Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation

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Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation is an exhibition currently running at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. — it showcases Indian-American culture, history and experiences. As reported by the BBC:

The curators from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center say it about the “history and contemporary experiences of Indian Americans as they have grown to be one of the more diverse and well-recognised communities in the United States”.

With a population of 2.8 million, Indian Americans are the third largest group among Asian Americans.

They are also among the wealthiest communities in the US, with a median annual household income of $88,000 (£52,900) compared with the national median of $49,800 (£29,900), according to one study.

And more than 70% of Indian American immigrants over 18 years of age speak English very well, compared with 53% of all Asian American immigrants.

The vast exhibition covers everything from Indian American food to yoga, engineers to cab drivers, and the LGBT community to hip hop.

In addition to the physical exhibit, the museum has also curated a fantastic digital collection that you can view from anywhere online, as well as a blog featuring interviews and insight from the artists and people involved with the project, and a collection of Indian American family portraits on Pinterest.

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There’s a lot of amazing context to explore – check it out!

These Ape Paintings Are Gangsta: The Mewar Ramayana

The Ramayana — “Rama’s journey” in Sanskrit — is one of the oldest written epics and a prominent pillar of Hindu literature and Desi culture. Most children grow up hearing tales of Prince Rama, either through books, comics, movies, or, like, B. in BRAHMAN/I, from relatives. The Ramayana is one of the Easter eggs in the DISPLACED HINDU GODS TRILOGY, and each play bears thematic links to the epic.

The Ramayana deals with the Hindu concept of duty, dharma, and, through the adventures of Prince Rama, readers or listeners learn how to behave virtuously and fulfill one’s duty. Rama himself is the seventh avatar of Vishnu, and thus displays the decorum and leadership expected of a warrior king, heroically defeating the ten-headed demon Ravana. The supporting characters include Sita, Rama’s devoted and faithful wife, Lakshmana; his loyal and brave brother, Hanuman; the Monkey King and Rama’s ally; and the hijras, who are rewarded for their fealty to Rama after waiting fourteen years in the forest for him to return from exile.

Each play in the trilogy either directly references or is inspired by Rama’s story. In BRAHMAN/I, B. resents identification with the “genetically stupid” hijras despite Auntie’s enthusiasm for them and instead prefers the “gangsta” Hanuman. But B.’s path to self-discovery includes fulfilling their duty to themselves and accepting that they are don’t have to fit into the dominant gender binary. B. casts their back-up musician J as Odysseus from the ancient Greek Odyssey, and at the end of the play, both characters have returned from a kind of outsider’s exile and learned to accept each other and themselves. Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu, struggles in THE CHRONICLES OF KALKI to come to terms with her present humanity and its attendant emotions that are an obstacle to fulfilling her duty to vanquish evil. She remembers her past incarnation as Rama and being “loved for doing so little.” Though SHIV’s direct reference to the Ramayana passes quickly (listen for the conversation about Vimanas — ancient flying machines), Shiv’s conflicting duties to honor the memory of her father while pursuing her own happiness reflect the Ramayana-inspired struggles with responsibilities in a world beyond binaries.

Aditi’s trilogy incorporates riffs on the Ramayana story, but hundreds of versions of the epic exist dating from the eleventh century to the present day for those wanting to read the original tale. One favorite we discovered is displayed online in the British Library’s virtual rare books exhibit. The Mewar Ramayana is a lavishly illustrated copy prepared for the Maharana Jagat Singh, who ruled the western Indian kingdom of Mewar in the seventeenth-century and whose family traced their lineage back to Prince Rama and the sun god. A team of artists created the book for the king, and it features over 450 full-color illustrations. The British Library digitized the manuscript and has created a clickable folio that readers can browse through.

The Mewar Ramayana has Easter eggs of its own: multispectral imaging during the digitazation process revealed multiple layers to the paintings that show the techniques used by the artists, as well as revisions and corrections painted over later. Below are some scans of the battle between Rama’s army and Ravana and include a secret appearance by the Trimurti. Check out the rest here!

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Becoming a Warrior: The Ramayana and Kalki Connection

KALKI

If you stay within this circle you’ll be safe.

If you leave the circle, nothing will ever be the same.

Young girls have a long literary heritage cast as damsels and victims. Fairy tale culture primes young girls to aspire to be the untouchable princess in the tower, waiting for the prince to rescue them from monsters, evil hags, and the presumable boredom that comes with being locked up in a castle for years. But as Girl 2 says, she hates waiting, and Aditi Kapil subverts the damsel-in-distress trope when bad-ass avatar of Vishnu Kalki rises out of the football field to vanquish adolescent evil in the guise of a high-school girl.

Both Girl 1 and 2 chafe at the powerlessness of being unpopular and mired in the high school hate machine. Kalki answers the girls’ need, tempting them with empowerment, and offering each the chance to take control of her identity and sexuality and become a warrior.

