Today, when we think of U.S. fads and fashions for India, we tend to focus on the recent mass popularity of yoga and Bollywood films or on narratives of self-discovery in the East such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat, Pray, Love. The hippie counterculture of the late 1960s, with its obsessions for Indian music, fabrics, and spiritualities, also remains strong in the public memory. It is largely forgotten that at the turn of the twentieth century the United States was in the grips of a craze of India and “the Orient” that was, in some ways, larger and more pervasive than anything that has occurred since. Between the 1880s and 1920s, Americans from all classes and walks of life were drawn to an “India” that was, in essence, a collective fantasy. Elites of cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia explored Vedantist philosophy and attempted the contortions of “tantrik" yoga. A young Isadora Duncan performed her interpretations of Eastern dance, in bare feet and flowing robes, on the lawns of Newport, Rhode Island’s finest mansions, while Ruth St. Denise performed in Indian-style on Broadway, bedecked with jewels and wrapped in a colorful silk sari. The New Thought writer and publisher William Walker Atkinson built a national audience for his mail-order books on clairvoyance, mind control, and the “Hindu-yogi science of breath,” published under pseudonyms such as Swami Panchadasi, Yogi Ramacharaka, and Swami Bhakta Vishita.
Meanwhile, the sexualized figure of the Indian “nautch” dancer became a stape of American burlesque theaters. Southern growers marketed tobacco under brand names such as Hindoo, Mecca, Mogul, and Bengal, with labels that depicted Ameers and maharajahs, palaces, hookas, and dancing girls. Tin Pan Alley songwriters churned out show tunes such as “My Hindoo Man” and “Down in Bom-Bombay,” which middle-class Americans sang to amuse themselves in the piano parlors of their homes. Circuses and exhibitions competed to present ever-larger menageries of Indian elephants and camels and ever-more spectacular recreations of Indian, Sinhalese, and other “native” villages. Such exotic public spectacles reached new heights in 1904, when the owners of Coney Island’s Luna Park turned fifteen acres of the Brooklyn amusement park into a replica of the city of Delhi and “imported” three hundred Indian men, women, and children, forty camels and seventy elephants to live there for the summer season. Several times a day the “natives” and their animals marched through Luna Park, performing a re-creation of the Delhi Durbar—the grand procession that had occurred in India the year before to mark the ascendance of King Edward VII of England to the imperial throne. By 1909, even the Wild West showmen Buffalo Bill Cody and Gordon “Pawnee Bill” Lillie joined in the craze, touring a “Far East Show” across the U.S. Midwest and South that featured Arabian horseman, a troupe of Sinhalese dancers, a “Hindu fakir,” and a “nautch dance ballet.”
Vivek Bald in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America