Report on ‘Servants’ Pasts’, 2nd International Conference, Berlin April 2018

This is a detailed panel-wise report on our recently concluded conference in Berlin. A shorter will also appear soon.

Conference Report

This report gives details of the three-day 2nd international conference on “Servants’ Pasts” that took place from the 11th to 13th April 2018 at Humboldt Universität, Berlin. The conference was part of the European Research Council funded project, “History of Domestic Servants in Colonial India”, ERC-Stg DOS, 640627.

The conference brought together around 45 scholars, graduate students and interested general public on the questions and issues related to domestic servants. The conference packed with formal presentations, panel discussions and informal dialogues aimed at addressing the lacunae in the historiography on domestic work and domestic servants in early modern and modern South Asia.

Welcome and Opening Statements, 11.04.18

 Nitin Sinha, after making the opening statements, highlighted the significance of the research project “Domestic Servants in Colonial South Asia” hosted at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient and Re: work (both in Berlin) and gave a brief summary of the project’s scope and objectives. He briefly mentioned his own research focus, which is the histories of domestic servants in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century India. He then introduced Nitin Varma, who in this project is a postdoctoral candidate and have been working on the late-nineteenth and early-postcolonial history of domestic servants. He finished his welcome note by emphasizing the necessity of understanding the long-term associations and developments of terms, concepts, and practices entrenched in the social pasts of South Asia, especially those that deal with forms of service and servitude.

Panel 1: Servants, Slaves, Merchants & Royalty I

 Sweta Singh in her paper investigated the role and position of servants and slaves within the Jewish community dispersed across the Mediterranean and Malabar region from 1000 to 1300 C.E. The paper explored letters written by the Jewish merchants who moved with an entourage of slaves and servants. She emphasized the crucial role played by the servants inside and outside the domestic sphere aiding the commercial activities of the merchants.

Neha Vermani advanced the discussion on master/servant relationships by focusing on practices of food consumption in Mughal courts. The sufrajis (officers and men who managed matbakh and provided food) who served in the Mughal courts were expected to be upright individuals for the job, displaying wisdom, honesty and loyalty. She focused on the architecture, organization, and functioning of matbakh (imperial kitchen) which was a contact space where the master-servant relationship was enacted and reproduced. She showed how food became the means through which the servant came in contact with the master’s body. The paper underlined the everyday practices and functioning of matbakh that shaped the master-servant relationship.

Panel 2: Servants, Slaves, Merchants & Royalty II

 The first presentation by Lubna Irfan began with a historical debate on the presence of middle-class in Mughal India. While locating her research within this debate, Irfan attempted to identify the ‘counterparts of the present-day servants in the Medieval Indian social fabric’. Her paper focused on the servile class that served the king and royalty. The servants were divided into three categories, the female servants (sahelis), the male servants (included slaves and chelas) and the eunuchs (khwaja saras). Irfan’s paper largely encapsulated the nature of servility and the importance of servants in master’s life in Mughal India.

The next panelist, Nicolas J. Abbot, focused on the competing discourses about eunuchs and masculinities in the kingdom of Awadh (1722–1856). The paper focused on how a shared consensus about eunuchs and their effeminacy was fostered by both the colonial authorities and members of the royal dynasty. These discourses, however, differed from the way eunuchs described themselves as ideal fathers and householders. While men and women of Awadh mocked their bodies and perceived effeminacy, the eunuchs constantly tried to lay claim to elite masculinity and fatherhood. These discourses and contestations eventually challenged the legitimacy and economic autonomy of eunuchs and weakened the dynasty over time.

Rochisha Narayan in juxtaposition to Abbot’s meta-narration concentrated on developing a narrative account of Ummat Bahu, a matriarch and a widower of Bishamber Pandit, who along with his brother Beniram Pandit acquired huge wealth as a consequence of their services as intermediaries to the English East India Company in North India. The story of Ummat Bahu from Benares effectively showed how a widower attempted to negotiate with the colonial masters to retain her estate. Bahu, deployed two methods to defend her rights, on the one hand she reminded the colonial state of the loyal service she and her family had rendered to further the company’s interests, and on the other hand the duty and the obligations she had to fulfil towards her servants and retainers, which required her to possess the estate.

