Explore India across the street

MOSI’s latest long-term exhibit, Demystifying India, aims to make India and its diverse culture and history more familiar to those who may have little or no knowledge of the country. While the exhibit does much to aid in this, the accompanying movie, Mystic India, does more to glorify a few facets of Indian life than to genuinely explore the vast and various cultures of India’s nearly 1.1 billion people.

The display thoroughly informs visitors about India’s complex history, which has been influenced by a number of cultures and religions for thousands of years. Traditional Indian garb and musical instruments, such as the sitar, are displayed next to British-influenced bats and wickets from the game of cricket, which is immensely popular in India. Many of the artifacts were donated from local Indian-Americans.

Another portion of the exhibit highlights the religious diversity found in India through beautiful photographs by Robert Arnett -a highly acclaimed author and photographer of the book India Unveiled. Photos include the second-largest mosque in the world as well as an ancient Indian Jewish synagogue dated back to the 16th century.

Although largely Hindu, India houses the fourth largest population of Muslims, not to mention a home for Sikhs as well as Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Jains. With accompanying photos, each religious tradition is outlined briefly, as is its history and culture in relation to India.

The display also answers other, perhaps more commonplace questions, such as why cows are considered holy in India and what the role of the caste system is in Indian culture today.

The movie, however, glosses over much of this information.

For those who know little of India, Mystic India may come off as an enchanting mythical tale of an 11-year-old guru named Neelkanth. In his seven-year journey, he conquers a number of obstacles in his mission to help others and enlighten them with yoga and meditation. In the end, the narrator briefly mentions that this yogi, who is dated back to the 17th century, did much to reform India and ease the suffering caused by cultural divisions. What reforms he created and what cultures were divided, however, are missing from the film.

For those with more knowledge about India and perhaps those who take the time to read the long, numerous captions in the exhibit, the movie may seem narrow in its approach to exploring India.

In one sense, the story is miraculous. The boy travels through the icy Himalayan mountaintops and long stretches of desert with only a rope and a little cloth to cover his body. (The narrator points out studies that have shown that yogis and others who practice yoga and meditation intensely can alter the rate of their metabolism and are thus less sensitive to extreme weather conditions.) The young yogi analyzes many unanswerable questions about life and death in his journey, in which he travels by foot for 8,000 miles.

On the other hand, the diversity and acceptance so detailed in the exhibit are barely mentioned in the movie. Flashes of beautiful and ancient architecture overwhelm the screen, yet there is no mention of the Sikhs when the Golden Temple appears and no mention of Islam when the Taj Mahal is revered for its beauty. In fact, there is just a slight mention of Hinduism, the tradition explored throughout the film. Despite this, the message of the film is one of unification and peace between all peoples. It’s cliché, but positive nonetheless.

Prash Pavagadhi, the president of the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he wanted the exhibit to demystify the stereotypes of Indians and Indian culture. He also wanted to provide a stepping stone for people to educate themselves about the contributions India has made to the world for nearly two millennia. That is why the Chamber of Commerce decided to help raise money to provide a more educational and free exhibit to complement the movie, which is at a reduced price.

“(The movie) is really more representative of India a couple of centuries ago,” Pavagadhi said. “There are so many things that are missing and we just could not capture everything. Modern India – you can go from business to culture to pop Bollywood to, you name it, and we just don’t have enough time to cover it. … We’re not pretending to (show) the be all and end all to everything – it’s just a gateway. And hopefully, people will use their own initiative and try and find out more.”

Pavagadhi also said that because India represents all the major world religions, people of different faiths and backgrounds are likely to connect and feel some ownership of the project. He had witnessed it himself when he helped set up the exhibit.

Anyone remotely interested in India should visit this exhibit. The movie, although enjoyable in its high-tech IMAX-dome presentation and stunning cinematography, is more of a glorified 40-minute travel video than a documentary. The exhibit, however, makes up beautifully for what the film lacks.

The IMAX film is $2.50 for adults and free for those younger than 18. The exhibit is free.

  • India has the largest movie industry in the world.
  • India has more than 23 official languages
  • India has the world’s largest workforce of engineers, doctors and other key professions.
  • India had an official 2006 population of 1,095,351,995
Source: Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce

For more information, visit www.demystifyingindia.com or www.mysticindia.com.