Category Archives: Current Events

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?


Amar Gopal Bose — An Audiophile Ahead of His Time

Photo from the Bose Corporation

By Nimita Uberoi and Kalyan Venkatraj, Summer 2013 interns

Have you ever heard a piece of recorded music so clearly and vividly that you felt you were at a live concert?  Chances are that this came about due to the refinement of speaker technologies by Indian American inventor Amar Gopal Bose.  Bose (b. 1929) passed away on July 12, leaving behind a legacy that included a 40-year research and development career in acoustics technology at MIT and the widely-recognized Bose Corporation, whose non-voting shares he donated to the university to further research and education.  Bose’s father, who campaigned for India’s independence from the British, arrived at Ellis Island in the 1920s with twenty dollars in his pocket, settling in Philadelphia with his mother, a schoolteacher of French-German ancestry. Bose recounts the racism his family endured there: “the prejudice was so bad in the United States at that time that a dark person with a white person would not be served in a restaurant.” (1)

At age 13, to supplement his family’s income, Bose enlisted school friends as co-workers in a home-based business repairing model trains and radios; thus began lifelong endeavors to better instrumental sound.  A doctoral degree from MIT and subsequent professorships there supported the founding of Bose Corporation,  “whose products can be found in Olympic stadiums, Broadway theatres, the Sistine Chapel, and the Space Shuttle (where his noise cancellation system protects the astronauts from permanent hearing damage).” (2) From changing the way we enjoy music to enhancing the safety of our vehicles, the corporation’s products mirror the maverick nature of its founder.

To learn more about other Indian American inventors, and their contributions to American history, visit the upcoming exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation towards the end of the year and through 2014 at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.


1. Bose, sound pioneer and solid teacher, falls silent

2. Amar Bose, Inventor of the Week

Nimita Uberoi, a rising junior at Brown University studying Political Science and Environmental Studies, and Kalyan Venkatraj, a rising senior at University of Texas-Austin studying Government and Ethnic Studies, are both interning with Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project this summer.


Intern Update: 2013 Indiaspora Inaugural Ball

Click on the image to view more photos.

By Sara Schreck, Spring 2013 intern

The Indiaspora Inaugural Ball was a success and a chance to highlight Indian American accomplishments and presence in America under a long-deserved spotlight. Various VIPs glided along the red carpet and spoke into waiting microphones. It was a great debut party for Indian Americans, who—at 3 million strong—are becoming a political force in U.S. politics.

Among the VIP guests were Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate India Caucus; Congressman Joseph Crowley, co-chair at the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans; the Honorable Nirupama Rao, Indian Ambassador to the U.S.; and Congressman Ami Bera, a newly elected member from California. Indian Americans from all fields were represented such as technology, politics, government, academia, and business.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) was asked by the founder of Indiaspora, M.R. Rangaswami, to promote another first for Indian Americans: the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project, an initiative about an American story yet to be told—that of Indian immigrants and their descendants. The Project is anchored by a groundbreaking exhibition, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation. This exhibition takes visitors beyond the spectacle of Bollywood cinema, which is globally popular. Exotic and romantic stereotypes of India are broken by a rich history of Indian immigration to the U.S. and numerous ways in which Indian Americans have shaped America. Beyond Bollywood will open at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in late 2013.

The President did not attend the ball, but his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng (wife of Konrad Ng, APAC Director) made a surprise appearance. “It is certainly a reflection of how important India is and how important Indian Americans are to the fabric of this nation. I would just like to celebrate all of the contributions—artistic, political, and so much more of the community,” she remarked. A video clip of her response can be viewed here at 04:25.

APAC staff and interns were available at an information table to answer questions and introduce the exhibition to ball attendees. There was also an opportunity for attendees to enter a sweepstakes to win a private exhibition tour of Beyond Bollywood. A banner featuring an iconic photograph of the first Asian American Congressman, Dalip Singh Saund (with then Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) was near the table for guests to pose with. To see photographs from the evening, click here.

To learn more about the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project and Beyond Bollywood, please visit

While federal funding is a mainstay of the Smithsonian, the Asian Pacific American Center receives no direct funds from Congress and relies on financial donations to fund its initiatives, including the Indian American Heritage Project. If you would like to make a donation to the Project, visit It is fast, easy, and secure!