Panel 3: Regulation and Domestic Work

Akanksha Singh began the third panel with her presentation that explored the ambivalence expressed towards the domestic servants both in the private and public spheres in colonial India. She contended that within the bourgeoisie household, the servants were simultaneously valued and feared. They were valued because they were the markers of the class status but also feared for their subversive potentialities. In general, the servants were not arrogated a single definition. There were multiple and often overlapping terms used to describe domestic servitude. Slavery, wage labour and debt-bondage were used to describe the same phenomenon.

Prinisha Badassy began her presentation by identifying gaps in the history of Indian workers and domestic servants in South Africa. She argued that the personal histories and individual accounts are missing in much of the existing historical narratives. The paper focused on the cases of rape crimes and indecent assaults filed against Indian domestic servants in Natal between 1880 and 1920. These cases showed how the sexuality of white women was strictly regulated which made the domestic sphere even more significant as it became a zone of contact for racial tensions but also of overt sexual liaisons and romance.

Fae Dussart in her paper analyzed the use of violence in the domestic sphere in colonial households to uphold colonial control. She maintained that the relationships within the private sphere became a form of negotiation between the Anglo-British colonizers and the government. The colonial household, so imagined, became a frontier, where power and control were instrumental. She narrated the story of a syce, who died as a result of a violent beating by a British employer. The death of a syce, Fae contended, should not be seen as an accident; rather such violence was instrumental in sustaining colonial authority outside the private sphere as well.

Panel 4: Castes of Food

The first panelist, Vidhya Raveendranathan, problematized the overt focus on grain markets and bazaars in early colonial India. She argued that the Company’s efforts to regulate markets for products such as meat, betel nut and alcohol were basically attempts by the sovereign power to protect its citizens from the rampant corruption of the domestic servants. By looking at the space of the bazaar the paper sought to flag two main points. First, the space of the bazaar offered certain possibilities for outcaste domestic servants to unsettle the hierarchical power relations of the household. Second, bazaars constituted the site for the breach of racial boundaries, which was most evident in the case of taverns and arrack shops. Colonial anxieties were expressed regarding the corrupting influences of servants in either supplying spurious alcohol or breaching the ideological and inviolable space of the cantonment in Madras.

Salma Wasi’s paper looked at the role of cooks in the British army from 1900 to 1946.  She used 1900 as the starting point to index two broad changes: One the elimination of native cooks from the service of the British army and two the enrollment of remaining cooks (langries) and water carriers (bhistees) under the army regulations. By looking at the caste and communal identities of cooks as well as their experiences, she tried to trace the processes that contributed to the menialisation of the cook as well as their role in providing the necessities of the soldiers at multiple fronts.  She argued that the inferior status ascribed to the cooks in the military was also replicated within the bungalows where the cooks served the white masters.


Carolyn Steedman began her keynote by qualifying her focus in time and space and by doing so laid out the scope of its applicability. Her presentation focused on two cases of domestic servants in Britain who fought against their masters and parishes for their rights. In her case studies the legal consciousness of the domestics comes out in stark contrast to the cases presented before. Steedman argued that English domestic servants knew about the laws because they were about them. At the end of eighteenth century, contract had become a dominant means of regulating private relationships. This was a world of new possibilities; the old age vassalage system had given way to new “freedoms” which existed, theoretically, between “independent persons”. Essentially, contract created superiority and power on the one hand and obedience and duty on the other hand.

Her presentation led to an intense discussion on the applicability of legal-regulative frameworks for doing the history of domestic servants in India as well as broadly on the question of imperial linkages, historians’ location and the attempts to hear and recover the dead voices from the past.

Second Day, 12.04.18

Panel 1: Male Domestics

 Swapna Banerjee’s presentation focused specifically on the figure of domestic male servants in colonial India. She began her paper by taking cues from Ray and Qayum’s argument about the ability of the male domestic to speak about their ‘compromised masculinity’ and failure ‘to be men’ as their families expected them to be. By focusing on the colonial period, her paper based on literary sources, attempted to retrieve male domestic servants through their intimate labour that was constitutive of their manhood as well as their employers. To establish her point, she argued that employers represented servants in various ways in order to forge their own class and gender identities. Through the stories of male domestic subalterns such as Majam, Rupo and Raicharan, she looked at the middle-class and community formation in the colonial period.

