Author Archives: queenraj

Jay Leno and the Golden Temple

by Rajshree Solanki

So have you heard the one about Jay Leno and the Golden Temple?

A recent sketch on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (aired January 19th) featured a clip of the Republican candidates and their summer homes. The last image was supposed to be the summer home of Mitt Romney. The image that appeared was that of the Golden Temple (also known as Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib) a sacred and revered temple to many Sikhs around the world.

How rich is Mitt Romney? He’s so rich that his summer home is the Golden Temple! Ba Dum!

Many in the Sikh American community did not find the insinuation of Romney’s wealth and ownership and the image of the Golden Temple very funny. The implication that the center of Sikh faith and center of charity was viewed as a luxurious vacation home was viewed as racist and derogatory. An online petition was launched over Jay Leno’s sketch. BBC World News reported Indian-American, Randeep Dhillon, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Leno, stating Leno’s sketch “clearly exposes plaintiff, other Sikhs and their religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it falsely portrays the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh”.

India’s Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, found it “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable.” The US State department weighed in on the controversary. US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US Constitution strictly protected freedom of speech and commented that Leno’s remarks were “satirical in nature.”  She also emphasized the US had “absolute respect” for all Indians, including Sikhs, and that President Barack Obama was the first president to celebrate the birthday of the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, at the White House.

So I searched the internet to find how others felt about the sketch. I came across the blogger Rupinder Mohan Singh‘s very insightful blog “American Turban: A Discussion about the Sikh American Experience”, about his observations about the treatment of himself and other Sikh Americans around the United States. Singh makes the suggestion that this misstep, should be seen as an opportunity to have an open discussion as to what it means to be Sikh in a 9/11 world.

Singh wrote:

“Jay Leno’s bit was our chance to welcome the public into our world to educate people in a positive way about what Darbar Sahib is and stands for. We have lost that opportunity and, instead, we have demonstrated that we are a close-minded, short-sighted and paranoid group of people.  For many, the real comedy is now not the joke that Jay Leno told, but the response to it by Sikhs and Indian politicians.”

In a response to a comment on his blog, Singh writes that Jay Leno is in business to mock. He’s a comedian. So why not choose other religious site like the Udupi Sri Krishna Matha, or the Vatican, or the the Masjid al-Haram or the Mormon Temple?

What are your thoughts on this topic? Post comments below or on our Facebook Page.

Rajshree Solanki is the Registration Specialist for Loans at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Current Events, Entertainment


It Must Be That Time of Year!

by Rajshree Solanki

“Raj! Lauren was taught a song at school,” Lauren peeked behind her grandmother’s legs and sheepishly looked at me.  “Her friend’s mother came into class and taught them an Indian song.  Lauren, would you like to sing it to Raj?”

Five year old Lauren nodded slightly and came from around her grandmother’s legs. She couldn’t look at me. She had to look at her grandmother while singing to me the Hindi song.

“Wow! She taught you that?” I was impressed.

Lauren’s grandmother piped up for the shy blondish girl, “Yes, apparently it’s children’s ‘Indian song’.”

Just the other day, I received an email from a colleague that her daughter, who is African American, is giving a presentation on languages spoken in India and had to bring in an Indian dessert.  She needed advice on where to get an Indian dessert.  She wrote that her daughter tried to convince her that blueberry muffins came from India.  No, definitely not!  I then sent her links to Indian grocery stores in the area.

It must be that time of the year again!  May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!

Sushmita  Mazumdar

Sushmita Mazumdar and one of her handmade storybooks.

Various units at the Smithsonian Institution, along with the Asian Pacific American Program, is celebrating throughout the month with performances, talks, tours and family programs at the National Museum of American History and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  And it’s all free!

For the Family Festival celebrating APA Heritage Month, local book artist Sushmita Mazumdar was invited to show children and their families how to make a “family storybook”.  Sushmita leads workshops teaching the young and old on storytelling and book arts in the D.C. area.

It started when her 4-year-old son came back from a day at preschool and wanted a turkey sandwich with orange cheese. It made her realize that her son will have an entirely different childhood in the United States versus that of her childhood in India. She wanted to connect with her son on how she was raised and teach him about India. She decided to do this by using stories from her childhood.

