The Neighborhood of Gods: The Sacred and the Visible at the Margins of Mumbai

The Neighborhood of Gods: The Sacred and the Visible at the Margins of Mumbai

by William Elison

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There are many holy cities in India, but Mumbai is not usually considered one of them. More popular images of the city capture the world’s collective imagination—as a Bollywood fantasia or a slumland dystopia. Yet for many, if not most, people who live in the city, the neighborhood streets are indeed shared with local gods and guardian spirits. In The Neighborhood of Gods, William Elison examines the link between territory and divinity in India’s most self-consciously modern city. In this densely settled environment, space is scarce, and anxiety about housing is pervasive. Consecrating space—first with impromptu displays and then, eventually, with full-blown temples and official recognition—is one way of staking a claim. But how can a marginalized community make its gods visible, and therefore powerful, in the eyes of others?
The Neighborhood of Gods explores this question, bringing an ethnographic lens to a range of visual and spatial practices: from the shrine construction that encroaches on downtown streets, to the “tribal art” practices of an indigenous group facing displacement, to the work of image production at two Bollywood film studios. A pioneering ethnography, this book offers a creative intervention in debates on postcolonial citizenship, urban geography, and visuality in the religions of India.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226495064
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/10/2018
Series: South Asia Across the Disciplines
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

William Elison is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Read an Excerpt


Potemkin Village

Spaces and Surfaces at a Film Studio

There's lots of fun to be had at the playhouse!

So stay near the playhouse Take in the world's pageant While you try and fill your empty stomachs —

I've got your Mumbai here for sale!

Patthe Bapurao Kulkarni, "Mumbaichi lavani" (The ballad of Bombay), translated by Christian Lee Novetzke and Shobha Kale

Patthe Bapurao's "The Ballad of Bombay," dated to around 1910, is a pioneering work. The poet and artist Dilip Chitre ([1995] 2000, 25), who made a partial English translation, calls it "the first Marathi poem on industrial civilization." Over a hundred years on, what is striking about the way it reads today is not, strictly speaking, its modernity. Modernity is the theme of the poem, the object of its critique; but it's the way Bapurao makes the critique that resonates in the present because of the topicality of his choices.

Many of the images and tropes introduced in his stanzas circulate in popular discourses about contemporary Mumbai. The city is glamorous, for example, but it's also a place of raw hustle. It's full of cops and robbers alike, as well as prostitutes of all nationalities. Its lifeblood is money — an element that has the power to distort human relations such that everything and everyone is up for sale — and the poet extolls the city's charms in the voice of a street vendor hawking wares, or perhaps a pimp talking up his ladies. The buildings dazzle with their glassed fronts and colorful lights. The streets and port throb with the speed and power of technological marvels. Most of all — then and now — Mumbai is a show, a play of appearances that are seductive but not backed by anything substantial or genuine.

Generically speaking, Patthe Bapurao's "ballad" is a lavani, a performance form that typically catalogs the eroticized charms of a beautiful woman. The locus classicus of the lavani is, or was, the Maharashtrian tamasha theater, whose talent and audience alike came largely from lower-caste backgrounds (Bhagwat 1995, 116–17; Chitre [1995] 2000, 26–27). As cultural expression it is not only vernacular but demotic. The playhouse mentioned in the epigraph, then, is a reflexive image: it's at once the space in which the lavani's plebeian public would hear it — a discrete site within the city — and a synecdoche for the city itself. In other words, the great, modern city is a theatrical fabrication, and to understand this truth you go to the theater.

Substitute cinema for playhouse, and the insight is as penetrating as ever — more so, in fact, for over the course of the twentieth century the film industry became identified with Mumbai to a far greater extent than the theater ever was. (If Bapurao had been born a few decades later, it's a safe bet he would have wound up in the movie business, and his lyrics would have become disseminated through filmi music.) To be sure, this is not the only town in India where movies are made; these days, the Mumbai-based industry is not even the most prolific. But it is certainly the richest. Its flagship product, the Hindi-language popular feature film, can claim hegemonic status across South Asia and beyond. And within India, Hindi popular cinema is recognized simultaneously as representative of Mumbai and as the chief interpreter of the city's look and sensibility. Thus, the nickname "Bollywood" brands this global rival to Hollywood with an initial B taken from the name of its host city.

Bombay ceased to be an official geographical designation in 1995, of course, but Bollywood is a historical phenomenon. If the name originated in the early 1970s, the ascendancy of the Bombay style of filmmaking can be traced back to the time of Independence, perhaps earlier. The 1950s and 1960s are known as the Golden Age of Hindi cinema, but the story actually gets going in the decade before, when several of the best-known studios were built in what is now the Mumbai outer suburbs. Each had its sound stages and back lots and stable of talent, and each was run by a different production house. In Indian English the companies were called "banners," and of the banners that used to unfurl on the cinema screen to inaugurate the opening credits, none had more cachet in its day than Filmistan Studios.

