FREMONT, Calif. — “India World,” on display at the Olive Hyde Art Gallery here until June 15, features the work of photographer Preston Merchant who spent 18 years chronicling the Indian diaspora throughout the world.
Much of the collection, showcased over three rooms at the gallery, feature Indian American musicians, dancers, surfers, as well as community members performing traditional Hindu and Sikh religious rites.
Three of the photos in the exhibit were taken for India-West. Two masterfully capture the complex emotions of the Central Valley community mourning the loss of Parminder Singh Shergill, a U.S. Army Gulf War veteran who returned home with PTSD and was killed by Lodi, Calif., police in 2014. The young veteran was given a full military funeral; Merchant captured Shergill’s mother Sukhwinder dissolving into tears as she was presented with the U.S. flag that had been draped over the casket of her son. (See story here: https://bit.ly/2ZkZG26)
Another photo taken for India-West features a portrait of farmer Karm Bains, the son of Didar Singh Bains, who is known as “the Peach King of California.” (See story here: https://bit.ly/2K8S66V) The Bains live outside of Yuba City, Calif., home to the first wave of Indian American migrants more than 130 years ago.
Some of the most compelling images in the exhibit feature bharatnatyam dancer Hema Ramaswamy, believed to be the only Indian American with Down Syndrome to have completed an arangetram.
Mala Ramaswamy, who with her husband Ram travelled from Houston, Texas, to attend an artist’s reception at the gallery, told India-West that Merchant had also photographed her daughter and her date Justin preparing for their high school prom. Later that night, the family learned that Hema and Justin had been named ‘Prom Queen and King’. Merchant and the Ramaswamy family raced over to the venue to capture the couple performing their first dance as ‘King and Queen’.
Merchant travelled to Fiji, gathering photos of Indians working the island’s sugar cane fields. In Australia, Merchant photographed a wedding in Woolgoolga, home to the largest Sikh community in Australia. A photo from the United Arab Emirates features fishermen pulling in their boats at sunset. Merchant also featured a photo of young sand sculptors on a beach in Durban, South Africa.
Merchant told India-West that he began chronicling the Indian diaspora in 2002; the late writer V.S. Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize for Literature a year earlier, leading to a greater awareness of the global Indian community.
“The story of India’s diaspora is one of great success, but there are parts of the community who still struggle to find their place in society,” he said.
“It feels rewarding to have my work featured in a gallery in Fremont,” Merchant told India-West, noting that the city is home to one of the largest populations of Indian Americans in the U.S.
Many attendees brought their children to the show. “It is a new way for them to appreciate the struggles of their parents and grandparents,” said Merchant.
The photographer is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Merchant’s work was also featured at the Smithsonian Institute in 2014, in an exhibit titled ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.’
The ‘India World’ exhibit can also be viewed online at prestonmerchant.com.