Domestic servants have always been, and continue to be, ubiquitous in the households of middle and upper income rural and urban South Asia. They are also strikingly visible in art forms: paintings, sculptures, photographs, cinema, plays, stories, etc. Yet, they remain absent from scholarly research with very few recent exceptions. Domestic service was an important category of labour and social relationships in early modern and colonial India but domestic servant has largely remained absent from historians’ accounts of South Asia.
The two volumes of Servants’ Pasts are the first to explore a long history of domestic servants and servitude in India from the sixteenth century to the contemporary period. The first volume covers a range of polities, households and regions from the Mughal and Rajput periods through the colonial period to the present, and provides a hitherto untold account of the ideals and practices of master/mistress-servant relationships in early modern and modern India.
Young and seasoned scholars from diverse backgrounds use varied sources—stories, letters, ledgers, visuals, biographies, chronicles, newspaper reports and legal injunctions—to unravel the complex relationships around service and servitude. Contract, loyalty, patronage, ethical concerns and not least, coercion—both affectionate and violent—mark the nature of this relationship.
Pioneering in their scope, the two volumes promise to become a stock reference for future researchers of social history. At a time when state and non-state agencies are struggling to determine the nature and extent to which the working conditions of domestic workers can be regulated, the rich corpus of essays in these volumes will prove indispensable for policy-makers as well.
Nitin Sinha is Senior Research Fellow, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, and Principal Investigator of the European Research Council–funded project, ‘Domestic Servants in Colonial India’.
Nitin Varma is Fellow, Re:Work, IGK Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History, Berlin.
Pankaj Jha is Associate Professor, Lady Shri Ram College for Women.
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