a festive air.

The sweets of course are the main attraction of the Diwali table and people throw diet and weight watching to the wind for these few days as they savor the tastes of their childhood in the form of gulab jamun, kheer and rasgullas. Again, each region has its own specialties and the amazing Indian repertoire is endless. The huge South Asian population in America has ensured that manufacturers are willing to bring in every kind of sweet and food item, because they know they have a huge market willing to open up their wallets.

Diwali, festival of lights  Photo: courtesy Hinduism Today

Diwali, festival of lights Photo: courtesy Hinduism Today

Do-It-Yourself Diwali

Interestingly enough, many second generation Indian-Americans as well as Indians who came here as students are showing an interest in learning cooking. Some write, email or phone home for well-loved recipes, others even join cooking classes. The cooking expert and cookbook writer Julie Sahni runs a very well regarded cooking school and she says she gets many young Indians wanting to learn how to roll puris or make classic dishes.

For the do-it-yourselfers, there are scores of cooking books. Walk into any Barnes and Noble or click on to see the wide range of books on Indian cooking, many of which have a special section on Diwali sweets. Madhur Jaffrey’s first cookbook ‘An Invitation to Indian Cooking’ was published in 1973 and she’s been a household name since then. Her cookbooks including ‘World Vegetarian’ and ‘Step-by-Step Cooking’ have traditional festive dishes as well as desserts such as kulfi and kheer. Julie Sahni also has several books including ‘Classic Indian Cooking’, and ‘Savoring India’ which have some great recipes suited for the holiday season.

If you want to get a Vedic slant to your Diwali dishes, then a comprehensive book is ‘Lord Krishna’s Cuisine’ by Yamuna Devi which includes such desserts as Khara Pista Barfi, Gajjak, Manohara Ladoos and Malai Chumchum. – – no watching your weight with this book which uses Lord Krishna’s favorite ingredients!

If you want to go the skinny route, then there is Anjum Anand’s ‘Indian Every Day – Light, Healthy Indian Food’. Here you will find dishes suitable for Diwali such as achari aloo baigan, ghiya ka kofta curry and kesari pullao. There are sweets too such as phirni, sandesh and meetha poora but Anand has lightened them all while retaining their original character.

Suvir Saran also has  ‘Indian Home Cooking’ and this includes some of the recipes he’s so nostalgic about, such as Gobhi Masalam, Dum Aloo and Kheer, and he also teaches cooking in New York, adapting and simplifying Indian cooking to suit the hectic lifestyle without compromising on taste.

For Indian immigrants who have left their homeland and settled in places as far apart as South Africa and Hong Kong and America, Diwali is the one day when they all light the lamps and recall their culture and their roots. And for some, Diwali happens all year around! It’s simply a state of mind.

As Suvir Saran says, “in my warped thinking” it is Diwali when the fireworks go off on the Fourth of July, it is Diwali during the sparkle of Christmas and so when Diwali really arrives in New York and he is lighting a diya alone in the solitude of his apartment – he mentally remembers all the joy and commotion of other festivals and of Diwalis past, of celebrations with grandparents and parents, and the cumulative glow lights up his quiet Diwali with happiness and contentment.

Lavina Melwani is an award-winning journalist who has written for several international publications including: India Today, Newsday, The Week, WSJ, Travel Plus and The Hindu. She lives in New York. Her online magazine, Lassi with Lavina, is about Indian art and culture. Click here to visit her website, Lassi with Lavina.


A Story with Roots in Sri Lanka

Thilla Thuraisingham and her children

Thilla Thuraisingham and her children

Many who come to know about Smithsonian’s Indian American Heritage Project (IAHP) ask us how this project came to be. Since our establishment in 1997, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has launched several Asian Pacific American heritage initiatives that focused on specific communities—Vietnamese, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese and more—in telling America’s whole story.  Each initiative did not present the definitive interpretation of a community; rather the goal was to present a snapshot—a slice—of a rich and complicated experience.  Over three years ago, IAHP began as a South Asian American heritage project for the American public.  Over time, the sheer vastness of the task had us return to the experience of one community while we continued to engage the broader South Asian America experience along the way.

Ravi and Bala Thuraisingham (youngest and oldest, respectively) share this touching story about their mother, Thilla, and her contributions to her family and the communities she touched.  Born in Sri Lanka, Thilla’s experience speaks to the South Asian experience.

We invite you to continue sharing your stories with us too.