Family Bookmaking

A multi-generational family making storybooks.

Sushmita remarked, “Parents have a block telling their stories. People forget where they came from.  And their children are growing up differently.”

As a graphic designer, she decided to incorporate bookmaking to aid in making the story more personal.  It was a way to start a dialogue about cultural differences and similarities between growing up in India and growing up in the United States.  Her son, who is now 9 years old, corrects her pronunciation and asks her why she drinks so much chai instead of coffee.  She takes it in stride and wrote a poem called At Cha o’ Clock.  Her son did the artwork for the poem.


Mother and daughter making books at the APA Heritage Month Family Festival (National Museum of American History).

The making of these storybooks provides an opportunity for parents and their children to share perspectives.  Sushmita sends her books to her mother in India, which then triggers memories and responses that normally begin with her mother saying, “I cannot believe you remembered that!”

The program focused on “Kitchen Stories” using handmade paper made out of mango leaves and cinnamon sticks for binding.  You don’t have to be an artist or storyteller; Sushmita always helps you through the process of writing and designing your own book.


Handmade storybooks.

The Family Festival was held on Saturday, May 7, 2011 at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Rajshree Solanki is the Registration Specialist for Loans at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.


Posted by on May 9, 2011 in Family


Dr. Mehta Found a Lump

by Rajshree Solanki

Dr. Mehta found a lump my mom’s breast. I just found this out after calling my sister to wish her a happy birthday.

“Did Dad tell you that Mom is going to Surgical Associates tomorrow because of a lump in her breast?


“Dr. Mehta found a lump and decided to send Mom for a follow up. I’m not sure if they are doing an ultrasound or biopsy. I had to go a few months ago myself, but everything turned out to be fine.”

“What!?! Doesn’t anyone tell me anything anymore? So you’re not sure what she is going in for?”

My relationship with my mother is best described as contentious. As a kid, I would try always to undermine my mother’s authority. She would make roti and saag. I would scream that I wanted McDonald’s. She would dress me in a gifted salwar kameez from India with the matching bangles and necklace. I would pout and then run off to put on a pair of jeans. My mother’s English is broken with a thick accent. I was embarrassed when she would talk to my classmates, teachers, coaches, or anyone. People didn’t understand what she said and would look at me to “translate.” But I realize now, it couldn’t have been easy for my mom.

Raj in Indian garb.

Mom and Dad married in India in 1970. Dad was living and going to school in the U.S. in the late 1960s. He returned home to get married and bring his new bride to the U.S. They were introduced by my mom’s oldest sister and were married in my mom’s family compound in Rajkot. I’ve looked through their black and white wedding album dozens of times, and I keep stopping at a picture of my mom sitting at the edge of a mat.

Raj's mom in her wedding sari.

She is wearing her wedding sari and matching bridal jewelry holding a dish in her lap. She is looking off in the distance. She had to have had mixed emotions about her impending move to the U.S.

Getting married and then moving to the other side of the world had to be a scary and, at the same time, exciting experience. I keep looking at that image hoping to delve into my mom’s thoughts. What was she thinking?

To move here, there would be sacrifices. Communication would be sporadic from India. Letters would be the main source of news about births, deaths, and marriages, with the occasional phone call from village phone. It had to be hard to hear the news from a letter. It had to be even harder to hear that familiar voice on the other end of the phone and realize they were not down the block or in the same time zone. It had to be hard to explain to a grocer what vegetable she was looking for or explain why she was returning a pair of pants to the clothing store. It had to hard for her to see her children deal with bullies and discrimination and then reject aspects of their own heritage.

“Ma, I just wanted to call. How are you?”

“Good. Good. Everything alright?” she said in her heavy accent.

“I’m good. I was checking on you. I heard from Rakhi that you had to go to the doctor.”

She hesitated and responded, “Oh. Doctor Mehta found a lump in my breast. I have to go to see specialist.”

I have to wonder what my mom is thinking about right now.

Will she be able to explain how she feels to her doctor, to my dad, to her daughters?