Walking Through an Open Door

Left: Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman-elect for Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district.  Right: Mazie Hirono, United States Senator-elect for Hawaii.

by Priya Chhaya

Being the first at anything is always a challenge, especially when it involves breaking glass ceilings.

This January when the new members of the House of Representatives are sworn into the 113th Congress there will be something new, when the first Buddhist in the Senate and the first Hindu in the House are sworn in. Neither Mazie Hirono or Tulsi Gabbard are of South Asian descent, but they are both part of integral religions in the South Asian culture.

I first heard about Tulsi Gabbard a few months ago during one of the local morning Indian television shows. At that time, I remembered thinking idly how nice it would be to have a representative that was a part of my faith—without actually analyzing my reasons for it.

And now I am asking myself the question: So what?

On one hand Gabbard and Hirono will be representing their state of Hawaii, while also voting on issues of importance to the whole country. On the other hand, like many of us in our day-to-day jobs, they wear different hats that are a part of their own individual identity.  These hats, so to speak, influence how they look at issues and think about how citizens interact with one another.

I see it as further evidence that congressional make up will soon be just as diverse as the country that it represents. At a time when our political options seem to be limited having fresh voices, and individuals who come from varied backgrounds, can only help in our decision making processes.

But as an Indian American and a Hindu? Having Gabbard in Congress is one more way that my perspective is addressed more directly. And, being honest with myself, she becomes a spokesperson for one element of my culture that is beyond the now mainstream singing and dancing of Bollywood. She also represents looking beyond stereotypes. To see how someone can represent the issues of the South Asian community, share some of our belief systems, without actually being South Asian.

It’s a lot of pressure for one person to achieve the “first” moniker.

So I guess the answer to my “so what” question is this: as barriers are broken and individuals like Hirono and Gabbard take steps into august halls of the United States Congress they become a proverbial open door. Their success makes it clear that others from every corner of the nation can walk on through and be a part of the governing fabric.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


IAHP Co-Sponsors Screening of Play Like a Lion

Curator Masum Momaya welcomes guests at the film screening for Play Like a Lion at the Embassy of India, Washington DC. Click here to download a PDF of the November 2012 issue of India Review featuring the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project.


Ami Bera: Another Indian American Elected to Congress

Ami Bera with President Bill Clinton.

By Lavina Melwani
All photos are from Ami Bera’s website.

Indian Americans finally have a presence in  the US Congress – Ami Bera, MD, is the new Congressman-Elect from California’s 7th Congressional District. I had interviewed him some months back when he was running a hard-fought race against the incumbent Congressman Dan Lungren, who conceded today.

“Career politicians have lined their pockets with special interest money and turned their backs on the values that made our country great—and now we’re left to pay the price for their government malpractice,” says Dr. Ami Bera. “This is why I am taking a new oath, like the one I took to become a Doctor, to put people first.”

In fact, on his Bera For Congress site, the good doctor takes some unusual pledges: Not to take a Congressional pension until Medicare and Social Security are secure for all Americans; To sponsor No Budget, No Pay—a law that says if Congress doesn’t do their job and pass a responsible budget, they don’t get paid. And he puts his foot down on traveling first class on the taxpayers’ dollars.

For Ami Bera, serving people has been an important part of who he is, and he is ever conscious of the need to give back to a country which embraced his immigrant family. While he grew up in California, his father crossed the oceans from a farming family in Rajkot near Ahmedabad, Gujarat for a higher education in America. “My father was the first in his family to go to high school,” he says. “He got a master’s in engineering and my mother became a teacher.”

Like many immigrant families, theirs’ was a close-knit family with a lot of emphasis on education, hard work. His father ran a small commercial real estate business, and inculcated the values for a strong work ethic in his children.  “There was a strong family support and strong community support,” he recalls. “And also a keen appreciation of the opportunities America offered.”

India in America

Ami Bera with his family.

The children were expected to pitch in and lend a hand. “Once we finished our school work often we’d spend our time going out and working hard,” he recalls. ” One summer, we paved the parking lot. It gave us the appreciation of how hard that labor is and how hard people work and it was an extreme motivator to continue to better ourselves. Like any small business family, we worked at this together.”

After going to excellent public schools and medical school, Bera went on to became Chief Medical Officer of Sacramento County. He also was Dean of Admissions and a clinical professor in UC Davis, teaching future physicians to deliver healthcare to the community.

