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Domestic Servants in Colonial South Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - DOS (Domestic Servants in Colonial South Asia)

Reporting period: 2017-04-01 to 2018-09-30

Major objectives of the project (which has also shifted along the project’s life):

1. To develop and sharpen our methodological approaches to understand the specific yet diverse nature of master/mistress-servant relationship,
2. To understand the ‘practices’ and ‘principles’ through which the master/mistress-servant relationship was governed,
3. To ascertain the possibilities and challenges of the major archives on which the research has moved—judicial archives, visuals, ego-documents.
4. To engage with vernacular sources and create a dialogue between archival and literary representations,
5. To create a dialogue with the early modern and contemporary periods on inter-disciplinary conversations,
6. To address the question of agency in the material we are working with,
7. To quantify the scale and magnitude of service and servant,
8. To map the nature of master-servant relationship in a range of households,
9. To initiate a purposeful dialogue within the ‘imperial contexts’ on the nature and practice of domestic service.

One of the primary aims of the project was to demonstrate the centrality of domestic service and domestic servants in the social, political and economic history of South Asia—from the late eighteenth to the middle of twentieth century. The project has so far successfully managed to open a new field of inquiry and with the realisation of all publication plans in the next two years will potentially bring domestic servants and service in the centre of the writing of the social history of South Asia. The project has significantly moved ahead in attainting this objective through our own research, researches of other members of the project and sustained collaboration with researchers working on other regions and time periods of South Asia and beyond. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the project has closely followed the original research design and objectives, but at the same time, responded to the challenges of locating research material, acquiring new research expertise and developing appropriate methodologies of research.

The project has been extremely successful in developing a longue durée perspective of the changing nature of domestic service and servants in South Asia from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. The engagement across time (early modern to the present) and also space (other regions and imperial contexts), which is now being disseminated through publications (journal articles, book chapters, edited volumes and special themed issues) has put us on a stronger footing in conceptually claiming and empirically demonstrating the centrality of domestic service and servants in social, political and economic changes from the late eighteenth to the middle of twentieth century. A temporal and spatial ‘depth’ of this research has brought into conversation the range of categories and historiographies which has earlier been compartmentalized: precolonial-colonial; native household-colonial household and slave-servant.

The project has closely followed the wide ‘ramifications’ of ‘master-servant template’ as operating as a persistent ideological principle of the colonial state—informing regulations, laws and policing practices and demonstrated the centrality of ‘master and servant law’ as a key element in shaping the nature of that relationship from the late eighteenth to the middle of twentieth century.

Another result is in the form of the argument that puts servants and service in the centre of both questioning and the making of the private and public spheres corresponding to the domestic and the state.
The persistent ‘marginality’ of servants in archival material has been addressed through novel methodological approaches and also concentrated research on particular sites for different periods of investigation. In an earlier period (late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth but also extending to the end of the nineteenth century)—judicial archives emerged as the most prominent site dealing with servants, as master-servant disputes was seen in the ‘criminal’ domain where breaches on the part of servants became ‘police’ and ‘criminal’ matters. The appearance of servants as ‘offenders’ also provides us with some ‘details’ about their work, life, employment and their embedding in social networks beyond the master’s households. Here the methodology of ‘reducing the scale of investigation’ and ‘thick description’ has allowed us to develop detailed case studies about servants and domestic service for this period.

The social relevance of the project can be mapped in many different and interrelated aspects. At one level, domestic servants are and have been a major occupational group throughout the period of our study as well as in contemporary times. The participation of men, women and children in paid domestic work has been less recognized in the writing of labour and social histories and this has led to a generalized notion of labour—where domestics appear as marginal or even exceptional in both the making of the category and populating its numbers. This has serious ramifications beyond a mere ‘academic’ neglect, as the emerging policies of labour in late colonial and post-colonial India has rarely acknowledged the large presence of domestic servants as waged labour. They remain hidden under the practices and discourses of social dependence, obligatory ties, ties of region, caste and service and other forms which prevents them from appearing as social-citizens or a distinctly recognizable work force. This happens only in moments of crises as has recently happened in a couple of cases related to disputes between masters/mistresses and servants resulting in policing actions and violent protests. Through our work, we demonstrate the long history of why domestic servants have remained invisible, why their recognition as a distinct laboring force was not allowed and how the ‘privatization’ of modes of control developed that sustained the unequal relationship between masters/employers and servants/service providers. Our project provides the conceptual and empirical resources for contemporary interventions in matters of social theory and public policy.

