The Neighborhood of Gods

The Sacred and the Visible at the Margins of Mumbai

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William Elison
South Asia Across the Disciplines
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Neighborhood of the Gods, ethnographer William Elison is essentially the flâneur or “stroller,” as defined by Walter Benjamin. With Elison, the reader moves through Mumbai and experiences the city and its contestations of visibility. The author explores how the visual culture of the city reflects multifaceted cultures and social groupings. The statues the wandering ethnographer sees may be images of colonial officials at Hormiman circle, folk deities such as Khandobha, or secular signs indicating the name shift from colonial “Bombay” to Marathi “Mumbai.”

Within the city, Elison’s main objects of exploration are its subaltern inhabitants, in particular the Warli who live on a film set in the southern suburbs, shanty-town dwellers who erect “illegal religious structures” according to local zoning authorities, and others designated as “tribals” living nearby within a national forest. These margins help to set the ethnographic encounter in a spatial framing, which Elison analyzes using Piercian semiotics through the use of icon, index, and symbol. What expands this framework is the nuance in which subaltern peoples engage the framework of visuality that marks their lives by including the rationalized apparatus of governmentality as well as the spectacular semblances of Bollywood cinema as it depicts Mumbai as Mayapuri, “the City of Illusions” (6). The connecting thread is the affective engagement these different registers of signs evoke from the marginalized peoples who are caught up in webs of English-language paperwork, cinematic idioms of expressing political struggles, and the proliferation of mass reproduction of images.

Elison’s walking tour of the city begins in a film studio where Warlis live next to a set of a “tribal village” used by production companies who frequently include them as extras. Several interlocutors from this community inspire the author to explore the nuances of Bollywood cinema as a set of visual tropes for understanding their subaltern access to power. Elison sees the proliferation of visual icons in the slums, where makeshift shrines emerge to demarcate space for neighborhoods as village gods patrolled the borders of their territory. A “secular” approach to this appears in chapter 2, when a Parsi homeowner puts an ecumenical spread of deities and religious images as tiles on the wall of his compound. Elison takes us through a stroll of Mumbai where these kaccha or “raw” structures gradually take on a pakka or “finished, cooked” quality. The range of visual metaphors for these structures takes greater hold as they move from hastily assembled from spare parts to encroaching on living spaces or leftover rooms of buildings, and finally receiving patronage beyond their builders. From the poles of simple stones on a raised platform to finished mandirs or “temples” with plaques, provided for by committees, these visual mediums help to construct the space of subalterns who find little room made for them in the visible spaces of the city. While the “rebranding” campaign led by the Shiv Sena regional party chose “Mumbai” in the local language of Marathi to redefine the space, many in minority religious groups, such as the Parsis, Christians, and Muslims, were more comfortable with the secular moniker of Bombay. These subalterns call the city in a hybrid dialect of Hindi, Marathi, and English “Bambai” (34).

These overlapping semblances of Elison’s theory helps to make sense of the popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba’s prominence among the kaccha religious outposts. Elison argues that while the Sufi saint’s ecumenical tendencies favored accepting anyone as disciples, his visual imagery brought a visibility to his reproduced images in photographs that resonated with the lithographic reproductions of Hindu deities and gurus. As a “secular saint” (119), Sai Baba functions less symbolically as a concrete persona but more as an index to this open-ended spirit of visual recognition, a key concept Elison uses to translate the Sanskrit term darśan. By bringing the affective encounter to the forefront of the gestures of subaltern actors, Elison helps to mediate the organic metaphors that view these structures as natural outgrowths of religious beliefs without the interaction of human agency (148). When Sai Baba or the government is petitioned to “recognize” someone in this visual idiom, it helps to ground their legitimacy as a subject within larger frameworks of political and religious sovereignty. This framework is therefore vitally important to finding emic perspectives beyond the Schmidt-Agamben paradigms of sovereignty present from Roman-Christian traditions.

The Neighborhood of the Gods draws on deep wells of ethnographic and critical theory to make sense of the marginalized positions of Elison’s interlocutors. In particular, I find Elison’s discussion of his Warli friend Vikas and their exasperating discussions refreshingly honest in how the ethnographic encounter is often tempered by assumptions on both sides. As a text that draws heavily on semiotics, it would be interesting to see how Elison’s informants took this strand of theorizing into account with their own practices of religious worship. His paradigm of recognition offers a very useful way of seeing the encounter of human and divine agents with sources of power as mediated by visual cues. This study will be a provocative introduction to the field of South Asian religions for upper level undergraduates and graduate students interested in visual culture, anthropology, and performance studies and the arts in South Asia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeremy Hanes recently earned his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William Elison is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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