The banners broke up in the 1960s. But Filmistan Studios remains open to this day as a production facility. Its stages and lots are booked by producers shooting scenes for features, commercials, and television shows. On any given day, multiple shoots may be in session. It was a few years before I began work on my main fieldwork project that a film producer contact introduced me to this storied space. And I discovered for myself that the stories generated at and by the studio had the effect of making it into different kinds of spaces.

My task in this chapter will be to peel back the multiple layers of this site, which is at once extraordinary and — I will argue — exemplary. There are three overlapping geographies to be charted here. I will discuss a cinematic register, in which the studio's features are mediated through the camera to emerge as elements in a spectacularized fantasy of the city and the nation. I will also theorize an official regime of abstraction and surveillance associated with the state and related agencies and interests. This is a regime of governmentality whose antecedents are colonial, whose primary medium is paper, and whose visual interface is English text — paradigmatically, the "black-letter law" — although the key example to be cited in this chapter will be an identity card. The final emphasis will be on a realm of sacred space. At the studio, this stratum is marked and inhabited primarily by the grips, service workers, and other poor people who traverse the site. Situating this group within the city's class- and community-riven sociology as representative subalterns, I will move on to discuss the studio's sacred geography as a domain claimed and made visible through religious practices, most notably through shrine-building activity.

First Exposure

If you have ever seen a movie made about moviemaking — Singin' in the Rain, Day for Night, The Stunt Man — you've been cued to a certain two-step movement. The camera draws your eye to the mise-en-scène: something attractive, fantastic, horrific. Then it pulls back to show what's behind the illusion: the lights, the reflectors, the extras on their cigarette break. And if you have ever been on a movie set, maybe you've carried this conditioning with you and experienced double takes as you discover, time and again, that the shiny object in front of the camera is so much plywood and duct tape from the back.

India's film industry has long been among the world's largest, and Indian filmmakers have put the technique to good use over the years, from the 1930s classic Manoos to the Bollywood blockbuster Om Shanti Om. But if the standard movement is two-step — "real" exposed as "fake" — my first visit to Filmistan involved something more complex. There were points where I felt I had completed a three-step, from real to fake and back to real again. And I found myself asking, time and again: as the spectator, just where was I standing?

At the outset, to be sure, the thing I find most disorienting about Filmistan is its apparent ordinariness. The studio occupies a compound, some five acres in area, that is surrounded on all sides by the bustling neighborhood of Goregaon. And at first glance, there seems to be nothing about the other side of the gate to mark it apart from its environs. The general disrepair is typical of Indian institutional spaces at their most drearily real: sleeping dogs, cracked windowpanes, damp-stained concrete, crooked trees that probably need more water.

Standing by the gate in a casual clump are three or four men in khaki uniforms. Idling policemen, too, are a ubiquitous feature of Indian public landscapes. Do you notice them or not notice them? Walking tall with the producer's entourage, I stride through the gate and on past them. Of course, it says a great deal about your own mode of inhabiting the landscape if you can choose to make a cop invisible. In the absence of an officious word or gesture to signal that the officer is indeed on duty, the effect of their presence on a passerby like me — a foreign researcher, a sahib-class person — is generally negligible.

But there's more to be said about the police. In my anticipation of dream-factory illusion, for the first time I find myself questioning the familiar uniform. Are those real Mumbai cops? Or are they private-security men? And a short while later, when I see more uniformed men by a gateway labeled "Central Jail," a third option presents itself: could they all simply be extras costumed as cops? (One indication that the experience of a certain discombobulating feeling in the presence of the Mumbai police is not unique to me — nor to the film studio scenario — is provided by a sign that can be seen at a police outpost at the Bandra train station: "Beware of Bogus Police," it says in English, Marathi, and Hindi.)

Next, to go from state to church: I see what appear to be two temples in the compound, although I can't identify the god enshrined in either one. The temples prompt the same question I had for the cops — are they real or are they fake? — but a little self-reflection shows that what's at stake in the two cases is different. When it comes to the police, I enjoy a degree of privilege on account of my own appearance, one that's even more pronounced in India than the States. And yet it feels natural to heed the authority of the uniform — when I can tell its wearer is in earnest, at any rate. Resisting the impulse takes a real effort. By contrast, I haven't internalized a reaction to images of Hindu gods, at least not those whose iconography I don't consciously read. Whether manifested in the form of a painted statuette, as in the more finished temple, or as a rock marked with red lead, as in the little shrine tucked just beyond the Central Jail, the presence of divinity on the grounds evokes equally blank reactions (fig. 1). But as an ethnographer of religion, a prospective participant observer, I want to carry myself with due respect. If, that is, the sacred sites are actually sacred.

I ask Ram Prasad, my guide from the production crew: "Those temples — are they real or only for show?" He answers: "They're real temples. The nicer-looking one out front was built by the studio. People use it for worship, but when the script calls for a scene with a temple, and there's been no time to arrange a location shot, sometimes it's convenient to shoot there. They have a really good temple at Film City."

