HomeSpun, Indian American, Staff Update

Pawan Dhingra’s Latest Book

Life Behind the Lobby by Pawan Dhingra

By Aaron Sayama, Summer 2012 Intern

Pawan Dhingra is the founding curator for the HomeSpun: Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project and is the Chair of the Department of Sociology at Tufts University. His latest book, Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream, examines the relationship between the Indian American motelier and the idea of American exceptionalism.

Drawing from first-hand field research, Dr. Dhingra fuses Indian American motelier narratives with various theoretical perspectives to create a balanced and full portrayal of Indian Americans in the motel industry. Dr. Dhingra deftly explores the different means Indian Americans create professional appearances to sustain the growth of their local businesses.

The book concludes with Dr. Dhingra calling for the reassessment of three main threads uncovered while conducting research: the narratives of success, immigrant adaptation, and regionalism. These threads of research follow traditional and received logic about how and why immigrants succeed within America: the utilization of ethnic networks, the notion that attainment—of education, of income—leads to adaptation, and the role regions play in constructing the lives of immigrants. Indeed, Dhingra’s insightful call for a more nuanced approach to how “immigrants construct meanings about and navigate their environment” leaves open the door to more scholarship that complicates the traditional, vertical trajectory of the entrepreneurial immigrant.

HomeSpun, Indian American

Happy Diwali!

Diwali at the Mandir by Amyn Kassam

Above: Diwali celebrations at the Mandir (Hindu temple) in Missouri City, Texas. Photo by Amyn Kassam (Flickr).

Diwali, the festival of lights, was celebrated by more than 2 million American Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs on October 26, 2011.  It’s observed on the last day of the lunar calendar to celebrate the beginning of a new year. A traditional candle or “diya” is lit to symbolize victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.

From the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program (APAP), we wish you and your family a Happy Diwali and a prosperous New Year!

HomeSpun is a national initiative of the APAP chronicling the stories of immigrants from India and later generations in the US.  Share your favorite Diwali memories on HomeSpun’s Facebook page.

Note: Photo above is from Flickr, a photo sharing website, within the photographer’s specified creative commons license conditions of use. 

HomeSpun, Indian American, Intern Update

“Sim Sim Salabim!” Insight into Indian Mysticism

By Ted Young, Summer 2011 HomeSpun intern.

If I relied on nothing else other than popular culture to inform me about Indians and Indian Americans I would think that they all have mystical powers somehow related to their religious beliefs… Oh yeah, also they love to dance. Until this summer, when I started doing research for HomeSpun, I never really questioned where these images came from. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but as critical as I am as a Chinese American of the representation of my own ethnic group in the media, I really did not question the ones I saw of Indian Americans. I just accepted that all Indians and Indian Americans had some form of superpower.

Interning here at the Smithsonian APA Program and doing research for the HomeSpun project has opened my eyes to just how ingrained these mystic Indian ideas were in my mind. While researching a range of topics for HomeSpun, from the history of the American circus to the Microsoft Cricket Club, I have been completely fascinated by how India has captured the American imagination.

Indians have long been associated with a certain level of mysticism and magic. Apparently, Indians were considered naturally mystical because 19th century American magicians could not figure out the “Indian Rope Trick” where you can watch here. Though accounts of this trick vary, the basic trick is when the magician makes a rope go up vertically and has a boy climb it. The more outrageous versions of the story have the magician climbing the rope after the boy, cutting him up, and then putting him back together. Despite the numerous published accounts of this trick, audiences have traveled to India to observe it themselves, and huge monetary offers made to learn the secret, American magicians could not figure out how the trick was done. Some tried to explain it as hypnotism while others went as far to claim the trick did not even exist!  While the part about the boy disappearing or being cut up and put together is clearly a stretch, to put it mildly, the basic trick of making the rope stand up straight is not. While American magicians could not figure out how this trick was done, they still brushed the trick off as amateur. However, this never stopped them from pursuing ways of imitating it in the United States. The elusiveness of the trick’s secret just increased the trick’s mysticism and the sense of magic and mystery of India.

The mystery and magic associated with India is as embedded in America as deeply as apple pie. From Johnny Quest to Johnny Carson, American cultural icons have been able to tap into the realm of magic by associating with Indians. Jonny Quest had his Hadji, Carson had his Carnac, and even today Homer Simpson has his Apu. The relation between Indians and mysticism transcends generations. Apparently, secrets remain in India that they just won’t share with the rest of us. It allows them to make rope grow into the air, grants them psychic powers, and as any devote Simpsons fan will tell you, allows them to succeed in the realms of small business.

Hadji from Jonny Quest, Johnny Carson as "Carnic", and Apu from The Simpsons.