The conclusion of the action (through research done during the overall period) is in forms of different publications, some of which are already published, some under contract and some are under preparation for submissions next year.
The work performed during the period of the project has three basic components. One, the independent research work carried by PI and PD on the period between mid-eighteenth and mid-twentieth century; second, works done by research assistants on specific questions and source materials; and third, planned project conferences and panels hosted in other conferences based upon collaboration.

In the period of the first report we had organized a panel ‘Servants' Past: Interrogating forms of Domestic Service, 1600-1850’ at the European Conference for South Asian Studies in June 2016 in Warsaw and one international conference ‘Servants’ Pasts, 16th to 20th Century’ in Delhi in February 2017. These two events helped us in closely pursuing a set of objectives: to understand the nature and typologies of households (Mughal, Rajput, Anglo-Indian, native elites); to explore the long-history of domestic service and servitude from early modern to contemporary; to underscore the inevitability and challenges of establishing conceptual differences between slavery, servitude and service; to find methodological anchorage while dealing with a variety of sources (judicial, literary and visual).

The results of these events are two edited volumes comprising of select essays presented in the conference. The title of these volumes are “Servants’ Pasts: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century”, vol. 1 and “Servants’ Pasts: Nineteenth to Contemporary” vol. 2, with Orient Blackswan, Delhi (open access). The volumes are currently under review. We have written a long exhaustive introduction to both volumes, which some of the prominent scholars in the field have already liked a lot (some of them have already described it as going to become a mandatory reference point for future research). Our ambition, through these volumes, is to open the new field of ‘history of domestic servants’ in South Asia, and question the existing frameworks of gender and labour history writing, which have hitherto neglected this topic (as discussed in our mid-term report).

In the second phase of the project, we organized two more events. One, a panel ‘Regulating Domestic Service in Colonial Societies’ and a round table on the same theme at the European Social Science History Congress in April 2018 in Belfast. This was followed by our own second international conference ‘Servants’ Pasts, 16th to 20th Century’ in April 2018 in Berlin. The first event was a conscious decision to enter into conversations with scholars working on different imperial settings: South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong, India as well as Europe. This has resulted in submitting a proposal of five papers and an introduction as a ‘special theme’ in the journal of ‘International Review in Social History’. This is also under review.

The long-term exploration of domestic service was once again taken up in the second conference but with some new elements. In our first conference in Delhi in February 2017, we had three papers that were based on Hindi language sources. This time, for the Berlin conference, we solicited contributions based on nineteenth and twentieth century Urdu materials. We also solicited two very strong contributions on the contemporary period. This approach not only broadened our temporal scope but also led to conversations based on inter-disciplinary exchanges. These two contributions on the contemporary period came from the disciplines of Sociology and Political Science. Generally, most of the contributors were from History but we also had some participants from fields of cultural studies, literature and geography.

In terms of planned output using the papers presented in the 2018 conference: we are working on two ‘special issues’ in two different highly reputed journals on South Asian history and culture. We are planning to submit the full manuscript of both submissions before the summer of 2019.

Between June 2017 and September 2018 (for the earlier period work, see mid-term report), PI undertook four research trips, two each to London and India. The trips to London led to further collection of archival materials – private papers, visuals, judicial consultations. The trips to India, similarly, helped in amassing materials that were necessary to complete the missing archival series. The trips to India were also important for developing collaborative networks. They also led to the opening of new publication possibilities.

He has contributed one essay in the first edited volume, he will contribute an essay to the special theme on imperial domestic work regulation, and he will also contribute an essay in another special issue due to be submitted next year. Besides these three, he had submitted an article in the journal of 'Modern Asian Studies'. Another article on the history of home and migration is already published in the journal of 'International Review in Social History'. He is working on getting the first draft of his monograph ready by September 2019.

During his fieldtrip to India, PI explored the possibility of bringing out an anthology of select Hindi stories translated into English. He collaborated with one of his colleagues in approaching Pan Macmillan, India. The project has been approved by the publisher, which is provisionally titled, 'Lesser Lives: Stories of Domestic Servants in India', should be out next year. The literary registers, methodologically speaking, sometimes provide a better handle at writing a social history of servants in comparison to archival materials.

Between June 2017 and September 2018, PD conducted three research trips, twice to India (Delhi) and once to London (British Library). The trips to India focused on accessing material at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The trip to British Library (London) followed specific lines of investigation which had emerged from his earlier archival research in India.

A cluster of specific historical investigation which has consolidated in the research of the PD focusses on the interaction of master-servant relationship with law. In one chapter PD has closely followed the long term trajectories of a legislative bill aiming to legally intervene and establish the terms and conditions of master-servant relationship.

