Servants’ Pasts. 2nd International Conference

Servants’ Pasts. 2nd International Conference

Nitin Varma, Re: work, Humboldt University, Berlin; Nitin Sinha; Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin
Vom - Bis
11.04.2018 - 13.04.2018
Nitin Sinha; Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; Jamal Ali Bashir, Faculty of Philosophie 1, Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg

This conference was part of the European Research Council funded project, “History of Domestic Servants in Colonial South Asia”.[1]

The conference brought together about 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.

NITIN SINHA (Leibniz-ZMO, Berlin), after making opening statements, highlighted the significance of the research project, hosted at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient and Re: work in Berlin, and gave a brief summary of the project’s scope and objectives. He finished his welcome note by emphasizing the necessity to understand the long-term associations and developments of terms, concepts, and practices entrenched in the social pasts of South Asia, especially those which deal with forms of service and servitude.

The first two panels had papers from the periods of medieval, early modern and the eighteenth century. Covering the mercantile families of Jews, the kitchen of the royal Mughals, the variety of figures involved in the running of such households, the role of eunuchs in the overlap of the political and the domestic, and not least, the aristocratic and mercantile families that came in touch with the English East India Company, the papers looked at the master-servant relationship from a variety of aspects: consumption, loyalty, masculinity, effeminacy, and property. All these papers reinforced the need to highlight the dialogue (through continuity and change) between different time periods, especially, early modern and modern.

The papers in the following panel moved to the nineteenth century, exploring the master-servant relationship through the intersection of law, regulation, race, and violence. The tenuous linkages between slaves and servants were explored. Historically, there was often an ambivalence expressed towards domestic servants both in the private and public spheres: servants were both valued and feared. They were valued because they were the markers of the class-status but also feared for their subversive potentialities. The panel also had a paper on Indian domestic servants in colonial Natal. The sexuality of white women was strictly regulated in households where coloured Indian servants worked as these households were zones of contact for racial tensions but also covert sexual liaisons and romance. The charges of ‘rape’ on Indian servants could be, it was argued, a manifestation of this boundary-marking for love and romance. Altogether, the intermixing of race and violence under the framework of legal regulations, be it on slavery or on charges of rape, was crucial in shaping the master-servant relationship in British households in colonial societies.

Servants’ pasts were not restricted to households alone. The papers in the following panel reminded their crucial presence in markets. A series of market regulations were also necessitated by the colonial claim that (British) subjects needed to be protected from the corruption of the Indian servants. Servants supplied spurious liquor, for instance, in cantonments and military barracks, thus instigating a moral breach in the colonial order and discipline.

A variety of service providers, such as cooks, bheesties (water carriers), darzees (tailors), syces (horse groomers) had always found employment with the army. Their recruitment and work were traced in a paper on the early twentieth century. Caste and communal identities of cooks played a role but under the specifics of army regulations. For other service providers such as pankah-wallahs in the same period, who traversed between the modes of private and public employment, it was the technology rather than the social factors such as caste and religion that became crucial in the gradual shifts that came to their work and profession.

The first day of the conference ended with CAROLYN STEEDMAN’S (Emeritus, University of Warwick) keynote. Her presentation focused on two cases of domestic servants in Britain who fought against their masters and parishes for their rights. Steedman argued that at the end of the eighteenth century, contracts had become a dominant means of regulating private relationships. According to her, contracts essentially created superiority and power on the one hand and obedience and duty on the other. 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.

The legal consciousness by servants was time and time again discussed in a comparative way, and was also brought forward in a case-study on colonial Algiers, wherein a servant legally challenged his illegal detention by the police chief.

From households to public spaces, and from law to caste, the discussion on the second day shifted towards gender. SWAPNA BANERJEE (Brooklyn College, New York) explored the ‘compromised masculinity’ of male domestic servants in colonial Bengal. 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.

The theme of gender and representations of femininity through work was presented in a couple of papers in a comparative way by looking at nursemaids across colonies and the American south. The African-American mammy, the South-Asian ayah, and the Indonesian baboe were pictorially represented in remarkably similar ways on postcards produced in the early twentieth century. Their desexualized visual representation contrasts with the archival cases of sexual exploitation.