Nassima Mekaoui further developed the subject of male domestics by recounting the case of Abdallah Benamuer in colonial Algiers around 1910. Benameur was an indigenous domestic servant of Sir Colombani, a coffee owner in Mostaganem. The case revolved around his complaint against Sir Masse, the chief of police in Mostaganem, for arbitrary arrest, illegal detention in the municipal jail, violence and assault. The paper showed how the police officials who were supposed to implement law, enjoyed impunity for their own actions. Benameur used his agency against the police chief by writing and pleading directly to the Minister of Justice. The ultimate denial of his case is not unexpected in the case, but the fact that he used the legal path to confront the assault he faced from the police chief brought out the servants’ agency and their capability to use the instruments of law.

Ritam Sengupta offered a historical account of the rise and demise of services of pankah-wallahs. He traced the manner in which the pankah wallahs became dispensable with changes in the material and technological advancement in colonial India. By referring to the slow demise of the pankah wallah, rather than a dramatic transformation by mechanical fans, the paper identified three phases in the industrialization of cooling and ventilation: First, he talked about the emerging colonial weather science that supported the push towards hiring more and more pankah-wallahs. Second, with time there was a huge standardization of pankah-wallahs’ labour, resulting in labour-shifts that continued 24/7. Third, the increase in the availability of labour resulted in cheap hiring of pankah-wallahs.

Panel 2: Bungalows and Jungle

John Basy Paul began his presentation by recognizing the bungalow as a space that had imperial roots. Nonetheless, it served as a refuge for the poor also. The missionary bungalows were instrumental in converting the natives and establishing Christian denomination in India. These bungalows needed servants to sustain its presence; the jobs were to be carried out both within and without.

Tresa Abraham examined the representation of domestic servants in Behind the Bungalow (1889), a collection of papers written in the late nineteenth century on the subject of the Indian naukar by a colonial government servant, E. H. Aitken. The book was intended as an educational manual for griffins or new entrants into the city and informed them about the practices of hiring and maintaining servants. Abraham looked at the colonial attempts to reproduce the bourgeoise ideal of the English households in Bombay as well as the anxieties inherent in this project.

Ezra Rashkow in his presentation urged scholars to historically re-conceptualize jungles and forests. These spaces cannot be seen only as wild spaces rather were domesticated in the past by the colonizers during their hunting trips. The domestication of these places was essentially carried out by the labour provided by domestic servants to their colonizers. His paper effectively problematized the boundaries of domestic sphere by clearly showing how it can be extended to places where domestic labour was employed.

Panel 3: Mobile Intimacies

Swapna Banerjee chaired the third panel that included two panelists focusing primarily on issues related to female domestic servants. Satyasikha Chakraborty’s paper presented early twentieth century white European and American cultural representations of nursemaids across colonies and the American south. She focused primarily on African-American mammy, the South-Asian ayah, and the Indonesian baboe. To analyze cultural representations, she focused on pictorial representations in the form of postcards. Her analysis revealed remarkable similarities in the representations of these female caregivers. She contended that the pictorial representation of these female servants was mythical, desexualized and sentimentalized.

Raffaella Sarti’s presentation was dedicated to apprehending the power relations and cultural exchanges that materialized through the figure of white governesses in nineteenth and twentieth century Asia. She began by contextualizing the practice of hiring maidservants within Europe since the eighteenth century. The importance of nannies/in imparting the language and culture of dominant powers was a practice present in Europe as well. A case in point was Milan in the late eighteenth century under Austrian rule, where German-speaking nannies were highly sought after. For Sarti, the memoirs of housewives are an important source through which personal insights of hiring maidservants can be ascertained.