Another line of research has concentrated on the specific use of law to determine a troubling question: Who is a domestic servant in India? To directly address this question, PD has discovered two very detailed instances of disputes in court where the so called servants took their masters to court to claim that they were either their servants (in order to claim certain benefits arising from that condition) or to deny that condition. The determination of who is a servant in court provides us with a deeper sense of the conceptual/legal thinking on the question of servants in India. An article from this research will be part of a special issue to be jointly coedited by the PI and PD.

Collaboration remains a crucial way of doing a long history of master-servant relationship under this project. While both PI and PD have now much clearer understanding of this relationship and its history in their respective time-periods of study, the broad contours, shifts, continuities and changes only appear when comparatively seen over a period of time. A couple of papers on Mughal households, some on the late nineteenth century aristocratic households, still others on rural and semi-urban settings, have now collectively provided a better understanding on the typologies of relationship as they existed in various households. This is also reflected in our first edited volume as we have a special section consisting of two essays on Rajput Households covering the period from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. As we had set ourselves the task to understand the nature of households in some detail, we feel that our own research (PI and PD) on a variety of colonial households and through others’ researches and contributions on Mughal, Rajput and other households, we stand on a better ground to understand the nature of domestic service and servitude in its variety (this will be reflected in our edited volumes).

In terms of our engagement with labour history, we have broadened our scope from eastern and northern India to include southern India. One participant of our Berlin conference, Vidhya Raveendranathan, will contribute to one of the special issues with an account of the history of regulation of domestic servants in colonial Madras. She was also hired as a research assistant on the project last year. During this time, she furnished materials of legal, administrative and judicial nature to PI and PD. She also looked at ego-documents and travelogues to get a rounded sense of the master-servant relationship as existing outside of the state legal structures. As judicial archives continue to be the mainstay of the archival material for both PI and PD, her assistance (and her own engagement with the theme resulting in an article for the project publication) was extremely valuable.

There were many parallel developments between Bengal and Madras presidencies in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, which made the need for an RA working on Madras intensely felt. In her work on the project, Raveendranathan has closely looked at the space of the bazaar and the possibilities it opened up for domestic servants to engage in petty trade in commodities such as alcohol, betel nut, meat – all of which brought them into a wider contact with meat dealers, arrack contractors, fishermen etc. This mobility between the household and the market unsettled the hierarchical power relations of the household as well as enabled them to transgress the disciplinary frameworks of the master servant laws.

These parallels are also found in case of Bengal (Calcutta) on which PI has written draft chapters. The combined work of PI and Raveendranathan on households, markets and legal regulations can significantly revise the fiscal centric narratives of this period and instead stress the centrality of labour in shaping the nature of the colonial state.

Since a significant part of the focus of the ERC project (PI’s section) has been on uncovering different aspects of the master servant relationships, Raveendranathan’s research on domestic servants in Madras has contributed in three ways: first, in extending some of the conclusions of the project regarding the quotidian nature of law making and the need to juxtapose legal regulations and formal arena of contracts with the everyday as represented in travelogues, memoirs etc; second, by aligning the history of domestic servants with the history of policing and municipal regulations, which would tell us about the expansive scope of the master-servant laws beyond the household; and third, her research enables the project to make broader comparisons about the experiences of domestic servants in Madras and Calcutta.

As mentioned, she will contribute her paper to our journal special issue as well as also include a chapter or substantial section on Madras domestic servants in her Ph.D thesis.

The project in this period has attempted to closely engage with the quantitative methodology and get a sense of the numbers—especially from the late nineteenth century. Another research assistant, Sourav Kumar Mahanta, a Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Delhi, was specifically hired for this research, and he has closely followed the Home (Census) records held at the National Archives of India, Delhi. His preliminary research has already shown some results on the question of ‘numbers’ and the notion of ‘service’. Census was a prominent administrative tool to understand and govern ‘subject’ population where features of society were identified and converted into statistical abstraction.

One important state aspiration for conducting the Census operation was to enable ‘comparison’ across societies (in colonial situation it was between the ‘metropole’ and ‘colony’) and time. Any attempt, therefore, to investigate the master-servant relationship through this material has to engage with the category of ‘service'. As its meaning was socially embedded, it differed between Britain and India. As such, officials running the Census operations were often simply importing English social categories into India. But ‘service’ in India was also embedded in social institution of caste. As ethnographic method was dominant in Indian censuses, one finds detailed description of the occupation and social origin of these ‘service castes’.

