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India Summer

Museum Makes Big Country Into Manageable Vacation Spot for Small Hands


The gateway to the Mysterious East now comes in a handy child-size.

It's "Passport to India," the Children's Museum at La Habra's newest interactive exhibit. Housed in the museum's vintage train-depot-turned-gallery-space, this hands-on display of Indian food, language, music and clothing shrinks the world's second most populous country to a manageable size and uses it as the basis for an important and enjoyable lesson for youngsters who think a sitar is what you get when Mom and Dad take the night off. (It is, of course, a stringed instrument; look for it--but don't touch it--at the back of the gallery.)

On selected Saturdays through the run of the show (which closes Sept. 8), the museum also is hosting performances of Indian music, dance and other entertainment. This Saturday it will be the Happy Mood Performers of India, whose repertoire includes juggling steel plates with their tongues, along with traditional folk dances and comedy sketches. The series continues Aug. 3 with Ramya Hari-shankar's Classical Dances and Aug. 31 with "Panchatantra: Animal Folk Tales of India." All performances start at noon and are free with museum admission.

Even though roughly one in every six people in the world is Asian Indian, Westerners know relatively little about the country's widely diverse cultures, says La Habra museum education director Carrie Wictor-Gonzalez.

"When [Westerners] think of Asia, we think of China or Japan," she observed. "Yet India exports a surprising variety and quantity of things we use every day, and Indian universities are graduating some of the world's most qualified scientists and technicians. We just don't realize what an important force this country is."

Because this museum's exhibits are almost always hands-on, Wictor-Gonzalez scoured Indian markets and shops in Artesia's Little Bombay district to find items that would depict Indian life accurately and still be durable enough to stand up to heavy use.

With her time and budget constraints, it was hard to know where to start. So she followed her nose.

"The first time I stepped into one of the Indian shops, the scent really caught my attention," she recalled during a recent gallery tour. "The air smells so very different. . . . Your senses just come alive."

Hence "Passport's" smell station, where visitors can sniff bottles filled with ginger, garlic, curry mix and other scents, then try to match them to unmarked samples. Wall shelves showcase such canned goods as lentil sauce and chickoo pulp (made from a round fruit that resembles a small sweet potato and used largely in drinks and desserts) donated from one of Wictor-Gonzalez's biggest sources, Patel Brothers Grocery.

Although the display doesn't go into much detail on the subject, Wictor-Gonzalez says Westerners often are surprised by the ways Indian cooks use these flavorings.

"Cinnamon, for example, is typically thought of as a dessert spice here, but in India, it's used to flavor entrees," she explained. As in the United States, she added, different regions gravitate toward different flavorings: Southern Indians often serve food over rice, while those in the north prefer lentils.

A wall display of a cricket uniform--complete with heavily padded shin guards, a flat bat and wickets--is the only element of the show that links India to its long history as a British colony, which began in 1757 and ended with the dissolution of the British Regime, or Raj, in 1947, when the country was divided into India and Pakistan.


The subject of Indian religions is approached simply--a smart move considering that the country's primary religion, Hinduism, involves hundreds of gods and demigods. Visitors can peruse colorful posters of such key figures as the blue-skinned Vishnu (the preserver, who has 10 incarnations or avatars), Shiva (the destroyer or liberator, often depicted as the multi-armed Lord of Dance) and Ganesha (the elephant-headed son of Shiva who is believed to be the remover of obstacles). There also is a small shrine with brass incense burners and icons.

Because of its popularity with visitors, dress-up play almost always is included in Wictor-Gonzalez's shows. "Passport" invites children to wrap themselves in a traditional sari, the elegant, flowing garment worn by older girls and women, or a lunghi, a wrapped skirt often worn by younger girls.

Scads of bracelets are available to accessorize the outfits, symbolizing how some Indian women literally wear the family wealth. Youngsters also can see how they would look with a bindi, the decorative mark--once referred to as a caste mark--worn on a woman's forehead.

With a few deft twists and tucks, Wictor-Gonzalez demonstrated the wrapping of a lunghi. Illustrated signs also show you how to do it. But the director cautioned that children shouldn't expect too much on their first try.

"It can take years to learn how to wear Indian clothing correctly," she observed. "It's much trickier than it looks."

* What: "Passport to India."

* When: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m., through Sept. 8.

* Where: The Children's Museum at La Habra, 301 S. Euclid St.

* Whereabouts: From the Orange (57) Freeway, get off at Lambert Avenue, drive west and turn right on Euclid.

* Wherewithal: $4; children under 2 are free.

* Where to call: (310) 905-9793.

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