Hadji from Jonny Quest, Johnny Carson as "Carnic", and Apu from The Simpsons.

The frustration of not being able to figure out one magic trick is just a small glimpse of the legacy of Indian mysticism in American culture. Personally, I do not even think that the trick is all that impressive, but that could be because I have grown up in an age of computer generated special effects. Seeing a rope stand up by itself does not hold a candle to giant transforming robots fighting each other or Robert Downey Jr. flying around and blowing stuff up or even my smart phone for that matter. Still, the impact of this one trick on American popular culture is astounding. Besides, I still cannot figure out how it’s done.

“Sim Sim Salabim” is what Hadji would say to do magic on the Jonny Quest television show. It has no real meaning or ties to any language.

HomeSpun, Indian American

The Scripps Spelling Bee and Indian Americans

Sukanya Roy, winner of the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee

Sukanya Roy, winner of the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee.
Photos by Pawan Dhingra, Smithsonian APA Program.

Pawan Dhingra, HomeSpun curator, attended the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee to collect important stories about the Indian American lifeHere, he reflects on his two-day experience and discusses the history of Indian American youths who have stood out at this competition.

Sukanya’s tall, thin frame trembled a bit for the first time all night, as she enunciated her final set of letters: c-y-m-o-t-r-i-c-h-o-u-s. Yet, her long hair continued to fall straight down, a fitting sign of control over the word she had just spelled, which means having wavy hair. With that final word correctly spelled, Sukanya Roy had just won the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Overwhelmed with excitement and exhaustion, she had an uncontrollable smile as she accepted her trophy, live on ESPN.

It had been a long night, around 11pm, that had started with thirteen finalists at 8:30pm. Each, along with the other 262 competitors at this years’ Bee, had already proven themselves formidable spellers as well as friendly competitors. As they asked one another to sign their Bee photobooks, ran through the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside of Washington DC, and went up to the podium to spell words I could not even pronounce, they seemed a focused yet joyous bunch. As one spelled a word correctly, he would be greeted by high-fives from his competitors as he sat back down. When a word was spelled incorrectly, it was not just the parents who showed signs of grief; other spellers did as well. The competition had brought them closer together.

The contestants were almost an equal number of boys and girls, came from all over the country and from other parts of the world, and ranged in ages from eight to fifteen. Of this wide range of impressive youth, one trend stood out to me: the over-representation of Indian American participants. For instance, of the final thirteen, seven were Indian American. Sukanya became the fourth Indian American in a row to win the championship, and the eighth in the past twelve competitions. The first Indian American to win was Balu Natarajan in 1985.

Answers abound to the question of why Indian Americans dominate spelling bees. Rather than focus on that question here, what is also noteworthy is the highly competitive dimension to the Spelling Bee. While often framed as simply studious or even as geeks, these contestants have much in common with athletes. They put in hours of preparation; they go through rounds of competitions; they compete on a national stage for money and fame; and they take winning seriously. It is not a coincidence that the Spelling Bee is broadcast live on ESPN. And like other major league champions, Sukanya and her family were awarded with a visit to the White House and a meeting with the President.

Spelling Bees clearly have become a significant part of Indian American youths’ extracurricular activities. For the Roy’s, however, it seems to be coming to a close. As a past winner, Sukanya cannot participate again. And as an only child, it may be another Indian American family hosting the trophy next year. In any case, the youth who take part will deserve applause and then some well-earned rest.

HomeSpun, Indian American, Staff Update

HomeSpun Update: Introducing Curator Pawan Dhingra

Dr. Pawan Dhingra

Photo by Jenn Manna

Welcome to Dr. Pawan Dhingra, Curator for the HomeSpun: Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program is proud to bring on board Dr. Pawan Dhingra who will take the lead in presenting the story of Indian Americans to the Smithsonian and to Americans of all backgrounds and generations. He brings a wealth of scholarship with him to the APA Program’s HomeSpun Project. To download the official announcement, click here.

Message from Dr. Dhingra:

I am excited to join the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institution and to serve as curator for the HomeSpun Project. Hiring a curator has been a long–awaited task for the project, and this is one more step towards its fruition. I come to the Smithsonian from Oberlin College, in Oberlin, OH, where I have been an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies. I have published and taught on the experiences of Asian Americans, with a focus on Indian Americans. This includes my book, Managing Multicultural Lives: Asian American Professionals and the Challenge of Multiple Identities (Stanford University Press, 2007), which won an award from the Association for Asian American Studies.

