Domestic Servants: Sources in Urdu and Persian

It is perhaps relatively easier to locate and work with English language sources on domestic servants in the colonial period (mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries). We are, however, constantly attempting to go beyond them. The availability of printed materials in Urdu and Persian from the mid-nineteenth century onwards is something which we wish to reflect upon in this post. The collections range from contemporary newspapers and journals, to autobiographies, didactic texts, and novels, written primarily in Urdu and/or Persian. In our brief engagement with them, we look at the period from the 1820s to the 1930s.

One may start by looking at the newspapers of the time, such as Jam-e Jahan Numa (from 1822) and Tilism-e Lucknow (from 1856). This material share and reflect a fairly conventional perception of servants being either faithful or cheats, chaotic or dependable and helpful or worthless. Jam-e Jahan Numa was a colonial state-sponsored newspaper edited by Munshi Sadasukh Mirzapuri. It was first published in 1822 from Calcutta in Persian (though there was an Urdu edition as well later). Arguably, this may well have been the first published Urdu newspaper. Tilism-e Lucknow on the other hand was an independent newspaper, edited by Maulavi Mohammad Yaqub Ansari. It was published from the Firangi Mahal, Lucknow from 1856. Both the newspapers had specific goals. Jam-e Jahan Numa was meant to be a record of the activities related to Shahi Darbar (Royal Court) and British officials. It also carried news (verbatim) from English newspapers of the time. The Tilism was an independent newspaper highlighting contemporary issues such as the effects of the annexation of Awadh (February, 1856) by the British and the consequent popular dissatisfaction in the native population. Leaving aside the specific political purposes these newspapers carried numerous references to the world of servants when representing the social and elite life of North India. We get several references to servants who were attached to royal households as well as other elite households.

One important aspect of the master-servant relationship that emerges from the close reading of these newspapers is the oft-mentioned practice of gifting.  In the local elite households, servants supposedly received gifts on every important occasion. Domestic harkaras (messengers, peons, orderlies, spies), saees (horse groom), kochban (coachman), darbans (doorkeepers, watchman), khansaman (butler, cooks, stewards), mashalchi (torch bearers) and others were bestowed with material rewards on the occasions of community or religious festivals, marriages, birth, and other similar social events. Most often, these gifts were given as sadqa, implying a relationship based upon ideas of charity and rewards. (The master gave servants sadqa in expectation of divine protection for himself and his family from worldly troubles. Sadqa is a religious tradition in the Muslim world, a voluntary offering to please Allah, to get blessings/protections on both happy and sorrowful occasions). This practice of obliging the servants on special occasions was so intrinsic to the social life of that period that many considered it their right to make special requests according to their needs and wishes. The tools of obligation thus could be turned around into some socially sanctioned acts of demand, which is one example of how the nature of the master-servant relationship could be constantly negotiated from both sides in spite of the clear structures of hierarchy that tied them together.

By this point in time, the British had almost flattened the idea of gift in South Asia to ‘oriental’ debauchery, corruption and a manifestation of an irredeemable greed. Bakshish (reward) had seemingly transformed into extortion. The practice of gifting provides a useful gateway to look at the nature of master-servant relationship in a more comparative way, i.e. between elite native and colonial households.

If gifts symbolize a relationship based on patronage and reward, the description of punishment tells us about the control and discipline that also marked the master-servant relationship. A majority of sources refer to the typical attributes of servants being guilty of petty crimes such as stealing, drinking or being untrustworthy and creating chaos in the household. As a result, a mention of these servants often comes up in relation to punishment and fines. Jam-e Jahan Numa mentions the kinds of punishments, which varied from solitary, corporal, simple, and rigorous to that of fines (both in money and kind). The nature and procedure of punishment varied according to the crime, position and the location of the servants. Sometimes the local ruler would directly punish the ‘culprits’. An example from Jam-e Jahan Numa shows that two servants (khidmatgars) were given physical punishment (25 koras, lashes each) on account of being absent from the Court. Another one was ordered a punishment of 50 koras for singing in the court, which was considered disrespectful to the king/court. Some of these cases were referred to the British Resident in the city (Delhi). Thus, a khakroob (sweeper) who had killed his brother was punished by Mr Fraser with five years of imprisonment and a fine of 30 rupees. However, it is not clear if the Resident was following a judicial procedure (in case of servants) or giving summary punishment. But it is quite clear that cases with severe crimes like killings were sent to the British authorities while minor cases were dealt by the native rulers themselves.

Modes of control and punishment were tied to the more violent manifestations in the master-servant relationship. Tilism-e Lucknow, for example, has a reference of a bitter tussle between a master and his servants, and the latter’s fight over wages. It details the domestic upheaval, wherein the servant killed his master because he was kept captive for days without salary. The newspaper presents such incidents as a result of economic and social problems created by the annexation of Awadh. The news report, in this way, link the changing domestic set-up to the new political setting. It lamented the loss of loyalty on the part of servants. Servants, it claimed, were loyal to their masters during the good old days of the native rule but now with the political change they had been looting the same households. The severe economic impacts and chaotic condition of the society due to political changes forced people to take advantage of the situation.