Prince Rama, one of the most popular Hindu icons and widely considered to be the ideal man.

Prince Rama, hero of the Ramayana and one of the most popular Hindu icons.

Kalki knows a thing or two about being a warrior – the beloved Prince Rama, like Kalki, is also an avatar of Vishnu and a powerful fighter. Both he and Kalki are incarnations of the same god, and Kalki even shares a memory with the girls about her time as Rama:

…The worst is when I’m human. I don’t like being human. Why do there have to be so many mistakes? I was a prince once. To be loved so much for doing so little. For being so flawed. It hurts.

The story of Prince Rama, as well as his lover Sita, is detailed in the Ramayana, one of the great epics of Hindu literature. In Brahman/i, B gives us a tongue-in-cheek version of the tale:

Bullet-point recap of the Ramayana:

Horrible ten-headed demon tries to take over the world!

Vishnu sends avatar in form of super-noble Prince Rama to save world!

Romantic comedy side-plot: Rama and Sita fall in love and get hitched, woohoo!

Oh no, Rama is banished due to horrible conniving second wife of clueless Dad!

Rama and Sita go to live in the forest … sudden segue into action flick: Sita is kidnapped by demon! Rama and side-kicks kick Demon ass, and Sita is rescued, woohoo! They return to Ayodhya as heroes!

I mean this story is like epic summer blockbuster awesome, I’m loving this shit!

Between Rama’s banishment and the action adventure that follows, Lakshman (his brother and side-kick) tries to keep Sita safe while he and Rama are hunting by drawing a circle around her that will prevent her from being harmed. The disguised demon tricks her out of the circle and holds her hostage in his lair. Rama rescues her but is not convinced that Sita has been faithful, so she is commanded to walk through a circle of fire to confirm her innocence. She does so, and remains untouched by the fire, proving herself so pure that not even a single flower petal in her hair was wilted by the heat of the flames. All’s well that ends well.

Rama and Sita

Rama and Sita

Aspects of this section of the Ramayana show up when Kalki corners Girl 2 in the library. In the sunny bower of books, she offers Girl 2 peacefulness and safety – a chance to stay in the circle and remain protected by a prince’s arrow as beasts lurk outside in the schoolyard. However, Girl 2 decides to step outside of the circle, choosing to take action rather than live a passive existence.

Girl 1 embodies another aspect of the Sita story – the trial by fire. Girl 1’s circle of fire takes the form of a mortifying incident in the schoolyard, as she’s surrounded by a ring of classmates pointing and laughing at her. This moment of humiliation purifies her, and is a test that serves as an important rite of passage.

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Sita in the circle of fire

In the play’s final moments, the girls stand united and powerful, now fully capable of saving themselves, while Kalki goes off to slay other demons. Kapil has created a contemporary Ramayana where girls can kick butt and vanquish evil without needing a male hero to rescue them at the end of the day.

PS: Another aspect of the Ramayana also connects with Brahman/i: when Rama and Sita returned home, they found the hijras waiting for them in the grove at the edge of the forest – they had waited fourteen years for the prince to return!

You can read the full story of the Ramayana at this link.  The story of the Sita’s abduction is in Canto III. A condensed version of the story is also available here.

“Jesus was an avatar too”

Kalki: …Technically, Jesus was an avatar too. I know it sounds like I’m taking credit for everything, but if I don’t toot my own horn, who’s gonna?

…..

Shaunaka Rishi Das, the Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and an ordained Hindu priest, wrote an excellent essay for the BBC about the place of Jesus in Hinduism. We’ve clipped an excerpt, below, or read the whole thing by clicking HERE.

“A saint from [the] Hindu tradition …Ishu, who was born in a cowshed, was visited by three holy men, performed many amazing miracles, walked on water and spoke a wonderful sermon on a mountain.

krishna-christYou see, in a sense, Hindus don’t really see Jesus as a Christian at all. (Of course Jesus didn’t either, because the term wasn’t used during His lifetime.) In Hindu thought, church or temple membership or belief is not as significant as spiritual practice, which in Sanskrit is called sadhana.

Then when we ask how we can see spirituality in Hindus, the answer comes: by behaviour and practice. We can ask are we humble, are we tolerant and are we non-violent? Can we control our senses and our mind? Are we aware of others’ suffering and are we willing to give up our comfort to help them? Looking at these criteria Jesus measures up as a Sadhu, a holy man. He preached a universal message, love of God and love of brother, which was beyond any sectarianism or selfishness. Jesus was one of those people who appealed from heart to heart, and that’s what makes him such a good Hindu Saint.

In my particular tradition, and among other Hindus, He is seen as much more, as an Avatar, specifically a Shaktavesha Avatar or an empowered incarnation. This means that God has sent Him to us for a specific mission to fulfill God’s will on earth.”