Arts and the diaspora


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WHO would have thought that the word diaspora, once inextricably linked with exile, loss and forced dislocation, and closely associated with the Jewish experience, would so substantially change its connotation as to become the generic term used to describe the South Asian migrant communities who have chosen to live away from their original homeland. An early study of diasporas, dating to 1986, defined the term as ‘the segment of a people living outside their homeland.’ Perhaps in recognition of the simplistic nature of this definition, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies was launched in New York in 1991. Its founding editor, Khachig Tololyan, recently reflected upon the choice of the word transnational in its subtitle, and commented that it is particularly suitable as ‘it contains the root term "nation", which was and remains indispensable to thinking about diasporas;’ certainly that is profoundly so with the South Asian diaspora.

In the United States today, one may justifiably speak of the South Asian communities as a ‘diaspora by design’.1 The post-1965 diaspora, and more particularly that of the last twenty years, is an intended dispersal; usually, though not invariably, it is the result of a deliberate decision to migrate, accompanied, of course, by the often unanticipated problems of territorial dislocation, and the equally unforeseen issues of relocation within a new cultural ethos. While the Indian diaspora’s links to the homeland are incredibly strong and while there is deep nostalgia for life as lived in the homeland, it is safe to say that only a token proportion of this ‘diaspora by design’ has any intention of returning to the homeland.

The financial circumstances in which much of the post-1965 diaspora finds itself allows its members the luxury of shuttling backwards and forwards between two ‘home’ countries, one of which affords them financial and job satisfaction, and the other the social and cultural support system that renews them to return to the US. With the availability of dual citizenship, a symbolic and formal procedure of deep significance for those who had perforce to renounce South Asian citizenship, the US diaspora seems set to live a comfortable hyphenated existence. Interestingly, the invariable intention to return to the homeland that was part of the original connotation of diaspora has changed even in the case of Jewish communities.

Much has been written on the differences between the pre- and post-1965 South Asian diasporas, especially in the arena of qualifications and social status. Undoubtedly, the post-1965 diaspora, part of the opening up of the US to highly qualified migrants from South Asia, changed the perception of Americans towards these communities which became an increasingly visible part of US multi-ethnic cities. The much-publicized California dotcom culture is part of this scenario.

Current American policy, once strongly geared towards assimilation, now appears to have moved towards an acceptance, even an embrace, of the concept of multiculturalism or pluralism. And reacting to this unstated, but patently palpable atmosphere, a range of diverse ethnic communities are reasserting their differences, all the way down to the emphasis, clearly audible on National Public Radio, on the authentic pronunciation of often complex diasporic names. If Sampath and Rajnikant had come to the US in the last decade or two, there would never have been a store abbreviated to ‘Sam & Raj’.



To speak of the diaspora and the arts, I should clarify what I mean by that somewhat nebulous term ‘art’. For the purposes of this article, the term refers largely to the so-called fine arts of sculpture and painting, both ancient and modern. Such art objects are initially purchased or sponsored by dealers and auction houses who exhibit them in their galleries; when acquired by private collectors or museums these objects move into displays in private homes or into the permanent collections of museums. They are the subject of public admiration, and of scrutiny and study by specialists in the field of art history, a discipline that is barely recognized in South Asia.

Architecture is a third distinct facet of the fine arts; while obviously not a collectible as such, architectural plans and drawings form part of museum collections. In addition, of course, the construction of monuments, especially of temples, mosques, and gurudwaras, is sponsored by both individuals and associations. While this essay perforce deals only with issues of consumption when speaking of ancient art, both the production and the consumption of art are of relevance with the contemporary. The immense field of the performing arts, music and dance, film and theatre, in which the diaspora displays considerable interest and direct involvement, is the subject of another essay.



The South Asian diaspora is marked by a strong pride in its cultural heritage, and a shared nostalgia for the activities that formed part of the experience of ‘home’ – festivals, fairs and food, music and dance, ceremonies and rituals, dress and adornment. In one way or another, South Asian communities have recreated the possibilities of experiencing all this in the US. Their temple building activities, in particular, are instances of the diaspora seeking its roots, a need to assert and emphasize a meaningful identity. There are a minimum of 450 Hindu temples in the US (some sources speak of over 600). Several are modest structures not identifiable from the exterior as ‘exotic’ buildings; architectural and sculptural detailing is often reserved for the interior alone.

