Performing the ‘community’ & the awkward de/merits of ethnography

It was a usual rainy day in Mumbai.

Parts of 90 Feet Road, the arterial road that passes through Dharavi, were waterlogged. Yet, the NGO’s art centre (also located on 90 Feet Road) was crowded, and people were still coming in, braving the rains.

But many were also frustrated.

There was another NGO – technically, a ‘Trust’ – that had camped in this centre to do a survey of sorts. They had asked the Organisation I was working with to send people from across Dharavi to the centre, where they would be asked to respond to a questionnaire.

It had something to do with their aspirations for Dharavi – once it was redeveloped, of course. These aspirations would then be projected on a map of Dharavi as some sort of an art installation.

Redevelopment is perhaps one of the most contested issues in Dharavi, and there is voluminous literature devoted to this, not to mention the various organisations that have been working on it since the 1980s.

But this Trust was relatively new (I hadn’t heard of it until a few days back), which was surprising because most groups working on redevelopment have either emerged from Dharavi itself, or have had to spend years in trying to build credibility and networks with the residents.

Moreover, these people seem to have outsourced the task of mobilising the community to my colleagues in the NGO (someone told me that they had sent one person on field), and had recruited students to administer the questionnaires.

Evidently, I am critical of the way this Trust was working, and of their ostensible objectives. What benefit would an art installation be eventually to the people they interviewed? Would people’s aspirations be sequestered in a cardboard and wood structure? What about the broader political engagement with the bureaucracy and governmental agencies?

In their defence, they probably might have more concerted objectives for the future. But fact remains that their work in the community was rather lackadaisical – and my community organiser colleagues would eventually have to bear the brunt of a disgruntled public since, as far as the people are concerned, it was the mahila mandal (women’s group) who had called them out on a rainy July afternoon, and not this Trust that they hadn’t even heard of.


The day I described above was also the day the Dharavi Federation was supposed to meet (which was cancelled due to the rains). This Federation is an effort by the NGO to form an autonomous collective of Dharavi residents who would respond to the various challenges and issues that come up.

The Federation did meet a week later, before which I was working with Sanjay and Jagdish,* helping them to develop a ‘module’ for future meetings.

Sanjay was visibly frustrated with the direction that most Federation meetings were taking. “They have been meeting for a year now, and they have taken some action here and there,” he said. “But there is a lack of direction. There are no modules. We keep telling them to take ‘action’ after each meeting, but it doesn’t work like that.”

Jagdish had similar experiences since he started working in January. He spoke of a field visit where the 100-odd members of the Federation were taken for to Vasai on the outskirts of Mumbai, where they interacted with an adivasi panchayat – a village council of an indigenous group.#

“But when I asked them (Federation members) to write a short report, barely 3-4 people came up. And even then, they spoke of irrelevant things like how they enjoyed the weather,” Jagdish said.

The frustration encountered by Sanjay and Jagdish are, I believe, indicative of the very nature of community-based work in slums like Dharavi.

In a previous blog post, I argued how the ‘field’ in anthropological fieldwork is actually constituted by the constant interactions between the ethnographer and her interlocutors, as well as through historical, political, and discursive processes.

Like the field, the ‘community’ too is a construct; it is fragmented, heterogeneous, and often ambiguous. In fact, in most of our daily advocacy and intervention routines the ‘community’ and ‘field’ often tend to be interchangeable.

This has direct and not-so-direct implications of both, ethnographic practice and advocacy in the front-line spaces.


I realised these implications rather awkwardly on two occasions, first in a meeting with the community organisers and programme officers where they were planning the events for Independence Day celebrations; and second, in the Federation meeting that did happen, where I was spontaneously asked to speak to its members.

The first instance was an honest and a rather stupid mistake: I was speaking with the assumption that there can be a coherent identity for the residents of Dharavi – exemplified in how the community managed to negotiate and overcome communal disharmony after the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai, and how it managed to hold out against development for so many years. Not to mention the heterogeneous and diverse social fabric of Dharavi (i.e., there are people from all over India), the narratives of hard work and overcoming odds and making it big in the city.

Sanjay was quick to point out the problem with my suggestion. While individuals like Bhau Korde and Waqar Khan (who worked tirelessly after the riots and are known for the ‘Hum Sab Ek Hain’ campaign) are remembered well, many people now will not appreciate this theme – of unity – due to political differences.

Even with organisations that have been working in contest redevelopment, like Society for Promotion of Area Resources Centre (SPARC) and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) or the Society for Human and Environmental Development (SHED), there have been cases where communities have had significant differences with these NGOs over issues of impropriety and violation of trust. According to Sanjay, “People will [continue to] have problems.”

This brief interaction showed how the Organisation and my front-line worker colleagues have to negotiate their non-partisan stance, the complex local political field, and the fragmented political identities in Dharavi (in fact, they repeatedly stress that they are not affiliated with any political party, and instead work with the system, i.e., the police and bureaucracy).

I thought I’d learnt my lesson in approaching this topic, but as it so happened this wasn’t the last awkward encounter I would have.

For the Federation meeting, my main suggestion to Sanjay and Jagdish was to encourage the members to work in smaller, issue-based groups, rather than plan for mobilised action (which would be federated work in a more literal sense of the term).

