The Project

The initial brief statement on the nature, scope and objective of the project can be found here. The project started in October 2015 and will run until September 2018. We have crossed the mid-way post and hence realised a more accessible medium like a blog will help us put across our ideas (some of which are obviously still formative) better.

We intend to use this space to tell about our activities but more importantly about our research through short reflective pieces. These can either be based on some interesting finding from the archives, a reading of a literary piece, a set of visuals, or simply an informed pondering over methodological issues. Reflection on ‘ways of doing history’ is as important as knowing what the servants’ past was.

Below we give a brief account of thematic issues we have so far dealt with, the areas of significance which we have identified, and the possibilities of revising certain historiographical approaches.

  • Dialogue with Early Modern: The project covers the period of British colonial rule in India from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century but neither the servant keeping culture was restricted to Britons alone nor did it start with them. South Asia had its own pasts of keeping slaves and servants and had complex ways of controlling and organising household labour. The ‘modern’ period of South Asian history writing is notoriously ‘modernist’ and therefore we wanted to develop a long-term understanding on this theme, as much as possible. Certain terms related to servants, slaves and servitude have a long history. In order to conceptually and empirically understand the shifting meanings encapsulated in these terms and their usages, we felt the need to create a sustained dialogue with scholars of different linguistic capabilities working on the early modern period of South Asia. For instance, it might be seductive to plot the history of domestic servants of South Asia through terms such as domus and menial, and indeed it is important to understand the conceptual remit of these terms, but no historical account of domestic servants and service can ignore to explore the history of terms such as naukar and chakar. Tracing the history of these terms point to the histories of inclusion and exclusion of social groups being defined by such terms. They also point to the changing nature of the relationship between master and servant. In order to know what changed under colonialism we need to know what existed before it.
  • Limits of Labour History: Labour history in South Asia is predominantly about factory/industrial labour. Domestic slavery/servitude was characterised by the British colonial state as benign, something which did not require the immediate concern of the colonial state. Servants indeed were subject to various attempts of legal and judicial regulation but precisely because of its location in the domestic sphere were difficult to regulate. It seems, ironically, that the reluctance of labour historians to talk about domestic servants and service is precisely drawn upon the logic of seeing it as something less important, something which is incomplete of being labelled as ‘labour’. The other source of invisibilization in historical research is, of course, a strong tradition of Marxist thinking of which the fundamental classification of productive and unproductive labour possibly kept the historians disinterested in writing the labouring histories of domestic work. Through our dialogues with labour historians, in their groups, and through our presentations in centres that take lead in doing labour history, we continue questioning the current scope of ‘labour history’ in South Asia, as it exists today. Domestic servants were a crucial component of the working class as shown in works of British and other historians. This is equally true for India in the period we study.
  • Households: Through our research so far, we can clearly see the patterns of overlap and distinctions between ‘native’ and ‘European’ households. For instance, the ‘servant problem’ that persisted throughout the period of our research was largely a European concern. Similarly, the prominent female servant figure of ayah was mainly present in European households. But there were similarities too. Big aristocratic native households with many servants looked similar to well-to-do European households. The practices followed in different households were changing with times. The early Europeans claimed to follow the ‘oriental’ practice in keeping so many servants while a simpleton villager chastised the new Hindu elites of Calcutta for following English ways. These elites were allegedly hiring Muslim cooks at the cost of discarding their own tradition. While keeping in mind these similarities and differences, our project is not on households but on servants working in these households and who were embedded in a variety of relationships with their masters and mistresses (and their children).
  • Revisiting Home: Largely, the thrust of studies on the nineteenth century home is on its ideological formation and reformulation, be it of imperialist or nationalist variety. In this period, the ‘wife’ or the ‘memsahib’ became the beast of civilizational burden. Memsahibs were increasingly expected to recreate imperial ‘home away from home’ while in nationalist imaginations elite native women became the carrier of purity and tradition. Although, we do have some works done on servants in imperial homes as they were textually and visually visible in creating the effect of rank and hierarchy between the colonised and the coloniser, the historiography on native reimagination of the home is strikingly silent on the question of servant. This is not only true of current historiography but also of the historical materials from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In these manuals and prescriptive texts, the wife is burdened with all sorts of household work – from preparing food to milking cows. The real beast of burden, the servant, is literally tucked away in one typical stray sentence such as the new wife should be polite towards servants of the households. The project aims to bring servant out from this marginal reference into the centre stage of history writing.
  • Archives: Old & New: Several presentations in the Warsaw panel and Delhi conference brought out the limitations as well as possibilities of working with archives. Broadly, in the early modern period the reliance on normative texts is much higher than that for the later periods. However, the colonial archives have their own limitations. Servants don’t appear in a fixed routinsed way in the indexes of departmental repositories. Most of the times, they are not even of the direct concern to the state unless meant for regulation. They appear in someone else’s voices, someone else’s disputes and someone else’s imagination. Their location is not of their doing and the sources therefore need to be diligently mined to find their traces, which most of the times, are fragmentary. But possibilities exist. For instance, ayahs’ history can be reconstructed, as Nitin Varma is doing, through a close reading of divorce trials of European masters and mistresses. Similarly, depositions made by servants in disputes related to their own or other masters, which is part of the judicial archives that Nitin Sinha has explored for the early colonial period, tell us a lot about servants’ lives and their working conditions. In our combined research in India (Delhi, Calcutta and Patna) and British Library in London, we have moved beyond the prescriptive books into judicial and legal archives, which we find to be highly rewarding. This has to be complemented with the search for new archives of which visuals and family papers could be most promising. Nitin Sinha has found his own family papers dating from the early twentieth century that give details on servants. Exploration of unknown family archives is time consuming and uncertain but indeed worth pursuing.