But several major temples – 27 were featured in a recent book devoted to the US temples2 – herald their purpose unmistakably. A few temples like the Venkatesvara temple at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Ganapati temple in Flushing, New York, were consecrated in the 1970s, but the planning for the majority commenced in the 1980s with the escalating growth of the diaspora. The increasing awareness of the need for a structure that would cater to religious needs, function as a community centre, and serve as a focus for festivals, marriages, dance arangetrams, and the like, led to this explosion in building activities. The Hindu temple in the US has, in many ways, returned to its original function as the focus of sacred, cultural and social activities, much as the ancient temple, say the Meenakshi in Madurai, was in pre-colonial and even colonial times.



A majority of the US temples are based on the South Indian model with a gopuram gateway providing an imposing entrance into a walled enclosure that houses the main shrine or shrines. Part of the reason for this architectural preference seems to have arisen from the prominence gained by Ganapati Sthapathi and Mutthiah Sthapati, both doyens of South Indian architecture, who became renowned figures within India for their sculptural and architectural activities. They were also willing to travel to the US, work with members of the diaspora in the planning stages, and to send skilled workers from India, as well as pre-fabricated stone and bronze images for installation in the US temples. A growing number of diaspora architects are today part of such continuing building activities, often having started as junior collaborators of one of the two Indian sthapathis.

A welcome move to downplay sectarian differences is seen in the names of many temples. For instance, there is the Shiva-Vishnu temple in Lanham, Maryland, twelve miles from the centre of the nation’s capital, Washington DC, and the Shiva-Vishnu temple in Davie, Florida. Several other temples across the country identify themselves by state (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Southern California), or by city (Atlanta, Dayton), but merely title themselves ‘Hindu Temple’, ‘Hindu Temple Society’, ‘Hindu Community and Cultural Center’, ‘Hindu Samaj Temple’, ‘Hindu Community Organization’, and the like. Even when temples specify their dedication to Vishnu or Shiva, calling themselves the Ranganatha, the Venkatesvara, or the Meenakshi temple, they invariably contain shrines for an entire, often bewildering, range of deities. The heterogeneity of the diaspora is, quite obviously and understandably, a replication of the religious, linguistic, regional, and caste diversity of the homeland.



While the diaspora is substantially involved in the construction and support of temples, such patronage does not turn into a wider involvement with the ancient artistic tradition of pre-colonial India. The temple images, richly dressed and adorned with jewels and flowers, are approached by the devotee with devotion, and not as works of art. Images on the walls of the structure, usually modelled from stucco in the US temples, are indeed visible, but are not the object of viewing by any but the occasional American visitor. To view as ‘art’ figures from temples, frequently of sacred import, requires new ways of thinking that are not part of the diaspora’s immediate past experience.

So the generosity of the diaspora evident in the support of temple construction and embellishment is not forthcoming when it comes to enabling a museum’s purchase of an important ancient stone or bronze image for its collection or in sustaining the museum’s effort to mount a major exhibition of South Asian art.

Nor indeed, one might add, does the diaspora display interest in supporting university positions in the fields of fine arts, art history, literature, music, and the like, as against positions in economics or politics. At the same time, ‘cultural’ events are a priority. For instance, in 2003 the Association of Indians in America succeeded in persuading The White House to host the first celebration of the Hindu festival of diwali; further lobbying is directed towards having diwali declared an optional US holiday.



According to the 2000 Census, close to 1.7 million Indians and over 150,000 Pakistanis live in the US. Those who participated in the census questionnaire, which allowed multiple possibilities of evasion on questions of origin, are more willing to believe private surveys that estimate a total of four million South Asians in the US. Is this sizeable diaspora interested in participating in the cultural ethos of the US in which art and museums play a major role?

One in every 480 adults in the US, over the age of 18, is a museum volunteer, a somewhat startling fact that highlights the major role played by museums, which rank among the top three family vacation destinations. Statistics reveal that every day 2.3 million people visit some 16,000 museums that are devoted variously to explicating art, history, science, military and maritime issues, as also flora and fauna by way of zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens (AAM 2003). Art museums constitute a more rarefied world but even so, no less than 648 institutions fall into this category. While South Asian art is a relative newcomer to the museum scene, at the start of the 21st century a dozen or more museums in major cities possess significant collections of South Asian art, while increasing numbers of smaller institutions have started collecting in this under-represented area.

The prime purpose of museums across the world is, obviously, the acquisition, conservation and exhibition of the material cultures of people. South Asia’s rich ancient remains, its stone sculptures and bronze images, its miniature paintings and its decorative arts, have become sought-after acquisitions. Museums in the United States place considerable weight on the institution’s educational role and the need to communicate effectively with its audiences.