 Discussion Panel

 Nitin Sinha led the panel discussion. He began by summarizing the forms of sources that were used by different panelists, which included poetry, memoirs, postcards, personal diaries, novels, short stories, movies, and photographs. But before putting forward some questions for an open discussion, he emphasized the significance of mobility within the life cycle of servants, and how caste and gender identities inflected the masculinity and femininity of domestic servants.

Pankaj Jha broadened the discussion by urging the participants to look at historical continuities and transformations between early modern and colonial periods. He contended that by doing so the binary of colonizer and colonized will be problematized, as it has the potential to obfuscate a variety of relationships. While referring to pre-modern times, he added that the location, sources and contexts are significant for any analysis. Lastly, in the lack of any overt political will to regularize domestic work in India, he deliberated whether this political silence could itself become a methodological entry point for both historical analysis and understanding the contemporary.

Third Day, 13.04.18

 Panel 1: Narratives, Imaginaries & Servants

 Jana Tschurenev chaired the first panel of the last day that consisted of three panelists. The panel primarily focused on literary representations of domestic servants in different languages and regions of the world. Ruchika Sharma commenced the first panel presentation by introducing the figure of the duti in Sanskrit Riti Poetry.  The duti was a domestic maid, a messenger between the hero and heroine as well as a confidante. By looking at courtly and erotic Sanskrit poetry, she analyzed the different forms of intimate labour practiced by the duti, her multiple and overlapping roles as the speaker/poet and listener/reader. Through literary representations of the duti, as the confidante, friend, advisor, messenger she tries to understand the different layers of relationships played out with the heroine and the centrality of her role in the poetic tradition.

.Dele Maxwell Ugwanyi shifted the focus away from India to Africa, which proved to be an interesting juxtaposition for the discussion between two similar yet different cases of colonial and postcolonial pasts. He highlighted the postcolonial reality of Africa, which is dominated by intercontinental migration. He argued that servants and slaves as different categories are necessarily a ‘semantic issue’. In his presentation, he tried to recapitulate how the “migrant metaphor” and “domestic servitude” are represented in the literary works of African writers.

The last presentation of the panel by Charu Gupta juxtaposed literary and vernacular representations of servants with legal and official sources in early twentieth century Uttar Pradesh. By doing so, she tried to connect the mundane social histories of middle-class domesticity in which everyday disciplining of servants played a crucial part, along with the court cases and legal trials where the servants acted autonomously speaking on behalf of their mistresses. In literary and vernacular didactic texts, male Hindu upper-caste publicists were vocal in instructing the mistresses about the need for punishments and exercise of power over servants, in order to discipline and educate them. In contrast, the selected legal and official sources showed servants as mediators and representatives of their mistresses in the public sphere thus indexing their multiple role.

Panel 2: Urdu Literature & Servants

 This panel was chaired by Pankaj Jha, which brought forward the representations of domestic servants in various Urdu literary forms written primarily by middle-class Muslims. Ufaque Paiker’s paper focused on the eighteenth century Muslim zamindars dealing with their diminishing financial and material possessions. She argued that the atmosphere of decline and degeneration was so stark that a new genre of poetry called Shahr Ashob, meaning requiem of the declining city took its form. Simultaneously, a large number of memoirs by the Muslim Ashrafiya classes emerged. Through these literary forms, Paiker attempted to ‘listen to silences in representations of domestic servants’. Domestic servants served as a means through which Ashraf identity was constructed.

Christina Oesterfeld advanced the conversation by presenting texts dealing with social life in North Indian Muslim households of the second half of the nineteenth century. Her examination was primarily based on didactic tales, letters, guidebooks and an autobiographical narrative. She cautioned in the very beginning that the representations in the forms she analysed were primarily from the perspective of masters and that her textual samples are not a complete portrait of the textual sources available. She found a similarity in her variety of sources with regards to master-servant relationship; the minors/slaves/servants/subjects were expected to be obedient and loyal and in contrast, the elders/masters/rulers were supposed to be kind, compassionate and protectors.

 Panel 3: City & Servants

 Laura Wilks paper investigated the dynamics of the relationship between the lived-out and part-time domestic workers in Calcutta and their employers. She maintained that the transactional and contractual labour may have brought greater autonomy and bargaining power but had attendant ambivalences and tensions that constitute the relationship between the servants and the employers. Wilks contended that the domestic servants (commuting women workers in her case study) simultaneously valued intimacy with their employers and independence that the contractual wage labour entails.

