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The Neighborhood of Gods

The Sacred and the Visible at the Margins of Mumbai

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.

336 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018 

South Asia Across the Disciplines

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: South Asia

Religion: Religion and Society, South and East Asian Religions


"The Neighborhood of Gods is a welcome addition to the scholarship on religion and film and makes a crucial contribution to South Asian Studies, Anthropology of Religion, Visual Culture, Film and Religion and Urban Studies."

Journal of Religion & Film

"The Neighborhood of Gods will be useful to anthropologists of media, visual culture, and religion as well as those focused on South Asia."

American Ethnologist

"For religionists, Elison effectively puts together some time-honored truths about Hinduism and its strong visuality, with original ideas about the uses, meanings, and powers of space and place. From the challenging particularities of Mumbai—huge, diverse, riven by inequalities, ethnic rivalries, political and theological animosities and alliances—Elison’s book makes far-reaching contributions. It should have an enduring impact on the ways we think about urban spaces and their human and divine inhabitants."

History of Religions

"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."

Reading Religion

"One might expect a study of religion in urban India to focus on Hindu and Muslim forms. The Neighborhood of Gods does not, and the results are both fresh and thought-provoking."

International Journal of Hindu Studies

"The Neighborhood of Gods by William Elison is probably one of the best scholarly books ever written on Indian urban spaces. . . . The depth, originality, sensibility, and rich- ness of Elison’s study make this volume a must- read for a wide range of public and scholarly disciplines."

Religion and Society

The Neighborhood of Gods is an ambitious, deeply erudite, and well-written book that moves across diverse ethnographic sites—from Hindu religious ritual to tribal practice, to Bollywood and urban politics in Mumbai—with an engaging style and innovative research.”

Arvind Rajagopal, New York University

“Elison offers a remarkable, persuasive, and—notwithstanding its theoretical and ethnographic rigor and ambition—accessible argument. The Neighborhood of Gods extends the emerging anthropology of the image, working across generic and disciplinary conventions to assess the visual practices by which space is made sacred and the precariousness of marginal labor and habitation is negotiated in urban India. It is a resonant portrait of a city that integrates the best of recent writing on religion and secularism, on Bollywood film, on slums and work, and on dreams, spirits, and the uncanny—and rethinks it mightily.”

Lawrence Cohen, University of California, Berkeley

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


Works Cited

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