AIIS 2014 Book Prizes Awarded to Lisa Bjorkman and Jessica Falcone

The Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences has been awarded to Lisa Bjorkman, for her manuscript, Pipe Politics: Mumbai’s Contested Waters.

The Edward C. Dimock Prize in the Indian Humanities has been awarded to Jessica Marie Falcone, for her manuscript, Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built.

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Lisa Bjorkman

Pipe Politics: Mumbai’s Contested Waters is a political ethnography about the encounter in Mumbai between liberalizing market reforms and the materially-dense politics of urban infrastructure. Taking water both as a material instantiation of power and authority, as well as a resource whose distribution is worthy of attention in its own right, the book explores the political, social, and infrastructural practices that produce and inhibit flows of water through the growing and globalizing city. In contemporary Mumbai, water is made to flow by means of intimate forms of knowledge and ongoing interventions into the city’s complex and dynamic hydraulic landscape. The everyday work of getting water animates and inhabits a penumbra of infrastructural activity – of business, brokerage, secondary markets, and socio-political networks – whose workings are reconfiguring and rescaling political authority in the city.

Mumbai’s increasingly-illegible and volatile hydrologies, the book argues, are lending infrastructures increasing political salience just as actual control over pipes and flows becomes contingent upon dispersed and intimate assemblages of knowledge, power, and material authority. ‘Pipe politics’ refers to the new arenas of contestation that Mumbai’s water infrastructures animate – contestations that reveal the illusory and precarious nature of an elite-driven project to remake Mumbai in the image Shanghai or Singapore, and gesture instead towards the highly-contested futures and possibilities of the actually-existing city.

Pipe Politics provides deep insight into the Mumbai elite’s dream to create a “world class city” by deliberately ignoring the structural flaws in this dream. Water is one commodity that richly illustrates this most visibly in the public sphere. This book is at the forefront in drawing scholarly attention to the increasing disconnect between urban necessity like water and the expansion of buildings in urban India.

Lisa Björkman is a political ethnographer currently based at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. Her research sits at the intersection of three broad themes: India’s urban transformations and the material politics of actually-existing city-making; the production of socio-cultural, spatial, and political-economic inclusions and exclusions; and new arenas of political mobilization, contestation and brokerage. Her current project builds on her earlier research on Mumbai’s water infrastrutures to explore the multiple and contesting iterations and imaginations of urban ‘development’ operative in contemporary urban India. Lisa received a Ph.D. in Politics from the New School for Social Research in 2011. Lisa Bjorkman was an AIIS junior fellow in India in 2008-2009.


Jessica Falcone

Battling the Buddha of Love: A Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built examines the controversial plans and practices of the Maitreya Project, which has long endeavored to offer a multi-million dollar “gift” of the world’s biggest statue to India. Due to the Maitreya Project’s effort to forcibly acquire 750-acres of occupied land for their statue park in the Kushinagar area of Uttar Pradesh, the Buddhist statue planners have run into obstacle after obstacle, including a full-scale grassroots resistance movement working to “Save the Land.” In telling the “life story” of the proposed statue, Professor Falcone sheds light on the aspirations, values and practices of both the Buddhists working to construct the statue, as well as the Indian farmer-activists who tirelessly protested against the Maitreya Project.

Since the majority of the supporters of the Maitreya Project are non-heritage converts to Tibetan Buddhism, the book narrates the spectacular collision of cultural values between small agriculturalists in rural India and transnational Buddhists hailing from Portland to Pretoria.  Thus, an ethnography of a future statue of the Maitreya Buddha (himself the “future Buddha”) quite unexpected became a story about divergent, competing visions of Kushinagar’s potential futures.  Battling the Buddha of Love traces power, faith and hope through the axes of globalization, transnational religion, and rural grassroots activism in South Asia.

The topic explored in Battling the Buddha of Love is timely insofar as it engages with a distinctive phenomenon that has emerged of late with immense political and emotional charge as gigantic devotional figures begin to dot the urban highways and mountaintops.  The polished narrative will move and disarm readers with the author’s own shifting perceptions and the unfolding of her personal investment and involvement in the project.

Jessica Marie Falcone is currently an assistant professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University, where she teaches anthropology courses about South Asia, religion, futurity, the arts and expressive cultures.  Having obtained an undergraduate degree from New College of Florida and an MA in development anthropology from George Washington University, she received her doctorate in Anthropology from Cornell University in 2010. She has published ethnographic research about various dimensions of South Asian cultural experience: grassroots activism in India; notions of cultural citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora in India; collegiate Gujarati-American dance competitions; Hindutva summer camps in the United States; and Sikh-American activism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. She is currently conducting research about Buddhist religious practice in virtual worlds, such as Second Life. Jessica Falcone was an AIIS junior fellow in India in 2005-2006.