India and Black America

India and Black America have often been on intersecting paths, paths that have largely been ignored in the national discourses of both countries.

Example: the influence of a former Inner Temple lawyer from Gujarat upon the life and thinking of a young Black minister from Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been gripped by that story since 2006, and the resulting book will be out later this year.

But Black and Desi people share history along many dimensions, as this India Currents article demonstrates. Snippet:

…a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

The history of Indians in the US and Canada has been all about navigating the complexities of racialization.

And of course, there’s Kamala Harris, personifying an identity that went under the radar until now. Today, the Blindian Project celebrates Black and South Asian relationships.

All of which seems appropriate to think about, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in this still-new year.

Thumbu Sammy, 1911

The SAADA 2020 calendar began January with a striking image. It was taken by photographer Augustus Sherman in 1911, part of a series depicting new Ellis Island arrivals. We don’t know much at all about the boy in the picture. Titled “Hindoo boy”, the subject is identified in Peter Mesenhöller’s “Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920” (c1905) p.94 from another print that bears a caption: Thumbu Sammy, aged 17, Hindoo ex SS ‘Adriatic’, April 14, 1911. 

Who was this boy, I wonder? He’s well dressed. Look at the gold-trimmed cap, the diamond earring, and the shawl wrapped about his shoulders. What would have sent a 17-year-old around the world on the SS Adriatic in 1911? Here was what happened in 1911 in his native India:

I wonder, was it plague that drove the boy? Or was he part of a resistance to British rule so he had to leave? Or was his wealthy family interested in sending him to an American university? And what became of him? Where did he go from Ellis Island in 1911? Where did he live and die? Is there anyone today who counts him among their ancestors?

So many unknowns. And a photographer who caught a face, a posture, and those remarkable details of clothing and jewelry and hair.

Dancing into New Tomorrows


Photo: S. Shrikhande

Recently, I attended the dance performance of a young niece, the kind of debut performance termed an arangetram. It was a delicately crafted performance, flawless and beautiful. Mostly devotional in content, as most such performances are, but brought to life by the sparkle of youthful dancers who take their craft seriously, and by parents and a wider community who take pride in their achievements.

The dance style was Bharatanatyam, the dance form that Padma Venkatraman placed at the heart of her beautiful YA novel about ability, yearning and hope, A Time to Dance.

Bharatanatyam itself is a kind of phoenix art form revived from its temple dancer origins and made respectable by the formidable and vastly talented Rukmini Devi Arundale. As to why the art form previously known as “sadir” was dying out, that’s a more complicated story, related in part to colonialism and the imposition of Victorian morals on a society the colonizers failed to understand; in part to the collapse of a sacred tradition and to twentieth-century embarrassment about its devolution.

Viveka Chauhan‘s eloquent film explores this history but it also shows how an ancient form not only can be owned and shaped and changed by successive generations but must be. Art must always remain a commentary on life and its changing times, raising questions about who we are and why we behave as we do.

Witness this bending of Bharatanatyam to a more recent history–in part a history of Rukmini Devi’s own time:

This past November, Bay Area artists Rupy Tut and Nadhi Thekkek produced a mixed media bharatanatyam performance entitled Broken Seeds (Still Grow). Presented at The Flight Deck in Oakland, CA, Broken Seeds featured live spoken word and music, along with projections of Tut’s calligraphy and miniature paintings as a backdrop to Thekkek’s choreography. The dynamic performance captured the violent and complex history of Partition—the splitting of India into the independent nations of India and Pakistan at the close of the British Empire—and connected the questions around displacement and discrimination that characterized that event with the South Asian immigrant experience in America. (Excerpt courtesy of SAADA).

There you go. Another dance through time and history. Another way to think about it all.

To the amazing young dancers who gave us so much joy that evening, I hope you continue to dance. But I also hope you raise questions through your dance that are important to your generation and to the country in which you live. I hope you change the form to suit the new decades through which your life will take you, decades beyond my reach but not beyond my imagining.

“History is Not a Spectator Sport”

The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) allows me to access 2,500 items related to the history of South Asians in the United States. The archive gives voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their–our–unique and diverse experiences.


I will confess that I am a history junkie. I could spend my days happily lost in old papers, books, photos. But the SAADA mission is about here and now as much as it is about older times. SAADA-sample2Browsing the archive while searching for materials for a forthcoming book, I came upon an article about the Ghadr Party, an April 1916 portrait photo of Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who won the Newbery Medal in 1928, and a video interview with doctor and deaf community activist Shazia Siddiqi.

One audio or video or print file at a time, the archive seeks ever wider, more inclusive representation of the collective history of South Asians in the US.


We strive to create a digital collection that reflects the diverse range of experiences of South Asians in the United States, with a particular emphasis on collecting materials on the following topics:
· Pre-1965 immigrants and visitors
· The Bellingham Riots
· South Asian American political involvement and activism
· Professional associations and labor organizations
· Regional and community organizations
· Religious organizations and places of worship
· Community newspapers
· Student organizations
· Prominent South Asian American artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians and intellectuals

It’s an ongoing project, continuing to invite contributions and materials from those of us who are forming history simply by being alive on the earth at this time. And that’s the important thing. Browsing these stories is interesting, but it’s more than that. This archive assumes a view of history that implies we’re all part of it. One of the listed SAADA values reads: “History is not a spectator sport.”

No, indeed. At the very least, even when we’re helpless to counter tides of hate and destruction around us, as participants in the making of our own personal histories, we can be thoughtful in our actions. How we view the past has everything to do with how we choose to live in the present.