Mahanta's research was directed by a set of questions: was census able to capture this difference in meaning or the transition from non-wage service (as part of caste system) to waged domestic service? Was transition to wage/paid domestic service only an urban phenomenon during colonial period? These are the questions his research—based on this material—has attempted to address. On the question of ‘numbers’ it seems that the census data needs to be carefully analysed as it often suffers from the problem of both ‘under-enumeration’ and ‘over-enumeration’. Enumeration of domestic servants was done within the broader notions of ‘productive work’, domesticity, women’s role and work in household, definition of occupations, system of classification of occupation adopted, distinction between ‘Worker’ ‘bread-winner’ and ‘dependents’. Therefore, there was always an overlap between the domestic servants and housewives in terms of numbers. An article based on these issues and questions is currently being prepared by him, which will become part of the journal special issue.

C. Details of work performed between June 2017 and September 2018:
I. List of activities

Time Activity
June 2017 to July 2017: Secondary reading on the theme of domestic service and submission of an article on ‘servant testimonies’ in an edited volume.
August 2017: Field Trip to the National Archives of India, Delhi.
September 2017 to January 2018: Preparation of a paper and organisation for the Belfast panel (April 2018) and Berlin conference (April 2018); comments and feedback provided to contributors of the first edited volume.
January 2018 to March 2018: Field Trip to Nehru Memorial Museum Library, Delhi; finalisation of the Berlin conference schedule and organisation.
April 2018 Conference organisation in Berlin; co-writing the introduction of the first edited volume.
May 2018 to June 2018: Field trip to British Library and preliminary work on two articles: a. one based on specific legal cases determining the question of servant in India b. Situating the history of a legal intervention (Master Servant Bill of 1877).
July 2018 to September 2018: Chapter for volume 2 of Servants’ Pasts and preliminary plan of the monograph on ‘servant lives’; co-writing the introduction of Volume 2 and participation in development of special issues of journals on the theme of domestic servants.


Time Activity
June 2017 to September 2017: Secondary reading on the theme of domestic service; submission of an article to International Review in Social History (IRSH); field trip to India in July-August; invited lecture at Presidency University, Kolkata; formalising the process of hiring of two RAs – one in India and another from Germany to work in British Library, London.
September 2017 to October 2017: Fieldtrip to the British Library, London; submission of an article to Modern Asian Studies (MAS); started teaching a term at Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen, Germany.
November 2017 to December 2017: Paper presentation in a conference organised at CeMIS, University of Goettingen, Germany; preparation for organising the April Belfast panel and our April Berlin conference; comments and feedback provided to contributors of the first edited volum
January 2018 to March 2018: Fieldtrip to India; finalisation of the Berlin conference schedule and organisation; writing parts of my own monograph and a chapter for our edited volume; revision of the IRSH paper; editing chapters of the first edited volume of Servants’ Pasts.
April to May 2018: Revision of the MAS paper; conference presentation in Belfast; conference organisation in Berlin; writing the introduction of the first edited volume; maintenance of the project blog and uploading select conference videos at the CSDS youtube channel (with written consent of participants).
June to July 2018: Fieldtrip to British Library in London; submission of the revised MAS paper; finalisation of the manuscript of the first edited volume; reading and commenting on chapters for the second volume of the Servants’ Pasts; participation in ECSAS, Paris.
August to September 2018: Finalisation of the manuscript of the second edited volume; co-written the introduction with PD; wrote one new chapter for my monograph; wrote the Berlin conference report; planning of a series of journal special issues; working with/on English translations of Hindi stories for planned Anthology.
1. Barring few studies, the history of domestic servants is an uncharted theme in South Asian history. The project is the first of its kind to do it in a comprehensive manner through two sub-projects and two targeted investigation of specific aspects of domestic servants' history (law and market, and census and enumeration). The collaborative aspect of the project provided a unique opportunity to offer both graded histories of the domestic service and servitude as well as map the long history of these themes. The two under review volumes will be the first of their kind to offer a consolidated study of domestic servants in early modern, modern and contemporary South Asia (with also a long cast on medieval and ancient periods).
2. The formation of colonial state has been usually approached through the histories of political economy, ideological formations and institutional growth. A direct focus on one form of the labouring group - domestic servants - and its conjoined histories with other forms such as coolies and convicts - helps us to argue for the centrality of the factor of mechanisms of labour control in the making of the colonial state. Situating domestic labour in the centre of the debate on colonial state formation is therefore new.
3. The master-servant relationship has been acknowledged in the existing historiography as an important element for discipling labour but its wide ramifications in the making of both private and public spheres have not been adequately explored. Our project explores the various components of the master-servant relationship and argues for the interrelated histories of household, market and state.
4. The life trajectory and microhistorical approaches allow to reconstruct 'subaltern biographies', an aspect that was missing even in the predominant school of subaltern history writing.