While the need to be centrally concerned with reception seems self-evident, museums have largely ignored the diaspora which could and should form a significant part of its constituency; the diaspora, in turn, has shown marked disinterest in visiting museums with South Asian collections. Why, it might be asked, should the diaspora take an interest in museums, with their displays that consist largely of numbers of damaged stone statues that once held pride of place on the walls of Hindu, Jain or Buddhist shrines? Or, indeed, of manuscript pages that were part of temple or palace collections? What relevance does this have for the diaspora?



Today it is widely recognized that museums and their exhibitions are not merely elegant sheltering spaces that present neutral or objective displays of objects; rather museums function as ‘valorizing agencies’ that give validity and authority to a culture through its displays. The act of choosing and displaying objects is a weighted decision and museums can be culturally and ideologically influential enterprises. Even the very banner hung in front of a museum is a case in point. When a major museum puts up a banner for an Asian art show that is one-sixth the size of the adjoining banner for a European exhibition, visitors see this as conveying institutional values. The gallery space given to a particular culture is often perceived by visitors, and indeed by museum staff, as highlighting the importance of one cultural complex at the expense of another. Even having an established, well-regarded curator in a particular curatorial field is perceived as a museum’s high regard for that field, and is usually viewed as being at the expense of some other area of expertise.



While I have referred to the South Asian diaspora as a single cosmopolitan community in the context of museum visitation, it is imperative to acknowledge the complex nature of the new cosmopolitanism/s. The diasporic community is incredibly diverse and includes not just the upper class elite whose circle of friends would include western museum-goers, but those from other strata of society to whom a museum visit is an unfamiliar concept.

With all the emphasis placed by newspapers like India Abroad on successful diasporic business men and women, political aspirants, government employees, lawyers, and the like, it may come as a surprise to find that a 2004 survey by the Asian American Federation reveals that one in five Indian American New Yorkers lives below the poverty line. And while slightly over half the Indian American adults in the city have a college degree, a quarter have not completed high school. ‘Art’ has a marginal role in many lives unless it be in the form of ‘calendar art’ which rarely forms part of an art museum collection, being considered more worthy of study in sociological, religious, or anthropological contexts.

To view as ‘art’ stone figures from temple walls, frequently of sacred import, requires new ways of thinking that are not part of immediate past experience. Such difficulties are faced not merely by those from the less wealthy segments of the diaspora. Those who have acquired success, wealth and status find themselves in the same conundrum; for many individuals, a 20th century bronze of, say god Krishna, is as good as the hugely expensive 14th century image that they have recently been persuaded into purchasing for their local museum.



It is interesting to note that two small-scale exhibitions mounted at the Sackler Gallery in 1995 and 1996 functioned, quite independent of curatorial or management intention, as sites of community building. ‘Puja: Aspects of Hindu Devotion’, displayed objects of cultural and ritual significance, both from the angle of the devotee and that of the art lover. The compact exhibition was tripartite and focused on the ritual worship of Shiva, Vishnu and Devi. It presented a temple shrine to Shiva, a home shrine to Vishnu and a wayside shrine to the goddess; each was presented first as a simulated sacred context, and then the three in-situ displays were juxtaposed with a standard museum-style presentation of similar objects as works of art.

Thus, the temple-shrine section of the exhibit commenced with a Shiva linga, dressed and adorned, and placed within a simulated shrine with trays of devotional offerings of fruit, flowers, and coconuts. The adjoining room provided a total contrast by displaying lingas, and mukhalingas, as works of art, placing them within glass cases with spotlights. The display proposed that the objects in the exhibition possessed equal validity in two very different contexts – as the focus of devotion, and the object of admiration as works of art. The exhibition was attended by large numbers of Washington area South Asian diaspora who had heard of the exhibit largely through their involvement with the Shiva-Vishnu temple in Lanham, Maryland, whose chief priest had ritually dressed the Shiva linga prior to the opening of the exhibition.

Young teens of South Asian origin found themselves perplexed, even confounded, by viewing in a Smithsonian display, objects similar to those in their parents’ homes where they were placed on kitchen or bedroom shelves, or in special puja rooms. For these teens feeling that ubiquitous, probably imagined, pressure to conform, it turned out to be a validation of cultural practices (of art too?) which they had hitherto faced with a degree of ambivalence if not actual discomfort. ‘Puja’ resonated with all levels – high, middle and low brow – of the cosmopolitan diaspora.



Another such experience was provided by ‘Painted Prayers’, an exhibition centering around a set of striking photographs of those ubiquitous threshold designs created by women in Indian homes, known variously as kolam, rangoli, alpana and the like. To emphasize the impermanent nature of these works of art, and their constant renewal, as also to stress their continuing relevance in India and overseas, women of the diasporic community were invited to create a different ‘painted prayer’ each weekend. A specially constructed large wooden platform, a foot high, was placed in an open area at the entrance to the show, and the creativity displayed by the local South Asian women attracted a substantial viewership.

