Conference on Servants’ Pasts, 16th to 20th century

Conference on Servants’ Pasts, 16th to 20th century

European Research Commission (ERC); Charu Gupta (Delhi University, Delhi), Nitin Varma (Humboldt University, Berlin), Nitin Sinha (Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin)
Delhi University
Vom - Bis
16.02.2017 - 17.02.2017
Sinha, Nitin

The history of domestic servants and service in South Asia is an under-researched field. In spite of the ubiquity in both historical and contemporary periods, various strands of history writing - labour, family, socio-cultural - have largely kept servant an invisible subject. This conference, which is part of the European Research Commission (ERC) funded project on ‘Domestic Servants in colonial South Asia’ invites papers to fill in this historiographical gap.

Our major thrust in this conference is to address the history of servants in two broad ways: one, in the relational way that covers the range of forms of relationships instituted and produced between masters and servants and between employers and employees. These include legal and regulatory frameworks, ties of (fictive and constructed) kinship, slavery-servitude continuum, and gender, caste and religious norms and practices. Of course, the major site of locating the changing historical meanings and practices of all the above is the household. We are keen to explore servants’ pasts in a range of households which for heuristic purposes could be classified as: native urban elites, European, rural elites, mercantile households and households of lesser means.

In order to develop clarity on the role of servants within households, we have intentionally chosen to keep the temporal framework of the inquiry broad. We invite papers from scholars working on both early modern and modern periods (roughly from 16th to 20th centuries). Some of the contributions can, therefore, be overtly theoretical and conceptual in nature. Issues of long term history of words, terms and concepts that encapsulate a form of relationship (such as naukar, chakar, gholam, banda, and so on) are crucial to identify the changing meanings of work and the context behind them over a period of four centuries.

Our second thrust is on the use of vernacular materials and sources. We are not restricting ourselves to the exclusive use of vernacular sources, but we particularly welcome contributions which attentively analyse the vernacular courtly, literary, popular, visual, etc sources from different linguistic regions. One lead question could be how different regions have come to be associated with specific skill and service provision; for instance, Oriya bearers, Maithili cooks, and so on? In this regard the papers can also develop interesting case-studies of certain urban centres: Calcutta, Patna, Lucknow, Benares, Lahore, Bombay, Madras; or of important port cities and littoral societies such as Surat, Cochin, the Portoguese Goa and so on. The rural-urban continuum is of great interest, more so when we do know that groups of people in different service categories had migrated across villages, towns and cities to find work and employment.

Barring a few prominent service groups (mainly ayahs), we still lack either long-term or in-depth studies of other service providers who were commonly classified as domestic servants in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Khansamah, khidmatgar, syce, darzee, mehtar and mehtarani, or other generic labour-providing terms such as bearers, are little explored. Household, as stated above, is the prominent worksite but a large number of these ‘servants’ also found employment in military, municipality, hospital and other such public institutions. What happens when the supposedly private-based nature of work enter into the realm of public?

In the twentieth century, when Gandhi gave a call that all servant holding middle class families should at least have one servant from the ‘harijan’ community, we can already see a deeply entrenched history of work, caste and the idea of bodily contact. ‘Kamchor naukar’ (lazy servant), ‘ganda naukar’ (dirty servant) - these expressions are widely prevalent in our contemporary times. What is their history? What is the history of the association of caste and work for the set of workers loosely labelled as servants? Issues of touch, body, dirt and filth on the one hand point towards the history of hygiene and sanitation, on the other towards social norms and taboos reflecting hierarchy, insubordination and differentiation. How do caste and gender interact for these set of workers? In the immediate post-independent phase, how did the social experience of subaltern-servant fit into the ideas of citizenship, rights and entitlements?

The conference will be held at Delhi University, India on 16-17 February 2017. We invite abstracts in not more than 400 words, emailed to Please send in the abstracts by 30 September 2016.



Charu Gupta (Delhi University, Delhi), Nitin Varma (Humboldt University, Berlin) and Nitin Sinha (Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin)

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