RAFFAELLA SARTI (University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Italy) continued with the focus on comparative gendered work by looking at white governesses in nineteenth and twentieth century Asia. She contextualized it within the practice of hiring maidservants in Europe since the eighteenth century. The importance of nannies in imparting the language and culture of dominant powers (masters and mistresses) was not only a colonial feature but present in Europe as well. The point of comparison served well to not treat colonial practices and discourses as unambiguously specific – the patterns and trends overlapped between Europe and its colonies.

While empire provided the context of comparison for cultural representations as well as legal formations (master-servant acts, for instance), the conference also highlighted the importance of specific spatial sites in writing the histories of domestic servants. Households, bazaars, military cantonments were part of the discussion. A set of papers on bungalows and jungle furthered this innovative line of thinking. Missionary bungalows were both the sites of work for servants but also spaces where servants were converted, thus acting as spaces where the relationship between the master and servant exceeded the normal boundary of command and control.

Another presentation on E. H. Aitken’s collection of papers, Behind the Bungalow (1889), which served as a manual on the subject of Indian naukar, looked at the colonial attempts to reproduce the bourgeoise ideal of the English households in Bombay as well as at the anxieties inherent in this project. What happened in alleys and backyards of the bungalows was a source of anxiety for the masters, reflecting the incompleteness of their control.

The second day ended with a discussion panel. Nitin Sinha summarized the forms of sources that were used in different papers, which included poetry, memoirs, postcards, personal diaries, novels, short stories, movies, and photographs. Before putting forward some questions for an open discussion, he emphasized the significance of mobility within the lifecycle of servants, and how caste and gender identities inflected the masculinity and femininity of domestic servants. PANJAK JHA (Lady Sri Ram College, University of Delhi) broadened the discussion by urging the participants to look at historical continuities and transformations between early modern and colonial periods. While referring to premodern times, he added that the location, sources and contexts are significant for any analysis.

A number of papers on the final day looked at domestic servants in a variety of literary sources from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. RUCHIKA SHARMA (Gargi College, Delhi) explored the figure of duti in Snskrit Riti poetry. As a go-between confidante between the hero and the heroine in the Riti narratives, her paper reminded the complexities of social and emotional identities which were too difficult to be easily bracketed by neat terms such as ‘servants’, ‘friends’ and ‘confidante’.

While the juxtaposition of literary and legal representations was part of CHARU GUPTA’s (University of Delhi) paper, two papers exclusively based upon the use of Urdu literary sources laid down the typologies of representation of servants in which they were supposed to be loyal and obedient while their masters were expected to be kind and compassionate. These papers were kind of surveys of the sources (Shahr Ashob, didactic tales, letters, guidebooks, autobiographical narratives) and typologies of the idealized relationship that gave a helpful handle to contrast it with colonial archival and visual sources that were used earlier in some papers.

The last two panels of the conference brought the audience closer to the contemporary period. Papers based on ethnographic field studies were presented. One paper was on Calcutta. With time, the live-out and part-time nature of domestic employment (unlike live-in, full-time of the nineteenth century) had become dominant. With this change, the earlier codes of the relationship – loyalty and dependence – had also changed. Yet, even in the contemporary period, the contractual nature of work has not displaced the older forms of expectations expressed from both servants and their masters and mistresses. Another paper, similarly based upon extensive fieldwork interviews and exchanges, was on Delhi. The paper specifically focussed on female domestics living in urban slums. The expansion of informal labour has primarily happened in the ‘unregulated’ sector of domestic work. What this informality did to the subjectivity of these female domestics was the central point of discussion in this paper.

The ‘politics’ of informality in these mega-cities often take a sharp turn in moments of episodic crisis. One such moment was explored in greater detail in the paper presented by LOKESH (University of 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 in Noida, presents a microcosmic picture of a meta-level exploitation and power structure, whereby the agency of the domestic servants was curtailed and suppressed by their master in alliance with and the help of the state.