The expected results of this project need a little longer to become visible. One set of result through organisation of panels and conferences has in fact already happened. These events have encouraged some younger scholars at Ph.D and postdoctoral scholars to engage with issues of domestic labour and service in their ongoing works. It has led even some senior scholars to revisit their materials and approaches and think about domestic servant. A participant in both our conferences did so through her re-reading of Hindi materials, and has published an article on the representations of domestic servants in Hindi literature, wherein our project is duly acknowledged. Some others who are in the process of revising their Ph.D thesis into monographs have been contemplating on adding a chapter on domestic servant. These academic effects particularly take a little longer time in disciplines of Social Science and Humanities but the results of the project are making their headway into other researchers' thinking and teaching as well. Another instance of this is the use of one of our blog pieces in the classroom teaching at a college in Delhi University.

By September 2018, we have already published two academic pieces. One is an article by PI in 'International Review of Social History' and second by PD in an edited book. However, these are just the beginnings of a long plan which will materialise by 2021. The real effect of the project, therefore, will be visible between 2019 and 2021. To indicate this, we provide the following list of the publication plans:

1. Nitin Varma, 'Servant Testimonies and Anglo-India Homes in Nineteenth Century India' in James Williams and Felicitas Hentschke, ed., "To be at Home: House, Work, and Self in The Modern World" (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018) 219-224.
2. Nitin Sinha, ‘The Idea of Home in a World of Circulation: Steam, Women & Migration through Folksongs’, "International Review of Social History", open access.

Under review:
3. Nitin Sinha, Nitin Varma & Pankaj Jha, eds., "Servants’ Pasts: 16th–18th Centuries", vol. 1, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi (open access, estimated September 2019).
4. Nitin Sinha, ‘Who Is (Not) a Servant, Anyway? Domestic Servants and Service in Early Colonial India’, "Modern Asian Studies" (revised version submitted).
5. Nitin Sinha, "Servant problem’ and ‘Social-Subaltern’ of Early Colonial Calcutta’, in Nitin Sinha, Nitin Varma & Pankaj Jha, eds., "Servants’ Pasts, 16th–18th Centuries", vol. 1.
6. Nitin Sinha & Nitin Varma, eds., "Servants’ Pasts, 18th–20th Centuries", vol. 2, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi (open access, estimated December 2019).
7. Nitin Varma, 'The Many Lives of Ayah: Life Trajectories of Female Servants in Early Nineteenth Century India', in Sinha & Varma, eds., "Servants’ Pasts, 18th–20th Centuries", vol. 2.
8. Special Theme “Regulation and Domestic Service in Colonial Societies” eds., Samita Sen and Victoria Haskins, "International Review of Social History" (subject to approval). Both PI and PD will have an article each in the volume.

Under contract:
9. Nitin Sinha & Prabhat Kumar, eds., "Lesser Lives: Stories of Domestic Servants in India, An Anthology", Pan Macmillan, Delhi (estimated September 2019).

Planned submissions:
10. Nitin Sinha, Nitin Varma and Pankaj K. Jha, eds., 'Domestic Work in South Asia: Gender, Intimacy and State from Medieval to Postcolonial Periods', special issue in "South Asian History and Culture" (submission, July 2019).
11. Nitin Varma and Nitin Sinha, eds., 'Domestic Servants in Colonial India', special issue in "Indian Economic Social History and Review" (submission, May 2019).
12. Vidhya Raveendranathan, 'Histories of Pariah Domestic Servants in Colonial Madras', in Varma & Sinha, eds., "Domestic Servants".
13. Sourav Mahanta, 'Foregrounding Dependence: Domestic Servants in Indian Census', in Varma & Sinha, eds., "Domestic Servants".
14. Nitin Varma, 'The Servant Question: Law and Domestic Relationship in Colonial India', Sen & Haskins, eds., "Regulation and Domestic Service".
15. Nitin Sinha, 'In the Shadow of Regulation: Domestic Servants in Colonial India', in Varma & Sinha, eds., "Domestic Servants".
All above subject to review approval.

Monographs under progress:
16. Nitin Sinha, provisional title, "At Your Service: Master-Servant Relationship in Early Colonial India".
17. Nitin Varma, provisional title, "Servant Lives: Life Trajectories of Domestic Servants in India, 1850-1950".
Group of Domestic servants at Madras, 1870