Artist Sudhir Patwardhan’s paintings of Mumbai encompass its material elements: tenements, creeks, walkways, balconies, and factories. The industrial city of textile mills and commuter crowds is central to his practice.

Patwardhan, in a 2012 essay, notes this influence: “The material structures of the city in close-up – the pillars and railings, the painted metal of buses and train bogies – in relation to the human bodies, generated active spaces full of tension”.

Accident on May Day, 1981. Courtesy Sudhir Patwardhan.

In Patwardhan’s early paintings, such as the 1981 Accident on May Day, our perspective is street-level. From this vantage point, things are never entirely within view: bodies and vehicles momentarily enter, but soon vanish. Our gaze is cluttered, but the city itself can be grasped and heard.

One moves via pillars we lean on, railings we clutch, taxis we whistle for, and train compartments we are squashed in. This is a city rippling through our limbs, alongside proximate others, an experience available to many.

A different perspective onto Mumbai is in Raghubir Singh’s 1994 photo book, Bombay: Gateway to India. Amit Chaudhuri writes of these photographs:

“The recurring metaphor and motif is glass, the glass of a shop window, or of a door to a plush department store or hotel: glass, which introduces an element of surface and polish, which skews the photographer’s image by producing its own, which at once separates and gives access. It’s not quite possible to feel ‘at home’ in the city of these pictures; glass not only invents the city it encloses, reveals, and reflects, but also the photographer taking the picture”.

Patwardhan’s paintings and Singh’s photos evoke two distinct but related types: the industrial and post-industrial city. One accesses industrial Mumbai via what is material. The steel and paint of buses and trains; the cement of pillars and wood of railings.

The post-industrial city is a shift away from this. Glass emphasises what looks good; what is accessed is also partitioned and therefore harder to reach. This is a movement away from shared access: glass is a barrier against the undesirable.

Patwardhan’s railings and buses invite touch: they are meant for holding, leaning, and sitting. The city that Singh photographs is, in contrast, a tease. Glass summons untrammelled desire, even as its glossy sheen rebuffs those without means.

Have we entered a different phase in how one approaches and accesses Mumbai? Let us consider how two recent but ubiquitous objects have transformed the city: mirrored and darkened glass, and closed-circuit security cameras.

Mirrored glass is now widespread, in residential high-rises and office towers, as well as in the foreign sedans cruising along roads. Approaching such buildings or vehicles, one cannot assess who or what lies within; the city is continuously opaque.

In its earliest incarnation, such barriers were the preserve of those legitimately beyond view: politicians in their white Ambassadors, and “ladies parlours” where women get plucked and buffed.

The democratisation of such partitions suggest that ever-increasing domains of urban life are beyond reach. The contrast with the legible modernist building is telling: its rectilinear lines and concrete plazas invite both a gaze upon, as well as a gaze out.

With mirrored glass, the privilege of seeing is accorded only to those who are within. Interior spaces literally become black boxes: their contents can only be decoded by the select few.

Such mirrored and reflective glass has produced a city of ciphers. Each building is a disguised articulation of itself. This echoes how building in Mumbai is itself an activity cloaked with secrecy.

A building site until the 1990s would have little real fencing. Perhaps some jagged and joined bits of corrugated iron would signal construction in situ. Building sites were often porous and a kind of urban commons. Neighbouring children might play cricket next to reinforcing beams. Goats and cows could graze on grassy patches soon to be submerged by concrete.

Now, however, few building sites are not shrouded by professional fencing in excess of ten feet. Uniformly painted metal planks are professionally bolted, allowing no physical passage or visual leakage.

Such fencing militates against the pedestrian’s curiosity. It also signals how building construction proceeds amidst contention. Family disputes over ancestral plots, and builders’ efforts to fudge municipal rules, lie just beyond what we can see.

A man waits for customers at a shop in Mumbai in January 2021. Credit: Reuters.

Perhaps this desire to shield prying eyes has something to do with how visual perception is understood. “Nazar”, the Hindi term for watching or viewing, is not simply a detached physiological process.

Rather, it is inherently tied to forms of competition and covetousness. One’s gaze, even if seemingly innocuous, can undermine another’s social standing and future strategy.

This is “buri nazar”, the evil eye, when someone covets or wishes harm to those being seen. Thus, in a retort to fame – on being front and centre – visibility invites envy and bad energy. Once eyes affix themselves to a person – nazar lag gaye hai – the invidious gaze may not get unstuck.

The pervasiveness of security cameras has also altered how we inhabit Mumbai. Even in a family-run provision store, the ceiling is studded with smoky brown bubbles containing an unblinking eye. A bank of monitors will show multiple angles of a single cramped room. Increasingly, the experience of moving through the city is that of watching oneself refracted through such cameras.

For example, in Siddhivinayak, Mumbai’s most famous temple, large flat-screen televisions display real-time security camera shots of visitors moving through the complex. At the crucial moment to receive blessings and pray in front of the temple’s Ganesh idol, one looks at a patchy image of oneself from a camera located above where one stands.

This is on par with entrances to five-star hotels such as the Taj Mahal Palace, or posh shopping complexes like Phoenix Mills. One does not just inhabit them corporeally; one’s body and possessions are snatched and displayed with elaborate screening equipment.

What results is a curiously disembodied self that pops up and then disappears from view. One is not simply in the city, but disseminated throughout it, as screen shots that are owned and processed by others.

Reflective or mirrored glass, as we have seen, have a material analogue in tall and tight construction walls. Security cameras, too, are paralleled by another form, that of the smartphone camera. On the train, at the seafront, on top of a building, or in a bedroom, the Mumbaikar is constantly being multiplied.

In this immaterial Mumbai, we have moved far from the industrial city’s emphasis on making. The mill once subsumed the worker’s entire self, monitoring their output, measuring their productivity.

Now we are the byte-sized spectacle: selves compressed as files uploaded. What we do lurks unaccountably – permission denied – behind password partitions.

In Patwardhan’s industrial city, and in Singh’s post-industrial city, the physical self is in tension with the material metropolis. In contemporary Mumbai, this friction has been displaced onto an immaterial plane.

One’s corporeal makeup is pixilated, dissected, and distributed. Yet even as this hectic sharing proceeds above our heads on bandwidth and spectrum, life retreats to a zone behind dark glass, impervious to the gaze of others.

Ajay Gandhi teaches at Leiden University.