William Elison

Associate Professor
Ph.D., University of Chicago
South Asian Religions, Religion and Media, Visual Culture
HSSB 3053


I am an ethnographer and historian of religions. My field of study is the religions of South Asia, and my area of specialization is Hinduism and related traditions as practiced in the present day, primarily in vernacular languages, primarily by non-elite people.

I am committed to an ongoing program of fieldwork research in the streets, slums, and movie studios of Mumbai. One product of this research is a monograph published in 2018 by the University of Chicago Press. The Neighborhood of Gods: The Sacred and the Visible at the Margins of Mumbai examines how slum residents, tribal people, and members of other marginalized groups use religious images and symbols to mark and settle urban space. Not all the people involved identify themselves as Hindu, and in fact a central proposition of The Neighborhood of Gods is that sacred space in Mumbai is created according to a visual and somatic praxis understood and performed across confessional boundaries. At the same time the book recasts, in a modern context, a question central to the history of Hindu thought: If the divine is manifest in the phenomenal world, then where and in what form do we recognize God? And with what sort of insight or authority?

Related research interests have included Adivasi, or “tribal,” communities; Mumbai slum neighborhoods and their village antecedents; and the mediation of darshan, or visual worship, by cinema and other modern technologies. And I have become interested in exploring the literary possibilities of ethnographic writing. A story I tell about my friendship with one of my Mumbai interlocutors was published in 2018 in a popular magazine, The Believer. (It’s linked below.)

I also have my name on a coauthored book, a study of the film Amar Akbar Anthony. This is a true landmark of Hindi popular cinema. Released in 1977 but well known and cherished across India to this day, it’s a visual extravaganza that follows three young men of Bombay—a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian—as they sing, joke, fight, and romance their way to a symbolically overloaded resolution in which they learn they are long-lost brothers. “Amar Akbar Anthony”: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation, by Christian Lee Novetzke, Andy Rotman, and me, came out from Harvard University Press at the end of 2015.

There are two book-length projects currently crowding my desk. I am writing a concise narrative history of Mumbai for the Cities of the Modern World series from Cambridge University Press. And much time has lately been taken with a short monograph about Hindu “idolatry”—exemplified in the form of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh—as a motif in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century English-language fantastic fiction.

I have affiliations with UCSB’s Department of History and Department of Film & Media Studies.


The Neighborhood of Gods: The Sacred and the Visible at the Margins of Mumbai. South Asia across the Disciplines series. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

“Amar Akbar Anthony”: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation. Coauthored with Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Warli art meets activist hiphop! An amazing video feat. Prakash Bhoir (unaffiliated with my research, but very much sharing its concerns):

In 2019, I spoke about The Neighborhood of Gods with Raj Balkaran of the University of Toronto for the New Books in Hindu Studies podcast series: http://dcs.megaphone.fm/LIT4995167134.mp3?key=127651c824daefee1071f36b2e0e2994


  • “At Home in Filmistan.” The Believer 119 (June/July 2018): 12–21.
  • “Weird Tales: Lord Ganesh and the Golden Age of American Pulp Fiction.” In Wonder in South Asia: An Anthology, edited by Tulasi Srinivas. Albany: SUNY Press, forthcoming.
  • “A Hole in the Wall: Religion in the Poetry of Arun Kolatkar.” In City of Dreams: Situating Religion in Mumbai, edited by Michael Stausberg. Delhi: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
  • “Is Adivasi Religion the Same as Hinduism?” In Indigenous Religions in 5 Minutes, edited by Natalie Avalos and Mollie Bassett. Sheffield: Equinox, forthcoming.
  • “Is Adivasi Religion Different from Hinduism?” In Indigenous Religions in 5 Minutes, edited by Natalie Avalos and Mollie Bassett. Sheffield: Equinox, forthcoming.
  • “Space, Place.” A Universe of Terms (special project of The Immanent Frame, Social Science Research Council online publication). February 2020.
  • “Site, Sight, Cite: Conceptualizing Wayside Shrines as Visual Culture.” SAMAJ: South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 18 (“Wayside Shrines: Everyday Religion in Urban India” special issue) (2018).
  • “Line.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 40 (No. 2, “Keywords” special section) (2017): 342–44.
  • “Educate, Agitate, Organize: Sudhir Waghmare.” In Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, edited by Justin McDaniel, Mark Rowe, and Jeffrey Samuels. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016.
  • “Hinduism in Film.” Oxford Bibliographies in “Hinduism.” Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • “Sai Baba of Bombay: A Saint, His Icon, and the Urban Geography of Darshan.” History of Religions 54 (No. 2, “Indian Gurus” special issue) (2014): 151–87.
  • “‘Bonafide Tribals’: Religion and Recognition among Denizens of Mumbai’s Forest Frontier.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 4 (No. 2, “Forests of Belonging” special issue) (2010): 191–212.
  •  “Unravelling the Encoded Cultural Messages of a Much Loved Entertainer.” With Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman. The Wire, 13 January 2016.