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Posted by on October 7, 2010 in Family


I say American. You say I’m not: Part I

by Rajshree Solanki

“Where are you from?” is such an innocent question. People come from all over the place to work and live in DC. It’s a way to break the ice. I’ve been living in the DC area for 10 years, and when I hear that question, it seems innocent.

Is it really an innocent question? Depending on which part of the country I am in, I am suspicious of the true intent of the question.

I had gone to a Southern university in the 1990s, at which the majority of the student population was white or black. Those “in between” stuck out. There was a small Indian student population, which was made up of mostly students who came over from India to study.

I was asked often, “Where are you from?”

I responded, “Connecticut.”

“No. Really, where are you from?”


“I meant your family…”

“India. But my family lives in Connecticut.”

“Oh. That’s so nice. When are you going back?”

“To Connecticut?”

“No. To India?”



Is it an easy way to categorize me? Put me in a nice neat little package and say, “Indian” and then dispel my American identity. I’m curious about your thoughts on the topic.

How do you respond when asked “Where are you from”?

Check out Tell Me More’s Blog entry on the topic.


Posted by on September 21, 2010 in Diversity


Something to Chew On…

by Rajshree Solanki

Photo by Bandita. Licensed by Creative Commons Attribition-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

I’ve noticed around the DC area that more people are bringing in their lunches in tiffins. Tiffins have become an eco-friendly, hip way of bringing your curry chicken salad sandwich. For me, a tiffin just reminds me of my childhood and feeling different from everyone else. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the character Toula describes how she knew she was different and wanting to fit in the world of blond girls sitting around the table and eating their wonder bread sandwiches. The 6-year-old Toula brought in moussaka in tupperware. Change that moussaka to something Indian in a tiffin, and that’s me.

So I ask you:

Do you remember the time when your mom made peas and potato curry for your basketball team’s potluck?
Do you remember no one touched it?

Do you remember the time when your mom made you bring in your tiffin, which had your initials engraved in shakey handwriting? And the kids pulled out their My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake thermoses out of their matching metal lunchboxes?

Photo by nickd licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Do you remember when your dad made you bring in the puffy rice crisps that are fried and multicolored instead of cupcakes or cookies to pass out for your birthday?

Did you feel embarrassed, angry, not so hungry? Unsure of your place in elementary school world? How did it make you grow and change?

Photo of tiffin lunch by Bandita Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Photo of lunch boxes by nickd Attribution 2.0 Generic


Posted by on August 16, 2010 in Food


The Peabody Essex Museum and the Indian American Community: A Case Study on Community Consultation

by Rajshree Solanki

The Peabody Essex Museum and the Indian American Community: A Case Study on Community Consultation

I had gone up to Salem, Mass., for work and was lucky enough to have some time to stroll around the Peabody Essex Museum’s India Gallery.

Upon entry to the exhibition Faces of Devotion: Indian Sculpture from the Figiel Collection, I was greeted by bronze sculptures of Shiva and Durga dressed in the Hindu custom. I was struck by the care of the dressing, the ornate garlands draped around the figures’ necks, and tikkas adorned on their foreheads. The placement of the vestments was something I’ve not seen in a museum space since Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion. (Check out the online version of this exhibition from Freer-Sackler). It evoked a feeling of entering a temple. Flanking on either side of the Shiva Linga were two signs indicating that a Hindu Priest did the dressings.

This piqued my curiosity.

The idea of community consultation is not a new one in the museum world. But it is a progressive one. It creates an opportunity for curators, conservators, other museum professionals to gain insider knowledge to objects.

Dr. Susan Bean, curator of Indian and Korean art for over 20 years at the Peabody Essex Museum, and guest curator Cathleen Cummings wanted to focus the exhibition on a recently acquired collection of ritual bronzes from Karnataka, India. The bronzes are of the ritualistic folk-art tradition of western and southern India between the 1500s and 1800s. Dr. Bean wanted to focus on the regional aspect of Hindu religious art and to present the ritual bronzes within the context they would normally be seen.

Understanding the sensitive and religious nature of these bronzes, Dr. Bean sought help from the local Hindu community and found a priest who happened to be from Karnataka. She also worked with a Hindu member of museum board overseers. Whatever information passed on from the priest was captured through video and handwritten notes. Dr. Bean may know how to wrap a sari, but she had never seen a priest wrap a sari around an image before. She said they were “[…] not trying to make the gallery a temple, but fill out the aesthetic concept.”

