N. Sinha u.a. (Hrsg.): Servants' Pasts

Servants’ Pasts. Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century, South Asia, Volume 1

Sinha, Nitin; Varma, Nitin; Jha, Pankaj
New Perspectives in South Asian History
New Delhi 2019: Orient Blackswan
Anzahl Seiten
XVIII,, 421 S.
INR 995.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Abhishek Kaicker, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley

Early one July morning in Delhi in 1750, a man named Chintaman burst into the small room where his co-worker Ramdas was still half-asleep and wounded him mortally with a two-handed dagger. Both men were longtime servants in the establishment of the late-Mughal litterateur and bureaucrat Anand Ram „Mukhlis“, who recorded the event with sadness in an addendum to his recently completed literary diary. Chintaman had been raised in the author’s house from birth, and become attuned to his master, while Ramdas had come as a child and was rather more insouciant. Both men had no relations in the world and there was no apparent reason for Chintaman’s act. The murderer sought to escape the house but was captured. „What should I write of the anguish and distress this horrifying event caused me?“ wrote Mukhlis, before going on to offer a typically elegant versified description of the event and his shocked sentiments. Why one member of his household would suddenly and brutally murder another was not a question that appears to have concerned the author. Of longstanding intimacy though they might be, Ramdas and Chintaman were after all no more than mere servants.[1]

To shed light on the lives of figures such as these, forever obscured by the glare of their masters’ presence, is the objective of an ambitious project on the history of domestic servitude in South Asia in early modern and modern times. This first of two volumes of collected essays marks the initial result of the endeavor. The book begins with a long introduction, five essays on servants and service in the early modern period, and three on the early colonial period. Three productive „interjections“ on diverse themes frame broader conceptual issues.

The introduction, authored by Nitin Sinha, Nitin Varma and Pankaj Jha, is a bravura attempt to comprehensively define and make a case for a new field of study in the history of south Asia, namely that of domestic servitude. Acknowledging the intrinsic difficulties of casting light on such marginal figures, the authors outline two key approaches to the servant: defined by relation to a master and as a bearer of intrinsic social status (p. 2); both are combined in various ways in the essays which follow. Over the course of eighty-seven densely-footnoted pages, the introduction ranges very widely over the landscape of the literature and history of premodern and modern South Asia. From identifying and indexing the (twenty-four) terms by which servants are named to locating the spatial configuration of servitude, the volume’s editors make the strong and persuasive case for a longue durée study of servitude in South Asia. They reflect on questions of agency and resistance, explore the implications of the analytics of gender, caste and labor, and critically examine their own position as historians. What the exhaustiveness of the introduction trades in terms of the brevity requisite for a manifesto, it more than gains in establishing the matter of servitude as a crucial object of inquiry which historians of the (pre)-modern past will no longer be able to ignore.

Uma Chakravarti’s interjection draws on the early Buddhist texts in Pali to offer a sensitive account of the constrained circumstances of women in servitude in ancient India. Chakravarti notes the subversive potential of the stories of servants who trick, expose and sometimes even kill their wicked masters and mistresses, but also highlights the instrumental invocation of servile figures in such texts, which are ultimately unconcerned with the fate of the figures they passingly describe.

Coming to the second millennium, M. Sajjad Alam Rizvi finds that contemporary sources from the Mughal period „do refer to domestic servants as a distinct category or group“ (p. 111). Moving from an ethical text of the thirteenth century to a courtly „autobiography“ of the sixteenth century and a compendium of legal prescriptions from the seventeenth century, Rizvi emphasizes the domestic nature of servitude and the ties of affect seen as binding masters and servants in royal contexts. Pankaj Jha points to the enduring importance of the hierarchies of varna and caste in inflecting relations of servitude, and the location of the unfree laborer within the family in the Sanskrit prescriptive manuals. His discussion centers on the Likhanavali, a fifteenth-century Hindi epistolary manual which offers stylized sale-deeds of individuals, who, despite being purchased and sold as slaves, were also imagined as members of their masters’ families to whom reciprocal obligations of care were due. Shivangini Tandon’s contribution draws on a variety of sources from the Mughal period, including the well-studied biographical compendia of noblemen and the recently published Lekhapaddati documents from early medieval Gujarat. Tandon suggests that in aristocratic households, which in her view mirrored the imperial household in structure and organization, the place of the servant was marked by „subjectivity as well as subjection“ (p. 174).

Privileged female servants in the Rajput court of Marwar between the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries are the focus of Geetanjali Tyagi’s contribution. Tyagi reads archival documents and histories, particularly from the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She offers a general account of the structure of the secluded female residence of the Marwar ruler, and the role of its chief officials. Likewise, Priyanka Khanna offers a detailed study of the place of concubines in the Marwar court. While formally less privileged than the wives of the princely family, concubines nevertheless carved out an important role for themselves: as (temporary) recipients of land-grants, as mothers of sons who served as royal servants, as loyal emotional anchors for princes in a competitive courtly environment, and as subjects who (apparently voluntarily) practiced the custom of self-immolation at their master’s bier even if they would never be revered as Sati Mata, „an honor reserved only for Rajput queens“ (p. 224).

Sunil Kumar’s interjection is a welcome reminder of the elasticity of the terms by which the relation of servility is described. In his conceptual history of the term bandagi, he discusses the incorporation of the ideal from the political context of military slavery in the Delhi Sultanate into Sufi milieux where it denoted voluntary service to God; and the later emergence of the notion of naukari as a kind of service which did not involve the loss of social status. Kumar suggests how under the Afghan rulers of the sixteenth century, the servant’s freestanding sense of voluntary retainership (naukari) was realigned with the master’s ideal of the involuntary servant (banda). His interjection is important in stressing the kingly and saintly – but in either case explicitly political – connotations of the terms of servitude in premodern India.