The contemporary biographies and autobiographies are another useful corpus of material for reconstructing the world of servants. A range of themes can be addressed through them: master-servant relationship, servants’ relationship with other members of the master’s family, issue of wages, and not least, a rudimentary sketch of servants’ daily habits. Works like Yadgar-e Rozgar: Tazkirat Kamilan-e Patna [Memoirs of Employment: References to Experts of Patna] by Syed Badrul Hasan (1931) and Dilli ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan [Some Extraordinary Personalities of Delhi] by Ashraf Sabohi Dehlavi (1989) are two such examples. Yadgar-e Rozgar for example contains the histories of various characters, both rich and poor, who were attached to the author’s own life. In this way, the character of many servants, who were significant in the author’s life, are discussed. A comparison between the relationship of the servant with the master on one hand and with other members of household on the other is possible: it was paternalistic with the master but exhibited elements of envy towards other members of the family. There are references to the daily activities of the servants, even if they are conveyed with the intent of highlighting the weaknesses of the character of the ‘domestic class’. Hence, for example, the practice of drinking copious amount of tea is remarked upon as a constant necessity for the domestic class to accomplish their daily assigned tasks. The author brands servants as a whole untrustworthy but at the same time acknowledges the positive experiences he shared with his own servants, who often helped him at times when his family members denied support to him. Dependence and remonstration went hand in hand.

Tea was a new commodity in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Indian social life. Dependency on tea tells us something about the changing material and social practices of the domestic class. The author further blames servants for aspiring to imitate British officials’ lifestyle, especially their attires. Through the author’s words we can hear the conversations taking place among servants on the nature of work in British and Indian households. A British household needed separate servants for separate work; in the local elite household, a single person could do all the work. Finally, these vernacular sources also potentially tell us about the region-based description of servants, who already were highly mobile since the late eighteenth century.

Similarly, Dilli ki Chand Ajeeb Hastiyan is a description of a variety of local individuals of Delhi, which includes insane women and men, kababi (kebab sellers), bhatyarey (bakers), raqabdar (pantry-man), poor princes, pahalwan (wrestlers), aged takiyadar (keepers of the grave) and others who were living in their own specific styles. The work of Zahir Dehlavi, Gadar Ke Chashmadid Halat [The Eye-Witness Account of the Revolt], also mentions a number of servants who were active during the unrest of 1857, not only in the houses of the ashraf [elite Muslim] class but also within the Mughal palace.

These sources allow us to reconstruct, albeit patchily, the nature of master-servant relationship as well as the everyday life as situated within the family and households. Thick descriptions of households raise an important question of identity and definition. Some of them were clearly marked as servants, others were tied in the relationship of service. Dancing and nautch girls of Awadh who earned handsomely is one such group that destabilizes the strict definition of the servant. Umrao Jan Ada was employed on a retainer allowance of 75 rupees per month by a Nawab, who was of 70 years age. Umrao was expected to provide companionship for about two hours in the evening to this Nawab. The novel Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (1899) talks about prostitutes who, apart from working independently, were also employed by members of the elite class. They were employed not only as sex workers and for entertainment but also as persons who would teach adab and etiquette to the children of the household. Some of the famous courtesans would have their own establishments full of people working for them.

We also have some historical-cultural works like Qadeem Lucknow ki Akhri Bahar [The Last Spring of the Old Lucknow] by Mirza Jafar Husain (1981), which contains a detailed account of domestic servants and the variety of services they would perform. This text highlights the male-female separation of household servants, which was not specifically based on work. Males were responsible for cooking for other men, cleaning and other heavy tasks while female servants were appointed to take care of the female arena. There is a description of salaries, perks and endowments given to these servants and the services they were supposed to maintain in accordance to their salaries. A separate section is dedicated to the people (always male) involved in the entertainment business like murgbazi [cock-fighting]. Such descriptive accounts enable us to understand the hierarchy within these serving groups.

The arena of ‘domestic work’ or the services provided within the household enlarges once we enter into these households through vernacular materials. Tailors, grave keepers and prostitutes were serving the house in one way or the other, even if they might not be in direct personal contact of the master. The inclusion of these distant groups into the domestic arena is significant to understand the concept of domesticity from the perspectives of a) the employer, b) the household and c) the work based relationship. The prostitutes, for example, were employed to teach etiquettes to the small children and for performing dances on special family occasions. However, this was not the case for the economically less well-to-do households or for the houses of the English officials. This aspect to indirect domestic work is very important to unravel the ties of work, service, hierarchy, household and the changing times of the political.

By Heena Ansari (with inputs from Nitin Sinha)


4 thoughts on “Domestic Servants: Sources in Urdu and Persian

  1. Pingback: Domestic gadgets and domestic servants in late colonial British households | Servants Pasts

  2. Well written piece but I was wondering if you could push it further to explore the relationship between servants and tea. That was a fantastic point and left me thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

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