In 1924, Thaiyalnakaki (“Thilla”) Thuraisingham was born in Jaffna town in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. Thilla is the sixth of seven children. Educated in a girls’ college and graduating with distinction, in her teen years Thilla was a beauty queen. As with many women during the era, Thilla married young at eighteen years of age to raise a family—she never realized her full potential in academia. She studied machine embroidery and received a gold medal for English oratory in college.

Her husband was an assistant engineer in the public works department before joining the army. Thilla worked for the army as well until her first son was born. What appeared to be a normal life would prove to be nothing but that for Thilla.

At age 47, when her youngest son was only six years old, her husband passed away, leaving her with no means to raise the family. She lost her house and struggled to keep a roof over the heads of her ten children.

Thilla worked as a seamstress at a department store, walking 3 miles each way, often carrying groceries and then worked late at night creating garments for private clients. Her youngest son would fall asleep on her lap while she peddled the mechanical sewing machine late into the night. Often the sun would rise and the kids would begin to get ready for school before she completed her work.

One thing Thilla never did is complain about her situation or the cards she’d been dealt—she simply moved forward and encouraged her kids to do the same. Before long, her oldest kids began to earn money on their own and helped support the family wherever they could.

Her eldest son eventually was able to help a bit more by providing what little money he had to find a better life for the family. Through various paths, starting in England, he ended up in Toronto, Canada where he too worked tirelessly on multiple jobs to sponsor his siblings so that they could migrate to Canada.

In December of 1978, at age 54, Thilla and her youngest children were finally reunited with the rest of the family. All the children followed Thilla’s work ethic and perseverance to accomplish various professional designations, and businesses. Thilla never stopped improving herself; she began studies at the University of Toronto in higher education but once again gave up her aspirations for her family and helped raise the grandchildren instead.

Today at the age of 89, her perseverance and dedication to her family keeps her active while living on her own, participating in many community events, writing, acting and leading many theater productions.  Thank you Amma (mother) for all that you gave the family without asking for or expecting anything in return. 


Why I Love Cece Parekh and Mindy Lahiri


By Priya Chhaya

Here’s a truth about me. I love television.

Another truth? I am one of those Indians that loves seeing Indians on television. I’ll often give a show a chance (or keep watching) for that reason alone. Case in point: When ER was in its later years, I kept watching primarily because Parminder Nagra joined the cast.

On Tuesday nights you’ll probably find me tear-streaked and laughing over a storyline on FOX’s New Girl and The Mindy Project.  Both shows have an amazing comic sensibility, and they feature Cece Parekh (played by Hannah Simone) and Mindy Lahiri (played by Mindy Kaling).

I’ve followed a few different Indian-American characters on television. Some are like Kal Penn on House – a doctor whose ethnicity rarely comes up. Or Archie Punjabi’s character on The Good Wife, who I have heard has an air of mystery. Others are like Raj on The Big Bang Theory, whose Indianness comes up as a reoccurring joke, complete with the stereotypical accent.

What I like about Cece and Mindy is that they are ethnically diverse characters who are not defined by that ethnicity.  Their culture and beliefs come into play when the plot necessitates it, rather than being the defining feature of all their interactions.

One storyline I appreciated seeing was New Girl’s treatment of Cece’s search for a husband. On any other show, the actual process of her going through the arranged marriage process would have been the assumed view of arranged marriage, i.e. parents introduce you, you decide to get married the next day.

But Cece’s storyline explored her experiences going through the process: trying a dating event, meeting her potential husband and his family, and their choice to date before getting engaged. Nothing was instantaneous. As an Indian-American, it was refreshing to see a realistic plotline of how modern arranged marriages occur, including how Cece participated in these customs as a girl who was both Indian and American.

On The Mindy Project, an allusion to Mindy’s ethnicity is even rarer. The writer and creator of the show Mindy Kaling stated in a recent Entertainment Weekly article, that “Most of the time when people want to talk to me about my job it’s about three things:  not skinny, multicultural, woman who is female. I don’t want to minimize that it’s a source of inspiration to young people, but I was just born in this skin, so it’s not something I think about when I’m writing.”

That is why both characters work for me. As characters Cece and Mindy are not developed and written to fill a quota, or to be a representation of a particular worldview. Instead they are allowed to be real (tv) people who aren’t all one culture or another.

