Amongst the first gods to be painted on the walls of Mumbai were, Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, and Sai Baba, whose shrine in Shirdi is close to the city, both popular deities in Mumbai.
The experiment appears to have worked, for the walls guarded by these painted deities were spared. Probably out of sheer reverence the passersby didn’t defile the space occupied by the visual manifestations of their gods. Soon, numerous walls of the megacity had gods painted upon them but physically, they occupied a limited space hence the remaining portion of such walls remained vulnerable to being sullied. By the 1990’s the gods came neatly packaged in small square tiles and their mass production ensured an increase in the number of walls and premises being saved from the offenders.
The intervention of gods in a squalor-ridden domain may appear incongruous and a tad offensive to some, but in India, religion is all-pervasive and its manifestations can be found in every nook and cranny.
The gods in this country are an endless spectacle—somewhat like plastic, that had bemused Roland Barthes by its infinite transformations. And, an amazed Barthes, detecting connections between the proliferating forms of plastic had decoded this miracle through his essay ‘Plastic’1 as, ‘the singular of the origin and the plural of the effects.’ In India the plurality of gods is confounding; visual manifestations of their various avatars can be traced imprinted on products ranging from match-sticks to missiles. Like plastic in the modern world, the gods in this country are ‘ubiquity made visible’ and in their new avatar- on the walls of a megacity as sentinels of public propriety—we do not notice the incongruity of space.
India’s omnipresent and multiple religions find their most potent expression on its streets. The throbbing streets sprout modified shivlings, shrines to Mother Mary, dargaahs and make—shift temples and adopted wishing trees for tying sacred mannats. Hence, association with the gods lives beyond systems of personal faith and devotion, no longer bound to the confines of worship corners in dedicated private spaces. Replacing the homilies on the walls, the tiled gods are seen accommodated rather easily in the popular visual regimes, not mere adornments on streets but imbued with a performative function- that of acting as guardians of public behaviour. Appearing as they do in remote corners near electric transformers, or guarding narrow alleys between rows of small bursting shops, on walls encircling one’s premises or near trees at crossroads, these tiled artifacts may be viewed as symptomatic of a shared collective understanding of undefiled public spaces watched over by divine sentinels
Inscribing an avowedly public space with such a painted image immediately tears it off from an unclaimed sphere, now imbuing it with a question of personal belief, and hence, a subtle injunction. As these public spaces are not exclusively claimed by people of any particular community and given how religion is often a divisive force in India, this abode of the tiled gods makes for a unique site for harmonious cohabitation of a variety of religions.
We see tile plates of a motley army of deities, religious heads of various faiths, their symbols and signifiers, even multiple avatars of the same gods, crammed into shady corners, guarding public domains which take on a syncretic pluralistic idiom with the installation of these tiled images.
1 Barthes, Roland. Mythologies, 1957.