Film City is a much larger and more modern studio complex located about a half hour's walk away on the other, less densely built-up side of the suburb of Goregaon. Ram Prasad's matter-of-fact answer presented me with a counterpoint to my reflection about the studio cops: given the centrality of visual address to Hindu devotional practice, does asking whether a temple is "only for show" not somehow miss the point? Certainly, on one level, the question of whether a policeman or a shrine is real or fake could be resolved by an appraisal of its situation in the material economy. Who pays the men in uniform? Who takes care of the shrine and the image within it? But in terms of their ability to project visual effects, it would seem that the fake policeman is the figure — regardless of his employer — whose dormant presence blends into the background, the real policeman being the one who, through a performative display that mobilizes the authority inscribed in his uniform, successfully invokes deference in the civilian observer. In this sense, the measure of the reality of such ideological spectacles as policemen and temples is precisely the degree to which their effects are inscribed on viewing subjects (fig. 2).

One way to get started theorizing this observation is suggested by the figure of the policeman. In Louis Althusser's (1971) concept of interpellation, a person's configuration as a subject — a term in which Althusser collapses the basic psychoanalytic unit of identity with the basic political condition of subjection to the state — is summoned by the ideological structure within which it operates. In the case of men in khaki uniform, my modern subjectivity betrays me: the cop hails me — "Hey, you there!" — and I respond, in the paradigmatic Althusserian scenario. (I will have more to say on hailing different kinds of Mumbai subjects further on.) Why, by contrast, does the colored statuette fail to interpellate me? The obvious answer, alluded to above, is that there's nothing in my subjective makeup to be interpellated here. To put it in less highbrow terms, I don't recognize the image's address as directed toward any part of me. And I might explain this by stating that for me as an unbeliever, the ensconced figure means nothing more than whatever set of interpretations might be derived from reading an icon of a youthful-looking cowherd who happens to have three faces.

But to fixate on the question of belief — and follow through with a hermeneutical approach — would be to read right past how this sort of visual encounter actually produces its effects. After all, I no more decode the policeman's uniform than I cherish a conviction in the legitimate authority of the Government of Maharashtra. At the same time, as an ethnographer, in preparing to undertake a project conceived around popular religious practice I did not limit myself to textual study. Well before I established myself in Mumbai, I had been introduced to the somatic dimension of Hindu practice as a student in Banaras — a cityscape saturated with icons — by Brahmin friends and host family members who conscientiously observed the ritual calendar. In the temple space, when I performed pradakshina, or clockwise circumambulation, in anticipation of the revelatory moment of darshan, the visual encounter with the enshrined image, a conscious understanding of the meaning of such observances was at best secondary to the inscription of norms of conduct on my body and eyes. In short, in terms of the performance the valorized image elicits, I could claim to have been put through my paces. What proved destabilizing about the shrines at Filmistan was my inability to recognize whether the images, as framed in their respective spaces, were valorized or not.

What is then at stake, I propose, is not my belief or the lack thereof but rather the degree of my integration as a subject within what Althusser would describe as the pervasive structure of ideology. Now, Althusser conceives of ideology as a monolithic system (his is something of a unified field theory), and the complexity of the lifeworlds I encountered in my fieldwork has compelled a rethinking of interpellation in terms of multiple fields of effects. The ideological systems or dispensations in force in contemporary Mumbai are themselves multiple. And as I will argue, each becomes manifest at my field sites in a distinct visual register — a distinct set of particular kinds of images that occupy a particular kind of space and, in addressing viewing subjects, initiate a particular range of affective relations.

But if the belief paradigm is to be set aside, how do ideological subjects themselves understand their participation in these fields of effects? This chapter has already introduced one conceptual device to which Mumbai residents (and not only I) have had recourse: the categories real and fake. This is a straightforward-looking opposition that my inquiries will move on to complicate. Some other ideas presented by my fieldwork interlocutors will be addressed in chapters to come; their insights are especially illuminating when it comes to thinking about visual operations in sacred space. At this early point in the argument, however, the most direct way to address the point is with an illustration from Camera Indica, Christopher Pinney's landmark study of photography in India.

Taking up the question of photography's projection of divine power, Pinney (1997a, 166–67) comments on an eloquent moment of testimony. His interlocutor Tiwari is the devotee of a holy man whose photograph he petitions for blessings. Tiwari denies any connection between his personal faith and the guru's ability to transmit these effects:

faith or belief is not necessary; desires will be fulfilled without belief (bina vishvas). The analogies that tumble forth from Tiwari's lips are all grounded in a technological world in which all that matters is effect: "Suppose you want to use some electric power — you make a connection, fit your tube light, lay the wiring, provide a switch, connect this to the overhead wires. If the power is available, the tube is fine, the wiring is fine, the switch is fine, the tube light will come on — (chalega!) — with belief and without belief" — he flicked his thumb to and fro as though switching the current on and off.


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Table of Contents



Chapter One
Potemkin Village: Spaces and Surfaces at a Film Studio

Chapter Two
Concrete Spirits: Religious Structures on the Public Streets

Chapter Three
Secular Saint: Sai Baba of Shirdi and Darshan in the City

Chapter Four
Urban Tribal: At Home in Filmistan

Chapter Five
Expanding Contract: Tribal Space and Official Knowledge

Chapter Six
Immanent Domains: Exhibits and Evidence in the Forest


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