For more on this topic, check out this great article from last May from Monique Nazareth on Television Worth Watching.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


Culturally Appropriate or Cultural Appropriation? A Few Thoughts

by Priya Chhaya

In early April, pop star Selena Gomez incited media buzz when she appeared in public wearing a bindi. She is not the first celebrity to wear something Indian, but I have to ask:

Should I feel offended that someone has chosen to appropriate a piece of Indian cultural identity for entertainment? Or is it another sign of how elements of my heritage have trickled into the American subconscious? If she “meant well,” is it OK? Or is it never OK for someone who is not Indian to wear such a symbol without preserving its meaning? And, at what point does something go from being culturally appropriate to cultural appropriation?

Selena Gomez image

Let’s consider three scenarios.

Scenario 1: So You Think You Can Dance contestants perform a Bollywood-style dance number. The performance includes elements of hip-hop and classical Indian styles.

Scenario 2: Selena Gomez hires a composer to add tabla and sitar to a song to give it a strong beat. She attends performances wearing Indian clothing, and composes a video that includes elements of Indian dancing.

Scenario 3: Akon, an American hip-hop artist is asked by a Bollywood producer to sing on a major Bollywood movie track. That song, Chammak Challo, becomes a global hit, with the hip-hop artist singing all the Hindi lyrics himself.

As I consider these scenarios, I realize: it’s complicated.

So You Think You Can Dance performances include forms from many cultures. Here, dance is like a language — without boundaries, with different dialects but easily understandable as a form of expression. I consider this to be culturally appropriate because the compositions and choreography pays due respect to the dance forms as a form of expression-without reducing its origins to a stereotype.

Chammak Challo is a little grayer. On one hand, its melds two musical forms from two different countries, but he’s a non-native speaker singing in Hindi. As a publicity/marketing piece for Ra.One, it worked really well but there is a potential for misunderstanding—did he understand what he was singing, or was it a form of mimicry? I think it was culturally appropriate, because while he was singing in a foreign language, he didn’t try and change his image or try to fit his persona into what someone-singing-in-Hindi should look like.

Which brings me back to Selena Gomez. The song has a catchy hook, but the music video places the tabla players with turbans around a fire in a desert and her dancers perform the stereotypical snake-charmer head movement that has come to represent Indian dancing. This seems like appropriation to me because it reinforces age-old stereotypes of exoticisms and the “other.”  This re-enforcement continues through her attire and performances where she tried to ‘become’ Indian in a way that rings false.

Today, Indians and Indian-Americans defy stereotypes. We are authors, congressional representatives, and CEO’s of major American corporations, and I still get excited when I see barriers being broken in the entertainment industry such as Mindy Kaling on the Mindy Project or Amitabh Bachchan in the Great Gatsby.  As such, Indians and India should not been seen or presented through one specific lens or a single caricature.

What do you think?


Q&A: Indian American Tennis Champion Rajeev Ram

Rajeev Ram with his 2009 Hall of Fame Tennis Championships trophy.

Indian American tennis player Rajeev Ram visited Washington D.C. last week for the Citi Open tournament.  His trophy from the 2009 Hall of Fame Tennis Championships will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.

Interview conducted by Summer 2013 intern Nimita Uberoi

Do you see yourself as a role model to young Indian American tennis players?

For sure, if there are young people who can take something from what I’ve done or if I can be helpful to them, I think that’s important.  Even if young people don’t end up playing professionally, but play in high school and college, it’s a great sport and great for learning life lessons.

Did you receive support from your parents for this non-conventional career?

My parents had an open mind, especially about me trying something different. This allowed me to pursue what I was good at and very passionate about. They pushed me to do as well as I could.  Their support has been the biggest key for me to be able to be on tour for 10 years.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Given that the level of the game is so high these days and the margins are so small, it’s a big challenge just to compete on a daily basis.  I’m always looking for ways to improve. Also, it’s not easy to travel as much as we do and be away from family and friends; it can get exhausting.

Rajeev Ram’s trophy, artifact image for the “Beyond Bollywood” exhibition. Photo by Sandra Vuong, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Have you ever faced any discrimination on tour?

I don’t personally feel like I’ve faced discrimination.  If anything, I’ve been lucky to get some support from fans in the United States as an American and from Indians in the United States and from India.  It’s an advantage to come from two places – I get double the support.

Do you have any advice for young people – athletes and otherwise?

It’s so important to have a passion, to enjoy it and be as good as you can at it.  To like something and do your best at it is very satisfying and fulfilling. Don’t just conform to what you think you are supposed to do; if you really do like something, it’s definitely possible to become really good at it, and then the sky’s the limit.

More about the author
A tennis player herself, APAC Summer 2013 intern Nimita Uberoi is a rising junior at Brown University studying Political Science and Environmental Studies.