Kindred Nations

The United States and India

Ties between Americans and Indians existed long before the birth of the Republic of India, dating back to the founding of the United States in 1783. Even without the benefit of full diplomatic relations – possible only after India became free of British rule in 1947 – connections took root and flourished. From an initial preoccupation with commerce grew genuine interest in each other’s histories, beliefs, cultures, and politics. Americans and Indians found opportunities to experience and participate in each other’s worlds, and to share knowledge and skills. They investigated each other’s art forms, and drew on them to expand their own. They shared concerns about the meaning and quality of life in an age of industrialization, global trade, imperial expansion, and rising materialism. In all these arenas, Americans and Indians set great value on the freedom to determine their own paths.

Kindred Nations presents historical images that recall tales of remarkable people – some well known, others awaiting rediscovery. These stories convey the range of Indo-U.S. interactions across many domains. Though the photographs and documents capture individual experiences, each narrative offers insight into cross-fertilizations between the United States and India that helped shape both countries.

The exhibition opens, as did the U.S.-India relationship, with the establishment of direct contact in the late eighteenth century. Merchant mariners along the eastern seaboard wasted no time in setting forth, eager for the opportunity to trade in India’s famed export goods. American merchants preferred dealing directly with Indian commercial agents, a business decision that created opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the country. After the East India Company lifted its ban on missionaries in 1813, evangelicals took passage on American trading vessels. Once there, many found that the Indian people were committed adherents of their own highly evolved theologies. These Americans turned their focus to other ways of serving, especially through education, medicine, and research.

Later in the nineteenth century, exchanges of knowledge expanded rapidly. Indian students began traveling to the United States for their studies, while Indian intellectuals toured American cities and towns. They shared interpretations of their philosophy and history in hopes of encouraging broader understanding of Indian civilization and the rapidly growing struggle for self-determination. In the arts, despite vastly different forms of expression, Americans and Indians discovered a shared appetite for new genres, mixtures of styles, and modes of performance with broad public appeal. As a result, a remarkable fusion of traditions transpired in music, dance, and cinema.

As the Indian freedom movement gained increasing momentum in the early twentieth century, more and more Americans – politicians, celebrities, and ordinary citizens – came out in support of independence. In 1947, the United States and India stood together as the world’s two largest democracies with full diplomatic relations, and launched a new era of unprecedented interaction and collaboration.