He first ran for Congress in 2010, losing to his Republican opponent, incumbent Congressman Dan Lungren by a small margin. As The Wall Street Journal noted, “ This year, Mr. Bera is considered a serious opponent. While Mr. Lungren’s current district includes a huge swath of countryside and leans Republican, the redrawn congressional map puts him in a slightly Democratic-leaning district and gives Mr. Bera a shot at winning.”

Ask Bera why he is running for Congress and he cites the excellent education he received. “I’ve been fortunate in what this country has offered both me and my family. I’ve been blessed by good fortune and I think it is our obligation that the next generation has the same opportunities,” he says. “I’m making sure people have access to quality health care, making sure my daughter  has the ability to find meaningful employment and support herself, making sure that the US continues to be an economy that continues to expand and build for the next generation.”

Indian American Community – A seat at the table

Ami Bera with his constituents.

He feels involvement in political life is the natural progression for the Indian American community which now wants to give back to the US and have a seat at the table. Asked about his Indian heritage, Bera says it’s been an asset: ” I never run away from who I am, I actually run toward the values my family instilled in me.”

Bera’s campaign has been cited as the largest field organization for a Congressional race and is extremely well-run with lots of volunteers. “It’s how a campaign should be run – people talking to people, neighbors to neighbors.”

How is he perceived by the voters? “I think people see me as their neighbor. People are starved for authentic  leadership, people are hungry for electing leaders who are going to put their interest first and work on their behalf. And that’s what I’ve always done as a doctor.”

Ami Bera’s wife Janine is also a physician and the two have been married for 21 years.  They live in Elk Grove with their 14-year-old daughter who has also got involved in the political campaign, with her friends joining in to volunteer on the campaign trail.

Bera wants to nurture the relationship between India and America, especially the economic aspect. He says, “I would be looking to strengthen it in a way that is beneficial to both. India still has a lot of infrastructure needs and there is a real benefit for American companies to work with India to modernize its economy.”

For Bera, it is a special joy to work with the many young Indian Americans and Asians who volunteer in his campaign. “It is exciting to see the look in their eyes and if I can inspire them to run for office, for Congress, maybe even for President – then I think one can’t ask for any bigger legacy.”


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.


Diwali in the U.S.

Happy Diwali from the Indian American Heritage Project! Diwali is an auspicious and vibrant holiday for Indian Americans, marking the New Year and reminding us of the philosophical triumph of light over darkness. Here is a selection of images commemorating Diwali in the US. Some will be featured in our upcoming exhibition, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.

— Masum Momaya

Indian Americans – especially those of Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Sikh faith – have been celebrating diwali, the festival of lights, since the first communities settled here in the late 1800s. Photograph by Roup Hardowar.

The spiritual underpinnings of Diwali – which honor the triumph of light over darkness – were introduced to American audiences in 1893. That year, three men from the Indian subcontinent – Virchand Gandhi (a Jain), Anagarika Dharmapala (a Buddhist) and Swami Vivekananda (a Hindu) – introduced their respective philosophies at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

The US’ first gurudwara, built in Stockton, California in 1912, has served as a gathering place to celebrate many Indian holidays, including diwali, for 100 years. Photograph courtesy of Amelia Singh Neterwala.

Diwali commemorates the New Year for Indian Americans. Here, members of the Hindu Temple of Maple Grove, Minnesota mark the occasion in 2010 with a puja, or ritual offering to deities. Photograph by Baskar Gopalan.

In Jainism, the flame of the diya, or lamp, marks the liberation of the human soul after it has accounted for all its karma, or the consequences of thoughts and actions. Photograph courtesy of the Jain Center of Northern California.

In Buddhism, lighting the candle honors the path of the Buddha in attaining enlightenment. Here, Indian American Buddhists in Fremont, California, honor the Buddha in the presence of monks and nuns of the sangha, or congregation. Photograph by Brenda Walsh.

Indian Americans – especially those of Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Sikh faith – have been celebrating diwali, the festival of lights, since the first communities settled here in the late 1800s. Photograph by Roup Hardowar.

Indian Americans – especially those of Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Sikh faith – have been celebrating diwali, the festival of lights, since the first communities settled here in the late 1800s. Photograph by Roup Hardowar.

During Diwali, the homes of Indian Americans are adorned to welcome the New Year with rangoli of flowers, rice and diyas, or small lamps. Photograph by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier.