The year’s end was fast approaching; social calendars were filling up. Yet, when Hema Rachmale, Anita Rajpal and Seema Shah, three enterprising women, invited the seniors at the Bharatiya Temple on a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts, elders, middle aged couples and even a teenager or two eagerly responded. Two buses would be quickly filled, word had spread like wildfire.
In recent years, the DIA has been making an effort to reach out to various ethnic communities. About a year ago, new Indian galleries were inaugurated, and in connection with this, the museum had been decorated as a royal wedding hall for its annual fundraising gala in 2018. The Indian community was gaining recognition on the local cultural scene. Now, this world class museum displays ancient artifacts from the subcontinent, along with showcasing works by major contemporary artists like the painter M.F. Husain and sculptor Anish Kapoor, known for his famous “Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The DIA’s commitment to the South Asian community was further evidenced when it commissioned the installation “Still I Rise” by Neha Vedpathak, a Detroit-based Indian artist for its permanent collection. Little did I imagine that when I began coming to the DIA as a student in the sixties, this Midwestern museum would make so many more like me feel at home.
In recent years as an interpretive programs volunteer (IPV) and tour guide, I have become more and more involved at the DIA. So my excitement level was high, as we prepared to greet these 70-plus individuals from the Bharatiya Temple, another organization that had been part of my life almost from its beginning. By organizing a trip to explore the amazing art treasure in the heart of the city, the temple was taking a pioneering step, choosing to no longer remain disengaged with American culture. On the tours I lead, I often focus on the evolution of the immigrant identity as reflected through art. Starting from its Eurocentric, colonial roots, the collection has branched out to cover the vast diversity of the American society, creating a town square where all are warmly welcome. No wonder the DIA has been called one of the most hospitable museums in the country.
To ensure that the Temple visitors would be well taken care of, the IPV scheduler requested more help. A few days of flurried activity, countless WhatsApp messages, even more emails and phone calls and sometimes confusing communication between the various parties, and soon the DIA was ready for two busloads of desis. On a busy holiday weekend of December, the day after the annual Noel Night, we were still prepared for this large group from the Temple. Among other holiday activities that day, an opera-based musical program was scheduled in the Riviera Court. When the IPVs led the three different groups through rows of chairs, they got a glimpse of the magnificent tribute paid to Detroit Industry, the crown jewel of the DIA, what people from all over the world come to see, the murals by the Mexican artist Diego Riviera.
All this was somewhat overwhelming for a few of the Temple visitors, some of whom were coming to a museum for the first time. The IPVs, too, were a little concerned; many of them had not encountered such a large group of Indians before and were unsure of their ability to explain the Indian galleries to the people whose art they were interpreting. To complicate things further, there was a wide range of language skills amongst the visitors; a few had minimal ability in English, many more had earnest, naïve curiosity but little knowledge of how organizations like a museum operate. The overriding spirit that carried the day was everyone’s eagerness to find out what the museum’s numerous galleries contained. A few attendees wanted to go only to the Indian art galleries, something the organizers immediately observed, before tactfully clarifying that the museum caters to a very broad audience and it would be worth their time to see some of the other historic holdings the DIA is known for.
A tour like this can only give a glimpse of the thousands and thousands of artworks and historic pieces in the DIA collection. The overall feeling was one of awe. Many expressed a desire to come again.