ERC Starting Grant
The ubiquity of domestic service and servants in contemporary South Asia has strangely received scarce historical attention. Although quantitative sources under-represent the number of domestic servants dramatically, it is clear that they were the third largest sector in Indian working population during the nineteenth century.
This project centrally situates servants at the intersection of households, labour and forms of relationships. Primarily within the household but also outside, everyday relationships between servants and masters were based upon labour and wage on the one hand and intimacy and affect on the other. The master’s dependence and the servant’s submission was not fixed and frozen in time but was performed in everyday encounters in various types of households. The aim is to understand the role of servants and service relationship in class and status formation.
Servants’ history was located in households but was never limited to them. Servants’ history needs to move beyond the employer’s household into the realm of ghettoes, streets, bazaars, barracks, hospitals and mission houses. It was part of the broader history of political economy, formation of labour market and legal regulations, changing forms of domesticity of both European and native types, and not least, of nationalism and international migration. By locating servants in the wider social and political world, the project combines empirically grounded case-studies with analyses of political economy of imperialism and brings this to develop a new understanding of labour, gender and social histories.
To do so, two research units cover two overlapping but distinct periods of modern South Asian history: one, the period from early eighteenth to mid-nineteenth; second, from mid-nineteenth to twentieth century.
This ERC funded three year project (2015-18) is led by Nitin Sinha as the principal investigator, who is based at Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin with Nitin Varma, a postdoctoral candidate based at Re:Work, Humboldt University, Berlin.
Dr. Nitin Sinha
ERC Starting Grant, Berlin, Deutschland
Domestic Labour in Colonial India
Nitin Sinha is a historian of modern South Asia, specifically focusing on the themes of the history of transport and communication, labour, and agro-ecology under British colonial rule from the late eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. His research interests include topics related to urban and labour history, the history of travel and mapping, and social and cultural history related with Hindi printed texts and visuals.
In 2012, Nitin Sinha joined the department of history, University of York as a lecturer in modern history. Before that, he was a post-doctoral researcher at Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin, where he became a Senior Research Fellow in 2015. In the academic year of 2013/14, Nitin Sinha was a fellow at the centre.
In Berlin in 2010, together with a few junior colleagues, Nitin Sinha founded a forum titled Young South Asia Scholars Meet in order to promote better academic exchanges amongst scholars at the doctoral and post-doctoral levels working on South Asia.
‘“Opinion” and “Violence”. Whiteness, Empire and State-Formation in Colonial India’. South Asia Chronicle 4/2014 (2015): 322–51.
‘Fluvial Landscape and the State. Property and the Gangetic Diaras in Colonial India, 1790s-1890s’. Environment and History 20, no. 2 (2014): 209–37.
‘Contract, Work, and Resistance. Boatmen in Early Colonial Eastern India, 1760s–1850s’. International Review of Social History 59, no. S22 (2014): 11–43.
Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India. Bihar, 1760s-1880s. London: Anthem Press, 2012.
‘Continuity and Change. The Eighteenth Century and Indian Historiography’. South Asia Chronicle 2 (2012): 416–40.
‘Entering the Black Hole. Between “Mini-England” and “Smell-Like Rotten Potato”, the Railway Workshop Town of Jamalpur, 1860s–1940s’. South Asian History and Culture 3, no. 3 (2012): 317–47.
‘Protest and Mobilization. Aspects of Workers’ Resistance and Control’. In Labour Matters. Towards Global Histories. Studies in Honour of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, edited by Marcel van der Linden and Prabhu P. Mohapatra. Tulika Books, 2009.
‘Mobility, Control and Criminality in Early Colonial India, 1760s-1850s’. Indian Economic & Social History Review 45, no. 1 (2008): 1–33.
‘The World of Workers’ Politics. Some Issues of Railway Workers in Colonial India, 1918–1922’. Modern Asian Studies 42, no. 5 (2008): 999–1033.
Last updated: April 19, 2016
Dr. Nitin Varma
ERC Starting Grant, Berlin, Deutschland
Domestic Labour in Colonial India
Telefon: +49 (0)30 2093 702 18
Telefax: +49 (0)30 2093 702 10
studied history at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi). He completed his doctorate in 2011 at the Humboldt University, Berlin on coolie labour in the colonial tea plantations of Assam. “Coolie” is a generic category for “unskilled” manual labourers in South Asia. In the nineteenth century there was an attempt to recast the term in discursive constructions and material practices for “mobilized-immobilized” labour working in mines, plantations and other colonial capitalist enterprises. Coolie labour was often proclaimed as a deliberate compromise that straddled the regimes of the past (slave labour) and the future (free labour). This thesis makes a case for the “production” of coolie labour in the history of the colonial-capitalist plantations in Assam. The findings of the research did not suggest an unfettered agency for colonial-capitalism in defining and “producing” coolies, with an emphasis on the attendant contingencies, negotiations, contestations and crises. This interrupted the abrupt appearance of the archetypical coolie of the tea gardens (i.e., imported and indentured) and situated this archetype’s emergence, sustenance and shifts in the context of material and discursive processes.
At re:work, Nitin Varma is working on a project on ayahs (domestic workers, nannies) in colonial and post-colonial India and beyond. Ayahs along with lascars constituted the early “professional” mobile group of domestic workers who travelled with British families from the late 18th century onwards. The prominence of ayahs in Britain could be gauged from the establishment of institutions such as an ayah’s home from the beginning of the 20th century.
The aim of the project is to bring the rather neglected domestic work and workers into sharper focus and also evaluate the possibilities and limits of transregional networks, connections and histories. The presence of ayahs was not restricted to British families in India, Africa or England but increasingly became a feature of Indian middle class families in the late 19th and 20th century. This project intends to simultaneously focus on the “local” and translocal practices of domestic work through the prism of ayahs along multiple lines of enquiry: How were ayahs recruited? What were their conditions of employment and work? Was working as an ayah a phase in their lifecycle or did workers spend their lives with their employers’ family? How did such practices mutate over space and time?
Coolies of Capitalism. Assam Tea and the Making of Coolie Labour. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2016.
‘Unpopular Assam. Notions of Migrating and Working for Tea Gardens’. In Towards a New History of Work, edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, 227–44. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2014.
‘Coolie Strikes Back. Collective Protest and Action in the Colonial Tea Plantations of Assam, 1880–1920’. In Adivasis in Colonial India. Survival, Resistance, and Negotiation, edited by Biswamoy Pati, 186–215. New Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research, 2010.
‘For the Drink of the Nation. Drink, Labour and Plantation Colonialism in the Colonial Tea Gardens of Assam in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century’. In Labour Matters. Towards Global Histories. Studies in Honour of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, edited by Marcel van der Linden and Prabhu P. Mohapatra, 295–318. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2009.
‘Chargola Exodus and Collective Action in the Colonial Tea Plantations of Assam’. Sephis [= Special Issue on Labour in Memory of Late Rajnarayan Chandavarkar] 3, no. 2 (2007).
‘Coolie Acts and the Acting Coolies. Coolie, Planter and State in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Colonial Tea Plantations of Assam’. Social Scientist 33, no. 5/6 (2005): 49–72.
Last updated: December 12, 2016