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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 em
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 per
"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:

Published:
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, estimat"
Group of Domestic servants at Madras, 1870