Maharajas! Getting Acquainted with My Indian Side

When I first heard about the exhibit titled Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I thought to myself Cool, I should check that out since, y’know, India and Pakistan are neighbors and I’m totally Pakistani. (Some others may have been thinking: India isn’t in Asia!*)

It took me only a second to realize that in the time of maharajas in India, Pakistan and India were one country so I would in fact be partaking in an exhibit that dealt with my own culture, my own background.

Maharaja Exhibit Sign Outside of Museum

I finally made it this past weekend, officially the last weekend of the exhibit. As I made my way through the rooms of the exhibit, taking it all in, I tried to picture this time in India when maharajas ruled. The museum had clothes, jewelry, weapons, carriages, and paintings depicting a period I had such a hard time visualizing in my head, despite the tangible evidence in front of me. I couldn’t reconcile the India from the exhibit to the India/Pakistan I know of now. Short of watching Lagaan or Jodha Akbaar, I realized I hadn’t even really watched many movies that were even close to reflecting a time when Maharajas were the norm.

After going through the exhibit, my need to visit India is more than it was before, especially since my family originally came from the “India” side of India, from Uttar Pradesh or “U.P.”

From what I know, my family was doing all right there before they had to move to the Pakistan side after 1947. They basically put a lock on the door of the house before they had to leave. My dad once told my sister and me about having to stay in a camp in Pakistan after they arrived and sneaking out to get a cookie. He didn’t think too much of the story but my sister and I were slightly horrified that our dad’s need to get a cookie trumped his need to stay put in a place he was unfamiliar with, facing instead the very real possibility that he wouldn’t be able find his way back to the camp in a land that was still in turmoil. For a cookie!

I sometimes forget about this shared background as it’s easy for me to think of myself as just Pakistani since that’s all I know – it’s part of my hyphenated identity of Pakistani-American and it’s the place we go to visit a lot of our relatives, if I can handle it that is– but I want to experience India now more than ever. I want to going to Uttar Pradesh and more specifically the district of Bulandsheher, trying to see if I can find any evidence of my family ever being there and what the deal is with my last name.**

For now, I’ll add books about maharajas, the British occupation of India***, and India’s history to my reading list. Best start learning about all of this history now, however late this realization has come, than never.

*If you think that’s funny, someone had actually made that exact statement on the first day of my Legacy of Asia class in college. This girl had asked a friend what countries the class would cover and the friend told her “China, Japan, and India” when she then exclaimed that India is not in Asia.

**If you ever come across a Pakistani/Indian with a last name Burney, they are most likely from Bulandsheher. Also? I might be related to them, although I’m not related to every Burney that is brown.

*** Watching 1942: A Love Story doesn’t count, I reckon.

11 thoughts

  1. Way to go. Learning your culture is a definite must. That’s why I moved to LA. Mexicans everywhere. I wonder if there are any Mexican Burneys. Sounds like a slang term. Great post as always.

    1. “Burney” is actually a Scottish name, which is why it’s weird when one comes across an Indian/Pakistani with that last name. Not sure if there would be any Mexican Burneys although that would be interesting too!

  2. Awesome. I would love to hear about your experiences when you go & see what you capture in your photos:) My ancestors on my mother’s side came from a tiny village in Switzerland called Sisseln. I hope to visit there one day as well…

  3. The exhibit sounds fascinating! I wish it would come to where I live. I definitely think you should make your way to India someday and find where your family lived. I really enjoyed your post :)

    1. Thanks for reading Christine! I really hope I get to make my way to India sometime soon.

      As for the exhibit, a lot of the stuff seemed to be on loan from the British Museum so if it doesn’t come to you, you should totally go to it ;)

  4. I’ve always wanted to go to India too – we should make a plan Bushra! Your post reminded me how we all have so many layers of to our identities.. history always in the making!

    1. Yeah it’s interesting – I doubt any of us has a really simple background. I really wish I had made more of an effort to find out more about the past before and I hope it’s not too late to do so!

  5. Based on what I know/have seen of India’s history, I have the feeling that the Bollywood period movies are more accurate in portraying the truth than movies taking place in the current time. Watching the current movies, one would think that India is a first world country where the majority of people live in spacious, western style houses with whitewashed walls (which, of course, desis like you and me inherently know isn’t true).

    I totally get your inability to reconcile what you experienced at the exhibit with your previous impression. But reconciliation may never happen since India is the land of contradictions. You go there, and then you experience the filth, the crowdedness, and dog eat dog mentality that you are expecting. But interspersed among all that, is the rich culture underpinned by grand palaces, food, textiles, jewelery, religions. It’s this which takes you by surprise and makes dealing with the former worth it. And it looks like you’ve already gotten a little taste of the good stuff :).

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