Nargis Vasundhara interrogated the changing dynamics of servitude in India.  Her paper tried to capture the experiences of a sizeable proportion of the part-time live-out female domestic workers who constituted a substantial section of the unorganised informal economy in India. Unlike the live-in domestic workers of the earlier era, these women living in urban slums are the mainstay of the domestic service economy in cities. A large number of these women migrated from villages to cities to find opportunities for employment. Vasundhara, based on her ethnographic research in Delhi, focused on the formation of personhood and identity of women in the process of becoming domestic servants.

Muge Özbeck’s paper took the discussion back to the second half of nineteenth century Ottoman Empire, where the legal grounds for the absolute authority of masters over their domestic servants had been curtailed concurrently with the demographic, economic and social changes in the cities. She argued that a restraint on the total authority of masters was countered by a paternalistic discourse by the masters that attempted to control the lives, labour and sexuality of their servants. Particularly in the case of female servants, this also meant that their male relatives, husbands, brothers, and fathers tried to apply the same paternalistic discourse to control them.

Panel 3: Politics and Power

 Lokesh’s paper addressed the relations of power between the domestic servants and their masters in contemporary Noida-Delhi. Her case study provided a perfect example of state’s complicity in preserving the interests of one class at the expense of another. The story of Abdul Sattar and his wife Zohra Bibi, who went missing after going to work at their employer’s house in the Mahagun Moderne housing society, presents a microcosmic picture of a meta-level exploitation and power structure. The story clearly showed that the agency of the domestic servants was curtailed and suppressed by their master in alliance with and the help of the state.

Sonal Sharma presented the last paper of the conference that focused on the public sphere as the site of politics in contrast to the overt emphasis on private sphere. In his paper, he employed Pierre Bourdieu’s (1985) approach to classification to examine how domestic workers have been classified in census records, parliamentary debates, and trade union literature in India. Under this theoretical method, the ability to categorize becomes an act of power. Sharma’s research encapsulated the historical evolution of categorization of domestic labour in India. His analysis of the official discourse on domestic workers shows that more than the ‘lack of recognition and visibility’, the absence of domestic servants in policy making and its categorization as non-work/unproductive work reflects a history of misrecognition.

Discussion: Concluding Remarks

 Nitin Sinha opened the concluding discussion by making some brief remarks. First, he underlined the significance of a long history of regulation of domestic work, which he asserted could be used as an entry point for historical research on servants and service. Second, he suggested that for servants’ pasts, it is important to develop a long-durée understanding of social structures and institutions, namely, caste, gender, class, and family. Third, he stressed the significance of material objects in exploring master-servant relationship. The histories of commodities and everyday objects tell us about the forms of dependencies and ties of command. Fourth, he suggested that beyond law and regulation, other social practices related to language, body, touch, dirt, and filth also explain the quotidian nature of the master-servant relationship.

Nitin Varma added to the conversation by underscoring the significance of the sources that historians use. He referred to his own research on the divorce trials of Europeans in early nineteenth century, which revealed the importance that ayahs acquired in these trials, as they were the ones who could become witnesses of adultery. These trials became a source through which the long biographical trajectory of domestic figures such as ayahs could be developed. So, his experience revealed that the sources of historical analysis could at times reveal unanticipated accounts.

Raffaella Sarti added to the discussion by bringing up the question of the historian’s responsibility to overcome the dualities doing servants’ pasts through the use of state-ly and master-ly narratives. She argued that the hierarchies within the domestic servants and the solidarities between the mistresses and the maids clearly show the limits of simplistic analytical binaries. She noted that a historian does not occupy the subject position of the colonizer or the colonized. Historians must overcome such dualities as ‘citizen of the world’. If such dualism were reproduced in historical research then the purpose of the conference would be compromised.


Written by:

Jamal Ali Mags

M. A. in Global History

Frei University, Berlin

Project Assistant

Domestic Servants in Colonial India


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