The last presentation by SONAL SHARMA (John Hopkins University, Baltimore) helped connect these papers on the contemporary period as he took the audience through the history of the failed legislation on domestic servants in postcolonial India. The state documents such as census records and parliamentary debates have helped to make domestic servants invisible for public policy concerns. The naturalized condition of work, that is, the relationship between the master/mistress and the servant is of ‘personal’/‘private’ nature, is therefore also a manifestation of an active and conscious role played by the state and its instrument of law. The failure to regulate domestic work under any public legal framework is one of the reasons why the relationship has become ‘privatized’.

The concluding session of the conference reiterated some of the points made earlier in the course of three days. The need to do the long history of regulation of domestic work was emphasized. Equally important, it was argued, was to develop a longue durée-understanding of social structures and institutions, namely caste, gender, class, and family. Third, Sinha stressed the significance of material objects in exploring master-servant relationship. The history of commodities and everyday objects tells 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 (Re:Work, Berlin) added to the conversation by underscoring the significance of the sources that historians use. He referred to his own research on divorce trials of Europeans in the early nineteenth century, which revealed the importance of ayahs in these trials, as they were the ones who could become witnesses in the cases of adultery. These trials became a source through which the long biographical trajectory of figures like 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 of doing servants’ pasts through the use of stately and masterly 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 ‘citizens of the world’. If such dualism were reproduced in historical research, the purpose of the conference would be compromised.

Conference Overview:


Panel 1: Servants, Slaves, Merchants & Royalty I
Chair: Pankaj K. Jha (Lady Sri Ram College, University of Delhi, India)

Sweta Singh (Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India):
The Unique Case of Master-Servant Relation-ships among Jews from Mediterranean to Malabar: 1000-1300 C.E.

Neha Vermani (Royal Holloway, University of London, U.K.): From the Cauldrons of History: Hidden Labours of Kitchen Work in the Mughal Empire

Panel II: Servants, Slaves, Merchants & Royalty II
Chair: Pankaj K. Jha (Lady Sri Ram College, University of Delhi, India)

Lubna Irfan (Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, India): Unearthing the History of the Servants in Mughal India: The Ambiguous Life of the Servile Public within the Larger Socio-Political Structure of Royalty and Nobility

Nicholas J. Abbott (Department of History, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, U.S.A.): Cracked Backs and Broken Waists: Eunuchs, Gender, and Verbal Abuse in Early Modern Awadh

Rochisha Narayan (History Department, University of Cincinnati, U.S.A): In the Service of Empire: Widows, Dependents and Intermediary House-holds in Colonial India

Panel III: Regulation & Domestic Work
Chair: David Meyer (Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis (IISG), Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Akanksha Singh (Department of History, University of Delhi, India): Domesticating the Discourse on Servitude: Slavery vs. Service

Prinisha Badassy (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa): A Tissue of Lies: Crimes of Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Indecent Assault by Indian Domestic Servants, Colonial Natal

Fae Dussart (Department of Geography, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.): ‘Keep Them in the Path of Duty’: The ‘Regulation’ of Indian Servants on the Colonial Domestic Frontier 1870-1900

Panel IV: Castes of Food
Chair: Heike Liebau (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany)

Vidhya Raveendranathan (CeMIS, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany): Writing Histories of Pariah Domestic Servants and Butlers in Nineteenth Century Madras

Salma Wasi (Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India):
Indian Cook Servants in the Imperial Army, 1914-1946

Keynote Lecture
Carolyn Steedman (Professor Emeritus, University of Warwick, Coventry, U.K.): Domestic Servants, Domestic Law: What the Servants Knew (in England and elsewhere, in the long, long 18th century)
Chair: Nitin Varma & Nitin Sinha (Re: work, Humboldt University / Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany)

Panel V: Male Domestics
Chair: Victoria K. Haskins (Department of History, University of Newcastle, Australia)

Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn College, City University of New York, U.S.A.): Servants as Social Imaginaries: The Intimate Labour of Male Domestic Workers in Colonial Bengal, India

Nassima Mekaoui-Chebout (EHESS Paris, France / IRMC Tunis, Tunesia): Introduction to a Case Study – Abdallah Benameur’s Case: The “Indigenous” Valet, A Racialized and Masculinized Domestic Servant in Colonial Algeria (1910s)

