In this spectacular photo essay, Preston Merchant captures the life and everyday circumstances of the Indian diaspora. The pictures document the hardscrabble beginnings of early immigrants to the rise of a business and intellectual class. Merchant takes us on a journey through countries across the world, where the Indian diaspora have placed their unique thumbprints on societies and cultures. The narrative accrues slowly, as we see farmers making a living, young aspiring performers finding their voice on stage, mothers preparing for a nostalgic wedding ceremony, grandmothers shopping, and couples attending fundraisers. It’s a story of how emerging generations continue to orient themselves to the coordinates of their Indian heritage.
What compelled you to chronicle the Indian diaspora through images?
I didn’t really intend to undertake a decade-long project, involving over a dozen countries, but this where I am today. In the early 2000s, I was interested in the Indian communities in New York, where I live, and was intrigued to discover that they are not all from India. They have come from Guyana, Trinidad, London, Nairobi, and other places. I started photographing the Indo-Caribbean communities in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. They have a very distinctive culture, lots of festivals, and some remarkable food. I later went to Trinidad and Guyana and photographed members of the families I had met in New York.
Ashley’s grandfather slaughters a duck for dinner.
It’s common to think of the Indian diaspora experience in terms of the sweep of history—British colonialism, the indenture system, the local politics of places like East Africa and Great Britain, economic globalization, and technological advances. These are contributing factors, but Indians have also migrated for personal reasons. A family buys a shop in Manchester and calls for cousins from India to help run it. A woman in Ahmedabad marries a man from San Francisco and moves to the United States. A student wins a scholarship to study in Melbourne.
Silent auction to raise funds for Breakthrough, a human-rights NGO. Manhattan, New YorkThe diasporic phenomenon is rich with a complex (and sometimes painful) history, but it is sustained by intensely personal decisions, as families work out what is best for them and their children.
In your interactions with the young among the diaspora, especially, second and third generation people of Indian origin, how much do you think there was a sense of rootedness or some sort of belongingness to what could be broadly called Indian? Did you come across a sense of curiosity among them about the land of their forefathers?
Shree Sanatan Mandir. Wembley, United Kingdom.
Young people of Indian origin today are growing up in a world very different from that of their parents and grandparents. India’s economic and cultural footprint across the globe today is vast. A generation ago, getting news out of India was difficult.
Bollywood movies were smuggled as cassettes in a relative’s suitcase and communication was a blue air-mail envelope. Today, they communicate with their relatives in India via Skype and watch Indian channels on satellite TV.
But more important than the ease of communication is the fact that Indian culture is part of global culture. The movies, music, and food are increasingly mainstream. So young people see their culture reinforced, even admired, in popular culture.
But there are still questions of identity, of course. A boy growing up in New York whose parents came from Guyana will see Indian culture and know that his own Guyanese heritage is very different. The Guyanese are proud of their culture, and they carry it with them when they emigrate to New York, Toronto, London and other places. Their identity is Guyanese.
Shopping at the City Park Traders Market, a development project of the Aga Khan Foundation. Nairobi, Kenya.
Identity is complicated. When I was in Fiji last summer, I met an NGO worker who was about to get married and move to Australia. She is a Hindi-speaking South Indian Fijian woman, who will raise her children in Perth. When I asked which identity would be most important to them, she said, “South Indian.”
What of identity? In many of your photographs, we see both young and old adopting, if not in full, some adaptations of cultural practices, for example an Indian wedding, or culinary preferences. What was your “reading” of their sense of identity in America or Europe where they were born and raised?
Indians in the diaspora certainly feel the strong pull of an Indian identity, but it doesn’t exclude participating fully in the local culture or creating a culture of their own. Most Indians in Fiji, for example, trace their roots to the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Their ancestors came to Fiji as indentured laborers. In addition to English, they speak a Bhojpuri-influenced Hindi, stripped of linguistic formalities.
Every diaspora community makes an accommodation. It preserves what it needs to, adapts to new situations, and creates something distinctive. As Salman Rushdie wrote, “the immigrant must invent the earth beneath his feet.” I think those words are a rich and poetic statement about the diaspora experience.
Former captain of Kenya’s national cricket team Aasif Karim & family at their home. Nairobi, Kenya
What about your projects in India?
My wife, whom I met three years ago, was born in Delhi and came to the United States when she was 15. We have visited her cousins in India twice since we got married, and I am intrigued by the notion of India itself as a diaspora country. Indians in other countries have a much more tangible relationship with India than they did years ago, thanks to the Internet, satellite TV, and cheap airfares. So a study of diaspora has to explore the relationship between overseas Indians and the country of India.
The recent explosion of Indian American fiction from authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai and non-fiction from writers like Anand Giridharadas and Amitava Kumar makes it clear that India looms large over the diaspora. For some, India is about family connections, shopping, remittances, or business opportunities. For others, India is a half-recalled story told by a grandparent. Or it’s just one of a hundred channels on the cable TV box. Central to the diaspora experience is asking questions about one’s roots and how they affect the future. India is big part of that conversation, but for the diaspora it’s not the only part.
The challenges are often logistical, getting to the right place to meet the right people in the best light when something interesting is happening. I look for moments that are suggestive of stories, that offer a window into the lives and experiences of people in the diaspora.
Easter street festival along the seawall. Georgetown, Guyana
Sometimes the challenges are political. I photographed in Malaysia and Fiji during a time when the status of Indians, whose families had been in the country for four generations or more, was being challenged. Those issues remain unresolved.
Members of the band Bamboo Shoots, led by guitarist and lead vocalist Avir Mehta (second from left), add Indian drums to their rock and roll sound. Manhattan, New York.
And I have tried to photograph a range of people, from laborers to business executives, infants to the elderly, from over a dozen countries around the world.
Jhandi ceremony. Ozone Park, NY
Preston Merchant is a New York-based photographer working on “IndiaWorld,” an exploration of the people and cultures of the global Indian diaspora, which encompasses some 20 million people in dozens of countries.
This interview was conducted by K.G. Sreenivas, and first published in Pravasi Bharatiya.