Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture   

Tiled Gods Appear on Mumbai's Streets

Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham

A few months ago, when we were sitting in the boardroom of a popular television channel in Mumbai, a creative head, possibly trying to motivate us, said, ‘I came back to India because I missed the freedom to pee on the streets.’ The creative head had quit a comfortable existence and a hefty salary in Canada to return to the country of his origin. Back here, he probably never steps down from his long, sleek car into the streets, but he had indeed been lured by a certain romanticized idea of India. The glint in his eyes, the affectionate tenor of his voice with an unmistakable hint of pride seemed like an amorous rumination, locating his country in its little ways. Nevertheless, such are the complex ways of our nation that the yearning of an expatriate manifests itself in imagining his country as a vast, liberating, open urinal: a urinal without boundaries (both literal and notional); an all inclusive one—stretching infinitely across the length and breadth of our nation. The idea of India that motivated the creative head to journey back, nebulously revels in flouting the apparent proprieties of civilized society, yet proclaims a certain loyalty towards the democratic nature of the country and further, unabashedly elevates the breach as a unique pan-Indian cultural expression.

However, this romanticised notion does not find favour with all - especially the owners of those walls vulnerable to the citizen’s proclivity to public urination. Dotting many of the cityscapes of the country, such urine-drenched walls are witness to the measures taken by the owners and  housing society associations to dissuade offenders of the proprieties of public decorum. First came the written word in the form of polite requests, ‘kripya deewar ko ganda na karein’ (please do not sully the wall), or ‘yahan par peshab karna mana hai’ (one is not allowed to urinate here). This was followed by abuses written large on the walls- ‘yahan par peshab karne wala dogla’ (the one urinating here is a bastard); or a rhymed couplet- ‘Gadhe ke poot yahan mat moot’ (son of an ass, don’t pee here). The written injunctions grew to be more creative and reproachful diversifying according to regional flavours (A famous Punjabi injunction goes- Khotte de puttar, itthe na muttar: Son of a dog, don’t piss here.) Nonetheless, such words having failed to discourage people from urinating in public,  it seems that some people have taken the matter to the gods themselves, who soon started putting in appearance in a unique visual manner that is the subject of this image essay.

A linear arrangement of white, square tiles with visual representations of varied religions—this unique visual culture spotted on the streets in Mumbai—the location for our exploration, allows for a syncretic, hence distinct and unusual co-existence of dieties. It is noteworthy how this distinct dwelling of the gods brings together representatives of multiple faiths, in a diverse nation such as India, which is often irreversibly divided along the co ordinates of religion. Such a harmonious existence for the gods is a rare sight and its presence in cluttered and messy spaces—incongruous for the habitation of venerable gods makes it a worthy subject for exploration. The cosmopolitan character of Mumbai allows such a syncretic cohabitation of gods — on its streets, hence our project locates itself across the megacity — a micro site representative of the essentially diverse character of the country.

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