Stop in at a motel anywhere in the U.S., and you are likely to find an Indian-American family at the helm of it. At least half of America’s motels are owned by Indian-Americans, and 70 percent of these are owned by people from the same region of India—Gujarat, a state on the nation’s northwest coast. Since the 1940s, Indian-Americans have built a sprawling network of motels across the U.S., laying down roots and bringing in their extended families, generation after generation. The contributions of these immigrant entrepreneurs are explored in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s new exhibition, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” which is now open at the Natural History Museum.
Chiraag Bhakta, a San Francisco-based artist and designer, grew up in and around motels. The experience inspired his latest work, featured in “Beyond Bollywood”: the Arch Motel Project, which gets its name from the New Jersey motel where he lived with his family until the age of seven. Chiraag’s parents owned and ran the Arch Motel for ten years before turning over the day-to-day operations to another Gujarati family, in a changing of the guard that is routine within the Indian-American motel community. Chiraag describes the Arch Motel as a “hub” for relatives emigrating to the U.S., a kind of Bhakta family Ellis Island.
Even after his immediate family moved out, Bhakta maintained ties to motel life through aunts, uncles and cousins who were running motels around the country. “Whenever we went to visit [relatives], the question was whose motel are we staying at, depending on what city we were going to,” he says. For Bhakta, a motel was not simply a fleeting stop on the way to a destination. “It was a comforting environment because it was family.”
In 2004, Bhakta decided to revisit these memories in his artwork, after a chance motel visit with a non-Gujarati friend put his own unique background into perspective. Bhakta teamed up with photographer Mark Hewko to tour Gujarati-owned motels across the U.S., capturing slices of life inside this vibrant but little-known Indian-American community.
At first, the project was fairly structured. Bhakta made cold calls to motels to confirm that they were run by Indian-Americans and to let the owners know that he and Hewko were coming. But by the third day of call-ahead planning, Bhakta says, “we found out that if we just pulled into any motel along the freeway…it was just like, ‘Wow, another Gujarati family.’ It was constant.”
The trip became much more “organic” after that, with aesthetic concerns guiding the stopovers. “When Mark and I were driving around, sometimes a property would start talking to us,” Bhakta explains. “The sign was great…the location was interesting, [or] the environment around it was interesting in a way where, wait a second, how are they living out there, where there are no other motels, in the middle of nowhere? We had to judge it that way because we didn’t see a face yet.”
The faces of the Arch Motel Project are young and old, dignified and aloof, proud and enigmatic. The locales are rife with Hindu imagery as well as Americana. Together these images present a motel community as diverse as any other in America.
There were, however, certain design elements that kept reappearing—Toyota Camry’s, sandals and slippers in the lobby, vanity license plates. One photograph, taken outside an independent motel in Merced, California, subtly captures the driver’s excitement about a new franchise, immortalized in his “SUPER 8” license plate. In another picture, two hands cup a harvest of Indian eggplants grown in an on-site vegetable garden—a common feature of Gujarati-owned motels especially in the early decades of immigration, when Indian cooking ingredients were harder to come by in the States.
Other images reveal a sharp divide between areas of the motel that are visible to guests and areas that are for employees only. The owners of the Downtown Motel in Barstow, California, hang a crucifix on the wall beside the front desk while keeping Hindu statues and lit incense under the counter, out of view. At the El Rancho Motel in Stockton, California, the entire back wall of the front desk is covered in Hindu imagery, with only a glass window admitting the intrusion of a guest, who can see none of the world behind the scenes.
According to Bhakta, this dichotomy isn’t so much about suppressing one’s heritage; after all, the motel owners still bring their religion to work with them. “They don’t want to make the customer feel uncomfortable,” he says. “They won’t make [their culture] shown to the customer, but they’ll bring themselves, their personalities, who they are, all the way to the office. But it’ll be hidden in some way.” Bhakta's work provided inspiration for an authentic, three-dimensional motel lobby window in "Beyond Bollywood," and ten of his images are on view in the show.
Bhakta sees the Arch Motel Project as a natural outgrowth of his work in “Pardon My Hindi,” his series exploring Indian-American identity through various media. But at the same time, the motel project “has special place,” Bhakta says, “because the Arch Motel was my first home and my parents’ first entrepreneurial step in America. It’s still part of me.”
One of his favorite images from the series is also the most personal. It’s a portrait of his aunt and uncle outside their Wichita motel, with expressions and postures undeniably evocative of American Gothic. Bhakta says that he and Hewko didn’t make the comparison until after they took the photo, finding Americana in an unexpected place. There’s a classic stolidity to these figures—an assertion of place and belonging in the big road map that is America.
The exhibition, "Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation," produced by the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Center, is on view at the National Museum of Natural History throughout 2014. All Photos are part of "The Arch Motel Project." Concept and Art Direction, Chiraag Bhakta; Photographer, Mark Hewko.