I was so impressed by the tikkas on the foreheads of the images. As a not-so-practicing Hindu, it strikes a religious cord within me and gave authenticity to objects. As a museum professional who works with collections, I freaked out. Tikkas on museum objects. YIKES. So, I asked her about the tikkas on the foreheads of the images. Were they done by the priest? What would the conservator say or do about this request?

She said, “The tikkas were applied by our conservator (!). We hadn’t thought about tikkas at all, but once the images were ‘dressed,’ both our Hindu advisers and helpers thought they didn’t look quite right and really needed tikkas. So, Cathleen Cummings, the guest curator, provided some photographs of enshrined images with tikkas. We had to have the conservator do it, because, as you well know, we had to be really careful that the substances applied would not damage the surface of the metal.”

From this experience, I asked if she would do this again. Dr. Bean stressed that she “endeavor to make that happen.”

If you’re in Salem and tired of looking at witches and broomsticks, check out the Faces of Devotion: Indian Sculpture from the Figiel Collection. The exhibition is open till January 2012.

Also if you happen to be in Salem in April, the Peabody Essex Museum celebrates the arts and culture of India in a weekend-long festival called Sensational India! It brings local groups to do demonstrations, performances and lectures by Mira Nair, James Ivory, and more recently, Madhur Jaffery.

Thanks to Dr. Susan Bean and Karen Karmer Russell from the Peabody Essex Museum.

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Posted by on August 4, 2010 in Exhibitions


Vox: Prejudices in Sound

by Rajshree Solanki

So what’s in a voice?

Does your demeanor change when you hear on the other end of the phone a person with an Indian accent helping your computer, banking, or other issues?

An Indian Call Center. Image transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:IngerAlHaosului using CommonsHelper.

Indian people are fully aware of what their accents sound like. Because of that, my dad chose to not teach my sister and me our ethnic language. He thought speaking our language would have an adverse effect on our lives. He felt an accent can only hold us back in careers or other opportunities. Teachers at my elementary school had told my dad that speaking another language in the home only confused me and caused delays in reading comprehension. If only my dad did not listen to them.

So what’s in a voice?

My voice is nasally. Yankee-ish with an occasionally tinge of a Southern accent.

My sister’s voice is smoky and heavy like that of old Long Island mother.

If you were to hear our voices, you wouldn’t even be able tell we were Indian Americans.

Prior to moving to the DC area, I was looking for a place to live and responded to an ad in the paper. When I got on the phone with the guy renting out the room, we chatted about the neighbors and the location.

“A lot of younger hipsters are moving into the area,” he said.

“That sounds great!” I said, looking forward to my move.

“Can I tell you how refreshing it is talk to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from Punjab. You know the Patel, Singhs, Punjabs folks.”

I was quite taken aback by what he said. Did I not mention my name?

“Oh you mean dubbadubbadubba,” putting my worst impression of my mother’s accent.

“That’s right! Exactly!”

“Well, I’m one of them.”


Needless to say, I didn’t get the room.

So what’s in a voice?

Not teaching my sister and me our family’s language did have an adverse effect. I lost out on countless conversations with family in India, inside jokes with friends, and, most importantly, talks with my grandmother. Conversations between her and me were one-sided; mostly, it was her telling me to get married. Perhaps I won on this. But it is embarrassing when you, as 32-year-old adult, have to have your 12-year-old cousin translate for you.

I lost out.

So what’s in a voice?

We have stereotypes that we don’t even know we have.

When you pick up the phone, and you’re talking to that person at the other end, does your demeanor change?

When you hear an Indian accent, what do you do? Does it make you angry or curious?

I was listening to a local DC radio station on my way to work. The topic was on the National Spell Bee, and they were planning a fantasy bee bracket. The hosts talked about their top picks would be any of the Indian American participants. A person who was Indian American called in and talked about the importance of education in the Indian American community.

The host then said, “Wow. You speak really good English.”

Um… thanks.


Posted by on June 9, 2010 in Social Issues