For nearly two centuries, Indians have been pioneers in various stages of modern globalisation. Many worked as indentured labourers, cutting sugar cane in the Caribbean and South Pacific after Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834. Others migrated for economic opportunity as railroad workers and shopkeepers in East Africa and South Africa. Some served the British cause in two World Wars and were able to settle in Britain. Changes to immigration laws allowed Indians to pursue professional degrees in American universities in the 1970s, and the demand for highly skilled technicians and engineers from India fuelled the dot-com economic boom of the 1990s. These are some of the historical forces that have shaped the Indian diaspora as we know it today. With a mix of traditional elements and local adaptations, the culture of the global Indian diaspora is not uniform. Diaspora is a living phenomenon, with a rich, complex, and often painful history, but in the far corners of the world Indian culture is remade every day.
Preston Merchant lives in the Bay Area, California. He teaches photography as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York. He is at work on Indiaworld, a photo essay in book form, about the Indian diaspora communities of North America, the Caribbean, Britain, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. A selection of his images will be featured in an exhibit by the Smithsonian Institute’s Indian American Heritage Project called, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” (opening in February 2014).