They’re the two largest democracies in the world and the affinity between India and the USA is often sought to be placed in the post-Independence era with regard to the former. However, the interaction between these two countries oceans removed happened from a much earlier time, as a recent exhibition titled “Kindred Nations: The United States and India 1783-1947” held at the Indian Museum, Kolkata, demonstrated. Curated by the Meridian International Center, Washington, DC, the exhibits covered a multitude of themes depicted through photographs, paintings and documents, throwing up nuggets of information on how even when Britain dominated the subcontinent, the two developed a bond that only strengthened with time.

Ironically, it was the British colonialists who facilitated one of the most interesting connections between then Calcutta and America — through trade. When America won the War of Independence, shaking off its colonial status under Britain, it also meant that the restrictions on American private merchants, which had prevented them from sending ships to India, were withdrawn and trade between the countries flourished. 

Calcutta, then the hub of British trade in India courtesy the East India Company, had a great many Europeans who yearned for iced drinks in the humid climate. So when Frederic Tudor, Boston&’s “Ice King”, sent the first shipment aboard the Tuscany, which arrived in September 1833, it was a huge event that figured prominently in the local newspapers. Reports elaborated on how people lined up at Calcutta port to witness unloading of this unusual cargo. 

Even for Lindsay Amini, director of cultural programmes at the Meridian International Center, it was “one of the most surprising stories” as she and her team leafed through sheaves of material to curate the exhibition. “The idea of 100 tons of ice being shipped by boat over a four-month period without the refrigeration techniques available today was absolutely fascinating. Nearly half the shipment had melted along the way.”

One of the offshoots of this opening up had influenced even the educational and cultural fields in India as the East India Company lifted its ban on American missionaries in 1813. A less known fact is that American Baptist missionaries introduced modern education and literature in the Brahmaputra Valley in the North-east. Evangelist Nathan Brown, who learnt the “sweet” Assamese language,  and Miles Bronson, a linguist, opened Assamese language schools, wrote the first grammar in Assamese, compiled a dictionary and published the first Assamese magazine called Orunodoi (1846), loaded with information. The missionaries’ contribution to “the collective life of the Assamese people” has been well recognised by scholars. The North-east connection was, however, not part of this exhibition.

Swami Vivekananda&’s famous speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893), where he charmed the audience by addressing them as “sisters and brothers of America” was recalled by a photograph of him surrounded by admirers at Green Acre School, Maine.

The exhibit packed in some rare insights into the Indo-American connection through rare photographs. Like that of a baby elephant. In 1796, the first live elephant landed in America, transported by the ship America. It drew huge crowds in cities on the East Coast, who paid 25 cents a head to view this exotic animal. Or a portrait of Anandibai Joshee, the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree in America (1886); on return she worked as physician-in-charge at the Albert Edward Hospital&’s female ward in Kolhapur. 

Another showed Sikh immigrants arriving by the ship SS Minnesota. Then there was the Hollywood connection. India-born actress Merle Oberon is seen on a set (in the class-conscious colonial era, she had long suppressed the fact that her mother was an Anglo-Indian); another Hollywood star Sabu Dastagir, the Mowgli of The Jungle Book fame (precursor of the current animation hit film by Disney), who later became an American citizen and fought as an Air Force officer and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. In India, on the other hand, director R Dungan, already a success in the Madras (Chennai) film industry, is seen with cast members on the set of Meera (1945) which had legendary singer MS Subbulakshmi in the title role.

World War II, like countries worldwide, also singed India. There was an evocative photograph of US soldiers taking off their shoes before entering the famous Jain temple in Kolkata. Another showed world champion boxer Henry Armstrong as a soldier giving impromptu lessons to local boys.

The 1940s were turbulent years for India&’s freedom struggle. One picture showed Mahatma Gandhi with President Herbert Hoover (1946) when he was on a worldwide survey of food conditions. Another showed American sympathisers being arrested while demonstrating in Washington, DC, with the message “It&’s 1776 for India”, drawing a simile with America&’s independence movement. 

Said Amini, who was in Kolkata during the event, “Knowing the affinity between the two countries, we wanted to create an exhibition that shares not only the key historical moments but some of the little known interactions between Americans and Indians before India&’s independence.”

Asked if it was difficult to curate the show, she said, “The process was definitely labour intensive. Our team worked for a year with archivists around the USA, at museums, universities, presidential libraries, historical societies, and also private collections.”

Even then the team was amazed at the immense amount of images and stories discovered. Sifting through thousands of images, they worked with Susan Bean, an Indo-US expert, to curate the exhibition down to around 60 images that captured the larger story. 

Amini agreed that given all the content that Meridian found during the research, “It is definitely a rich topic that could be explored further. Kindred Nations is just a sampling of the kinds of stories that are out there.”

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