Senior Fellowship Proposal

Senior Fellowship

Domestic Histories: Servants and Employers in Twentieth CenturyCalcutta

The other day my jamadar was standing in the kitchen and touched my cooking utensils, and when I told him not to do that, he snapped, ‘Why, aren’t we human’ Can you imagine that? (Interview, 70 year-old female employer, 1999).

The stigmatized institution of paid domestic labor has long formed the mainstay of Indian middle class existence, yet is curiously absent in studies ofIndia. This project explores the significance of the institution of domestic servitude both for the family and for twentieth century Indian social life. It takes as its premise that the relations of domestic servitude are fundamentally constitutive of the societies of which they are a part, crossing over from the private sphere to shape civil society.

Recent studies of domestic work and domestic workers have flourished in countries with histories of racial inequality and immigration such as theU.S.andBritain(Milkman et. al. 1998; Rollins, 1985; Romero, 1992) as well as in countries with histories of colonial settlements such asSouth AfricaandZimbabwe(Hansen, 1992; Cock, 1980). GivenIndia’s colonial history, tradition of caste-based work, and slavery (Chatterjee, 199); Patnaik and Dingwaney (eds), 1985) the absence of serious analysis of domestic work is thus doubly surprising. This project asks: First, what imprint has the institution of domestic servitude had on the lives of both servants and employers in the course of the twentieth century? Second, what are the societal implications of pervasive servile labor relations based on custom in a period governed by contractual wage labor?

Domestic servitude bridges the private-public divide, bringing social relations of power (class, caste, gender) into the household, mirroring and reproducing these relations within the domestic unit. At the same time, in dialectical relation, the racial/ethnic, class and gender dynamics of the household are manifested in the public sphere of polity and economy. After all, it is in the crucible of the family and the household where children first learn about power, domination, and inequality—the ‘facts of life’ that they employ to understand and act in the world as they grow into adult citizens. Just as feminism and the political participation of women pose challenges for the theory and practice of democracy, so too should the continued presence of servile household labor challenge the nature of class, gender, caste and citizenship in contemporaryIndia.

In this study, I will examine the changes in the relations of domestic servitude as experienced, perceived, and narrated by servants/domestic workers and their employers inCalcutta,India. I will also examine the effects of the institution on the household and on understandings of inequality and hierarchy.


The caste system inIndiavaries from region to region as did practices of feudalism and therefore, to some extent, the practices of British colonialism. A focus on one region enables a more grounded reading of the practices of domestic servitude.Calcuttais a particularly interesting site for the investigation of relations of servitude for several reasons. First, the region of Bengal, in whichCalcuttais situated, has had a rich and elaborated feudal tradition, about which much has been written. Some of Bengal’s (and India’s) finest writers—Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattapadhyay, and Mahasweta Devi—have written powerfully about feudal worlds and about domestic servants within those feudal worlds. Second, Calcutta was a major imperial center and home not only to many Anglo-Indian settlers who have left rich accounts of domestic life in the Raj, but also to an Indian middle class self-consciously shaped by particular colonial experiences. Third, whileCalcuttahas a long feudal tradition, as a major industrial city it serves as a hub for young men and women from the villages who want to do domestic work as a stepping stone to being integrated intoCalcutta’s working class. Thus inCalcuttaone can find all the four major types of domestic workers—old family retainers, live-in workers, day workers and part-timers.

Research Questions

Two research questions guide this study. First, to what extent have the social relations of servitude changed between mid-centuryCalcuttaand today? Second, what is the significance of these changes for relationships within the household, particularly for the rearing of children and for the relationship of an employing couple? Let me address each question in turn.

I) In what way has the perception of servants and service been altered between mid-century Calcutta and today in the context of three major societal changes over the last fifty years—colonial rule to independent nation-state, feudal to developing capitalist economy, and intensified rural to urban migration. That there has been a certain change is indicated by the shift in nomenclature from jhi and chakor to kaajer lok, that is, from maidservant and servant to domestic worker. While all four categories of domestic workers identified above exist inCalcutta today, the numbers of part-time workers are on the increase while there are few family retainers left. A distinct relationship of servitude, with particular norms, expectations and obligations can be associated with each type of servant. Thus though on the decline, the family retainer most closely approximates the ideal of myth and memory and embodies the standard of servitude against which employers compare servants. The existence of day workers and part-timers, on the other hand, may bring into question the definition of servant, since they seem to have more control over their own labor. To what extent are servants in the late twentieth century becoming workers under the pressures of urban, capitalist forces? What effect does their move towards being workers have on middle class understandings of the household and of middle-classness? What does it mean to be a domestic worker rather than a servant? Does this shift affect the caste-based distribution of tasks? Indeed, what does it mean to have a domestic worker, rather than a servant, work for you?