As the Federation meeting began, Sanjay and Jagdish introduced the various topics they wanted to discuss, including a review of their field trip to Vasai. One of the NGO’s voluntary front-line workers, Sugandha,* said that the adivasi panchayat had a concrete mudda (issue) they worked on. She said, “Humara koi mudda nahin hain…ekta kaise hogi? Mudda hum se hoga.” We don’t have an issue…so how will there be unity? The issue has to come from us.

After Sanjay finished speaking, he pointed towards me and said that I too had something to say to the members.

I spoke awkwardly for 5 minutes (or was it 10?), emphasising that if residents of Dharavi bear the brunt of problems collectively (or share it – sahbhagi hain), they can also collectively share the responsibility of the solution. After I finished, there awkward silence for about 30 seconds (as if there couldn’t be more awkwardness), before people began nodding and said that I had a point.


The rest of the meeting went well.

I came across a lot of individuals who are involved in civic and political activism, and can undoubtedly be used as resource persons for the Federation (rather than inviting outsiders).

But I want to underscore the point that Sugandha made about mudda (issues) and ekta (unity, solidarity), since it illustrates the basis of the fragmented political and social realities that the residents of Dharavi have to engage with (and for the front-line workers’ work on gender-based violence, recognising this link has been crucial).

Perhaps, my awkward act of ‘performing’ the community in the Federation meeting was a case of the researcher crossing the red line of objectivity. Or, conversely, it was a case of the ethnographer ‘going native,’ an exercise in reflexivity

Personally, I think it was neither. Anthropology has long rejected the positivistic bias in social sciences; and I am scarcely a participant in the everyday struggles of Dharavi residents. At best, I am an empathetic outsider (which raises its own ethical questions – see the last post).

In that space of the Federation meeting – and throughout my fieldwork – I had the opportunity to discern the diverging and overlapping solidarities in Dharavi, which are often held together by what Partha Chatterjee calls ‘political society,’ that is, disenfranchised groups which negotiate with governmental regimes (as opposed to rights-bearing citizens of civil society). But the everyday realities are far more complex.

Liza Weinstein, in her book The Durable Slum, recognises that Dharavi’s complex social and political landscape is marked by a ‘precarious stability.’ The sheer multitude of actors involved in redeveloping Dharavi – from the state government, the municipal body, multinationals, builders, NGOs, and the residents of Dharavi – argues Weinstein, leads to a condition of fragmented sovereignty.

Sugandha, therefore, was spot on in pointing out that the Federation has to find its own mudda (issue) before it can effectively mobilise itself, take ‘action,’ or establish ekta (unity, solidarity). Doing so is the way in which the NGO and the Federation can work towards specific ends in the conditions of precarious stability – in which articulating, defining, and performing the ‘community’ is an essential part.


And, to come to the example I started this post with (of the Trust working on redevelopment and aspirations), that is also where such interventions tend to be deeply problematic: they identify (or ossify) the ‘community’ as a given, rather than something that in continuously negotiated, produced (Note: this is equally true of terms like ‘culture,’ ‘society,’ etc.).

Anthropological interventions in these spaces, as Nathaniel Roberts argues in a blog post about his fieldwork with Dalit slum dwellers, is about “building a picture.” It is about

“how…[a] culture is produced, what it hides from view, where its fault lines are, who helps it and who hurts it, and perhaps most importantly, what can be said about the relations between the slum and the dominant society around it that serve to render slum dwellers so abject.”

And in the front-lines of gender-based violence, where my research is focused, anthropology also involves being attuned to these nuances that front-line workers have to negotiate every day. Violence, gender, community, development, solidarity…these terms tend to acquire particular salience through intervention work and ethnography.

Just yesterday, I was discussing similar problems with my university peers, about the differences between ‘representing’ the social realities of the people anthropologists work with, and the need to carry out further discussions with them as we’re writing our work. In other words, the difference between showing them as symbols, and making their voices heard (although, I have greatly simplified the hour-long discussion we had).

The latter might preclude the exclusion of our interlocutors since writing is something that arguably happens after the fieldwork moment; whereas the former runs the risk of portraying a relatively static and unchanging picture. This was also the problem at the heart of the crisis of representation debate in anthropology in the 1980s – addressed most prominently by James Clifford and George Marcus’ influential volume Writing Culture.

In many ways, this problem is still very much at the heart of anthropology, compounded with more concrete ethical challenges and questions.

My awkward five-minute speech at the Federation meeting, I think, highlighted this. One cannot take the community for granted, certainly. But everyday life in spaces like Dharavi goes on precisely because individual lives – and research projects such as mine – are thoroughly enmeshed in, and contribute to, (understandings of) what the community is. And perhaps, more importantly, what people want it to be. And articulating these aspirations would require far more than just an art installation or, for that matter, my words.


*I have changed the names of my colleagues to preserve their anonymity

#Although adivasis are referred to as Scheduled Tribes under the Indian Constitution, I am sceptical of using the term ‘tribal’ here, given the colonial and postcolonial history. The more literal translation would be an indigenous group. But the term adivasi has specific connotations to political subjectivities, hence my preference for the same.

Works Cited

Partha Chatterjee. 2004. Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World.

James Clifford & George E. Marcus, (Eds.). 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography.

Nathaniel Roberts. 2012. Time, order and the ethical in the production of ethnographic knowledge. (Link)

Kalpana Sharma. 2000. Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum.

Liza Weinstein. 2014. The Durable Slum: Dharavi and the Right to Stay Put in Globalizing Mumbai.


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