This was an occasion tailor-made to stress Raymond William’s dictum that ‘culture is ordinary’, that Mughal miniature paintings, Vilayat Khan’s ragas, and Satyajit Ray’s films were no more ‘culture’ than women’s daily ‘art’, bhangra rock, or a Bollywood musical. Yet, in highlighting the fact that the designs held symbolic meaning and were viewed as harbingers of the auspicious, the exhibition simultaneously emphasized the view of culture as ‘the order of life in which human beings construct meaning through practices of symbolic representation.’3 Both ‘Puja’ and ‘Painted Prayers’ were successful in appealing to members of the diaspora.



A 2001 Sackler exhibition dedicated to the display of some of the most exquisite imagery created anywhere in the world – bronzes of the Chola period in South India – once again attempted to draw the diaspora into the museum. To supplement the curatorial voice and provide a different perspective on the bronzes, practising Hindus from the greater Washington area were interviewed and their voices featured in a series of wall text-panels placed throughout the exhibition. Their interventions were varied; some provided personal and devotional approaches to individual bronzes, others expressed perplexity at seeing sacred images in a museum and questioned its appropriateness. Here, one might say, was an experiment in how ‘the audience, a passive entity, becomes the community, an active agent.’4

In a further attempt to draw in visitors from the diaspora, who frequent the many Hindu temples in the greater Washington area but never visit the museum, the education department came up with an extensive outreach programme in which it identified a group of teens of South Asian background and trained them to be ‘exhibition guides’. It was determined that those members of the diaspora who would not normally visit the museum and attend a standard docent-led tour of Chola bronzes would indeed come to one ‘advertised’ in the temple and led by young people from their own community.



South Asian contemporary art, while constituting a recent entrant onto the US art market, with its auction houses and sales galleries, as well as the museum scene, has displayed an amazing vibrancy. In the last fifteen years, since Sotheby’s and Christie’s commenced their regular auctions of contemporary South Asian art, 20th century works have fetched high prices, and have begun to enter the precincts of museums. The artists whose works are auctioned are largely those who are established back home; younger artists are more often seen in the galleries of downtown New York. As yet, only one museum has a permanent gallery devoted to contemporary art, and that entirely because a local donor made a generous gift of a substantive part of his contemporary art collection.

In the field of private collectors, an interesting buyer profile has emerged that makes itself strikingly evident both during auction previews and in the auction room itself. Ancient art interests the white American collector while Americans of South Asian origin crowd into the contemporary displays. In fact, it is largely due to the buying power of South Asians that contemporary art today has a high enough profile for a handful of New York galleries, mostly in South Asian hands, to specialize in the contemporary. As a corollary, one might note that in the case of dealerships in ancient South Asian art, the balance tilts slightly in favour of white American ownership.



Today, increasing numbers of successful contemporary artists are members of the South Asian diaspora. Some emphasize their heritage, acknowledge their inspiration to the colours and cultures back home, and take pride in having exhibitions in South Asia. Others, while acknowledging their indebtedness to ancient traditions, seem to wish to emphasize their position as US or world artists. Their approach to the display of their works in specialized museums that display only Asian art, like the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, varies immensely. Some are delighted and consider it appropriate that their work be seen in the context of ancient art from South Asia. Others would prefer to display their work in museums of contemporary art, construing a display in an Asian art museum as a marginalization of their relevance.

What does the future hold, in terms of diasporic involvement with the arts of India, now that the US seems to have set aside the model of the melting pot that obliterated differences to create an indeterminate amalgam? Of course, there will always be a fresh wave of immigrants who can justifiably be described as diaspora. But what of that third generation, born in the US, more often than not with one American parent, for whom nostalgia for ‘back home’ is a distant theoretical issue? Will they continue to describe themselves as being of hyphenated origin? Children of the assimilation generation learned to value visits to exhibitions devoted to Impressionism and Cubism. Will the next generation turn, with greater or lesser interest, to a show on Chola bronzes?



1. Kamala Visweswaran, ‘Diaspora by Design: Flexible Citizenship and South Asians in US Racial Formations’, Diaspora 6:1, 1997.

2. Mahalingum Kolapen, Hindu Temples in North America: A Celebration of Life. Winter Park: Titan Graphics, 2002.

3. John Tomlinson, Globalization and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999: 18.

4. Ivan Karp, ‘Introduction’, in Ivan Karp et al., Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992: 12 (italics in original).