More than is possible within academic spaces, HomeSpun will help the public recognize the history, struggles, and creative contributions of Indian Americans. The current plan is to have the exhibition debut at the Smithsonian by late 2012 and then travel to cities across the country. In addition to the exhibition, there will be public programs, a website, and a middle school curriculum guide.

HomeSpun depends on the contributions and energy of community members. If you know of any objects or recordings you consider significant to the Indian American story, please let us know. We hope to collect an archive of materials that can be preserved and incorporated into the Smithsonian for decades to come. And, please consider making a tax-deductable donation to HomeSpun. This initiative depends greatly on resources from individuals!

The work of so many people has laid the foundation of the project. I look forward to the challenges and opportunities lying ahead. If you have suggestions for or questions about the project, please do not hesitate to contact me at

Chinese American, Event, Film, Indian American, Literary, South Asian

SALTAF 2010, South Asian Literary and Theatre Arts Festival Recap

South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival 2010

Co-Chairs: Kiran Meegada, Latha Reddy, Mridula Srinivasan

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and NetSAP-DC presented the tenth annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF). The partnership between NetSAP and the Smithsonian has established SALTAF as a premier showcase for South Asian-themed literary and theater arts in North America.

This past festival’s schedule can be found if you click here.

SALTAF 2010 | Photo by Manish Alimchandani

This year’s festival featured panel discussions, readings, and film screenings by internationally acclaimed writers and artists, including:

  • Award-winning writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the bestselling author of Arranged Marriage, One Amazing Thing, and other novels which focus on the themes of women, immigration, and the South Asian experience. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
  • Born in Sri Lanka and educated at Oxford, the San Francisco-based poet Pireeni Sundaralingam is a PEN USA Rosenthal Fellow. She is also the editor of the first anthology of contemporary South Asian American poetry, Indivisible, as well as the author of the forthcoming Margin Lands.
  • Writer and artist Naeem Mohaiemen‘s photography and video projects have shown at venues such as Laboral Center for Art & Technology and Zurich Shedhalle, and will show next at Sharjah Biennial 2011. He is editor of the just published Between Ashes and Hope: Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism.
  • Washington, DC-based journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of the acclaimed Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is National Editor at The Washington Post. He has written extensively on the Middle East and has been widely praised for his reporting on that region.
  • The San-Francisco-based writer, performer, and activist Canyon Sam, author of the 2010 PEN-award winning lyrical memoir Sky Train, has performed across the United States and Canada. Her creative nonfiction has been published in numerous periodicals and anthologies.

The two films showcased were:

Shakti Rising (Shakti Pirakkudhu), created in association with writer and director Usha Rajeswari of Prakriti Jiva Media, is a special tribute to the undying spirit and power of women throughout the world. Based on the true-life stories of a group of women from Madurai, India and their association with Madura Micro Finance Ltd., this inspirational film offers a case study of success and triumph.

Udaan, created in association with director Vikramaditya Motwane and producers Sanjay Singh, Anurag Kashyap, and Ronnie Screwvala, is a story about 17-year-old Rohan who is expelled from boarding school and returns home to his stern and abusive father. Rohan has dreams of becoming a writer but is instead forced to work in his father’s metalworks factory and attend engineering classes at a local university. From the ashes of conflict Rohan has to decide whether or not his dream of becoming a writer is too strong to give up.

See photos by Manish Alimchandani from this year’s event by clicking here.
See the original event listing by clicking here.

Event, Film, Indian American, Literary

SALTAF 2010, South Asian Literary and Theatre Arts Festival Program Schedule

South    Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival 2010

10:00 – 10:15 Registration
10:15 – 10:20 Opening remarks (Dr. Richard Kurin, Under Secretary of History, Art, and Culture & Acting Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program)
10:20 – 10:25 Introductory Remarks and Program Announcements by 2010 SALTAF co-chairs
10:30 – 11:30 Panel 1: Global (Dis)Placements
Canyon Sam
Naeem Mohaiemen
Rajiv Chandrasekaran

11:35 – 12:35 Book Signings by the Museum Book Store : Naeem, Rajiv, Canyon 

11:30 – 11:40 ~Break~ 

11:40 –  1:30 Movie 1: Shakti Rising 

1:30 – 1:50 Panel discussion with Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, Director – Usha Rajeswari 

1:50 – 2:00 ~Break~ 

2:00 – 2:55 Panel 2: The Poetics of Placement
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Pireeni Sundaralingam

2:55 – 3:00 ~Break~ 

3:00 – 4:00 Book Signings by the Museum Book Store: Chitra and Pireeni 

3:00 – 5:15 Movie 2: Udaan (Flight) Introduced by Director, Vikramaditya 

5:15 – 5:20 Closing Remarks
5:30 ~End~