Ritam Sengupta (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India): Historicising the Slow Death of the Punkah Wallah

Panel VI: Bungalows & Jungle
Chair: Nitin Sinha (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany)

John Basy Paul (Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad, India): Servant, Servitude and Salvation: Domestic Workers of Missionary Bungalows – A Case Study

Tresa Abraham (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, India):
The ‘Griffin’ and the ‘Nouker’ in the Colonial Domestic Space: A Study of E.H. Aitken’s ‘Behind the Bungalow’

Ezra D. Rashkow (Department of History, Montclair State University, U.S.A.): Jungle, Home: Camp Servants and Glamping in British India

Panel VI: Intimate Labour
Chair: Charu Gupta (Department of History, University of Delhi, India)

Ruchika Sharma (Gargi College, University of Delhi, India): Engendering Śringara, Procuring Love: Sakhi, Duti, and Go-Between in Riti Poetry

Victoria K. Haskins (Department of History, University of Newcastle, Australia): “Her Only Real Intimate”: British Colonialism, Loyalty, and the Visual Iconography of the Indian Ayah, 18th to 20th Centuries

Panel VII: Mobile Intimacies
Chair: Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn College, City, University of New York, U.S.A.)

Satyasikha Chakraborty (History Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, U.S.A.): Racialized Nursemaids in Early 20th Century Picture-Postcards: A Comparative Study of the Ayah, the Mammy, and the Baboe

Raffaella Sarti (Department of Communication Sciences, Humanities and International Studies, University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Italy): European Governesses in Asia: Power Relations, Cultural Exchanges, Intimacies, 19th to 20th Centuries

Panel VIII: Narratives, Imaginaries & Servants
Chair: Jana Tschurenev (CeMIS, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany)

Pankhuri Dasgupta (Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India): Kalua and Lajjo: A Look at the Lives of Domestic Servants through the Literature of Ismat Chughtai

Dele Maxwell Ugwanyi (General Studies Department, Enugu State University of Science and Technology, Nigeria): Migrants Metaphor and Postcolonial (Dis)Engagements: Rethinking the African Domestic Narratives in the African Literary Imaginaries in the Present and Past

Charu Gupta (Department of History, University of Delhi, India): Mistresses & Servants: Literary and Legal Sketches in Early 20th Century Uttar Pradesh

Panel IX: Urdu Literature & Servants
Chair: Pankaj K. Jha (Lady Sri Ram College, University of Delhi, India)

Ufaque Paiker (Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India): Fault lines of familiarity: Hearing silences in representation of domestic servants

Christina Oesterheld (South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany): Between Trust and Mistrust: Master-Servant Relationships in Urdu Narratives of the 1860s-1880s

Chair: Raffaella Sarti (Department of Communication Sciences, Humanities and International Studies, University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Italy)

Lauren Wilks (Department of Sociology, University of Edinburgh, U.K.): Contestation and Constraint: Commuting Domestic Workers and their Employers in Contemporary Kolkata

Nargis Vasundhara (Department of Sociology, Delhi University, India): Rethinking Female Servers: Negotiating Urban Domesticity

Müge Telci Özbek (Ataturk Institute for Modern Turkish History, Bogazici University, Turkey): Behind the Gloss of Paternal Protection: Negotiating the Labour and Sexuality of Female Domestic Servants in Istanbul, during the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Panel X: Politics & Power
Chair: Franziska Roy (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany)

Lokesh (Department of Sociology, University of Delhi, India): “From the Home to the World”: Ethnography of a Contemporary Domestic Workers’ “Riot”

Sonal Sharma (Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, U.S.A.): Class and Classification: Rethinking the History and Politics of Paid Domestic Labour in India

Final Session
Chair: Andreas Eckert (Re: work, Humboldt University, Berlin)

Raffaella Sarti (Department of Communication Sciences, Humanities and International Studies, University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Italy)

Nitin Varma (Re: work, Humboldt University, Berlin)

Nitin Sinha (Leibniz- Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany)

[1] ERC-Stg. DOS, 640627 (07.11.2018)