Simon Rastén turns to judicial cases involving servants from the compendious but underused administrative records of the Danish colony of Serampore in Bengal to examine the lives and relations of servants beyond their relations with their masters. Rastén’s examination of the legal regulations of the colony indicates the existence of prohibitions against the physical chastisement of servants. The author, however, finds a significant degree of violence enacted by masters against servants, and in the everyday relations of servants among themselves. These judicial records allow Rastén to paint a vivid portrait of servants’ low entertainments, and their adeptness, despite constraints, in using local courts against their masters. Lakshmi Subrahmanian’s essay offers a close reading of two cases of the murder of servants in Surat in the late eighteenth century to show the hesitance of the early colonial state in making dramatic interventions in the fabric of the urban society over which it was establishing itself. Subrahmanian shows that the brutal violence inflicted on servants was enabled not by contractual relations but the ties of trust and intimacy which derived from social subordination (p. 304). Nitin Sinha’s essay outlines the eighteenth-century prehistory of the colonial engagement with the master-servant relation. Sinha perceptively identifies the dissatisfaction of masters and mistresses with the lack of control over the availability and freedom of servile labor as constituting the „servant problem“ – one which has seemingly endured from the early colonial period to the postcolonial present. Using this analytic, the author locates early attempts to regulate the distinction between domestic servants and urban laborers (coolies) in the context of an expanding Calcutta in which rulers attempted to balance private desires for servants with public requirements for construction workers.

The volume closes with an interjection by Raffaella Sarti, which returns to the problem of defining domestic servitude in a global context. The tension addressed here is between the historian’s desire to encompass the manifold ambiguities of the category of the servant and the necessity of establishing schema of comparison. By way of overcoming this, Sarti proposes we regard domestic service as a „battlefield“ (p. 356) and domestic servitude as a global process of varying intensity, connected with larger political processes (such as colonialism) and shifting in terms of composition (as by gender) and ethnicity (as through migration).

As an explication of method, in employing fresh primary sources, and in making the case for a mode of study, the essays in Servants’ Pasts collectively mark an important and exciting intervention in the field of South Asian history. The volume showcases advances in premodern South Asian history, particularly in the work of a new generation of scholars who use archival sources from Rajput courts (though studies of southern India are notably absent): similarly welcome are the accounts centered in the early colonial period. Taken together, the essays offer evocative sensitive and nuanced readings of a wide range of archival materials from many languages.

In aiming to inaugurate a new historical approach, the essays of Servants’ Pasts naturally raise far more questions than they answer. Several lines of future development are readily discernible. For one, further widening the field of inquiry in the precolonial archive beyond materials familiar to historians will add to what has been accomplished here. There is a disjuncture visible between approaches to the question of servitude in the precolonial and colonial periods, an artifact of the differences between precolonial and colonial archives. In the former, the question of servitude remains inseparable from elite perspectives and concerns. Thus, we hear the voices of elite masters, to be sure, but also elites who claim servile status in relation to others. Elite servants voice emotional ties to their princely masters and mistresses; prescriptive texts enunciate forms of proper control. A dramatic shift is immediately apparent when accounts of servitude are derived from colonial archives: here judicial and administrative materials reveal servants to be the victims (or sometimes the agents) of violence, and, more rarely, of resistance. This proposes the possibility of more closely aligning the questions that animate scholarship based on precolonial archives with those of the colonial period.

It may ultimately be impossible, however, to bring the many forms of inquiry initiated in this volume into closer dialog given the capaciousness of the idea of the servant. Nevertheless, it bears reflecting further on the conceptual challenges posed by a program of scholarship as ambitiously framed as this one. A key instance is the ambiguous (and productive) distinction between servitude and slavery, with which all contributors grapple. The authors variously emphasize the particularity of regimes of labor with which they are concerned. But the terminology of a particular mode of the study of slavery (dehumanization, natal alienation, social death) produced by the racialized capitalism of the Atlantic world, itself subject to vigorous debate, appears somewhat incongruous in the premodern South Asian context.[2] Future histories of both servitude and slavery, following on the remarks of Kumar, Sarti and Subrahmanian among others, will require more explicit conceptualization of the spectrum of freedom, dependence and coercion that characterized relations of domination, negotiation, and resistance between masters and servants.

Returning to the murder in Delhi in 1750: Though we will perhaps never know what prompted Chintaman to plunge a dagger into Ramdas’ breast on that fateful day in 1750, Servants’ Pasts signal aim has been to shift our attention from the figure of the pen-wielding master to those shadowy presences at once so ubiquitous and marginal in all visions of the Indian subcontinent past and present: equally familiar as those persons who hold parasols and fly-whisks in depictions of premodern courts as the streams of „migrants“, undone by the pandemic’s Indian lockdown, whose exodus along the new freeways is today recorded from the safety of the balconies of the middle classes. This important publication will serve as a keystone for the social and cultural histories of premodern South Asia which remain yet to be written, and hopefully spur the reconceptualizations necessary to see the peculiar institution of servitude in its truly global context.

[1] Anand Ram Mukhlis, „Badāʾiʿ-yi Waqāʾiʿ“ (1753), fols. 84b–85b, Aligarh Muslim University Jawahir F 409.
[2] See for instance Vincent Brown, „Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery“, The American Historical Review 114 (2009), 5, pp. 1231–49, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.114.5.1231 (08.07.2020). See also the Forum „Race, Capitalism and Justice“ by Walter Johnson et al, Boston Review (Winter 2017), https://bostonreview.net/forum-i (08.07.2020).