ERC Starting Grant

Domestic Servants in Colonial South Asia


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.