Based on preliminary research, I hypothesize that both employers’ and servants’ discourses about the relation contain significant vestiges of the intimate, patriarchal world of the extended family and feudal household, while at the same time desiring to arrive at a ‘modern’ conception and practice of the ‘impersonal’ employer-employee relationship. Caught in a moment of transition, servants and employers selectively use discourses of modernity, custom and tradition to make claims and to address counter-claims.

II) Within the household, the servant (whether male or female) most often takes on the gendered duties of women—child and elder care, cooking, cleaning and laundry. This raises questions for two sets of relationships. The first is the relationship of servants to children and the second is the relationship between husband and wife. A) What do we learn about the changing practices of child-rearing from families which employ other people to take care of their children? How are children taught to treat servants? At what point do middle-class children learn that servants are different from themselves, that is, neither members of the family nor like them? How does the very real love and dependence children feel for their caretakers come to be overshadowed by relations of power and domination? I will argue that the household is the site where domination is first encountered and learned. If that is the case, what happens to understandings of authority and dominations as family retainers give way to day and then part-time workers? A further layer of complexity is introduced when servants who are still children themselves take care of children. B) What does the presence of domestic servants mean for the relationship of an employing couple? I am especially concerned with women employers—both those who work outside the home and those who do not—their relationship with their partners, and how their situations have changed over the course of the century. To what extent has the growth in women’s labor force participation led to a crisis of social reproduction in middle class households? Writing aboutIndia, Sangari (1999) points to the ‘class maintaining/maximizing function of domestic labour.’ My working hypothesis is that the presence of domestic servants in the household, particularly where both the man and the woman work, mitigates the gender conflict that would otherwise have arisen over the domestic division of labor. And while the triangulated relationship between husband, wife and domestic is by no means unidimensional, class privilege ultimately protects gender privilege. For this reason, relations of gender within the middle-class household have shifted less than they otherwise would have done. That is also why, I suspect, unlike the women’s movement in theU.S., the domestic division of labor has not been a major issue for the women’s movement inIndia.


The research methods for this project are primarily interviews and oral histories supported by archival documentation. Secondarily, I include analyses of the depictions of relations of domestic servitude in novels, images and film. The oral history approach permits a far better approach to the changes from ‘feudal’ to ‘modern’ ideology, relations and practices than other more conventional historical methods. Since it is conducive to a more intimate understanding of the private-public divide, the oral history methodology allows me to represent how people themselves understand transitions in their lifetimes and in their families.

I have already undertaken a preliminary round of research. During the seven months for which I am asking for support, I intend to do the following:

1) Gather oral histories from lower-middle, middle and upper-middle class employers (fifteen each) and servants who are family retainers, first generation live-ins, day workers and part-timers (ten each). I intend to divide these interviews between north and southCalcuttain order to reach both older indigenous and newer cosmopolitan elites and middle classes.

2) Gather archival material, which will include censuses and other demographic information, newspapers, housekeeping manuals and women’s magazines. This archival material will yield information both about demographic shifts and about how the ‘servant question’ has been debated in public. The specific archives of relevance in Calcuttaare the West Bengal Archives, the National Library and the National Sample Survey Organization. Newspapers include The Statesman and Ananda Bazaar Patrika.

3) Collect fiction, memoirs and films which are valuable sources for the representation of the relations of domestic servitude both for earlier periods and the present.

I expect to start writing upon my return fromIndia.

Significance of the Project

Writing about Victorian England, Leonore Davidoff argues that that social divisions are most clearly revealed in the reproductive sphere, and thus the household should constitute a primary unit of analysis. For feminist theorists, the household has formed a primary unit of analysis, but rarely as a site of paid labor. This project will bring to the fore the all important, yet rarely studied, institution of paid domestic labor in terms of its consequences both for the household and our understanding of civil society. Because domestic servitude complicates the divide between family and work, custom and contract, affection and duty, the home and the world, it provides a standpoint from which to interrogate historical transitions and received assumptions about the nature and functioning of society, economy and polity. This study of household servants in contemporaryIndiawill thus force us to rethink the nature of class, gender, caste and citizenship.