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Ayahs and Mehterannies: The Making of Female Domestic Labour in Colonial India


· Nitin Varma Humboldt University (Berlin, Germany)


07/28 | 09:00-09:20 UTC+2/CEST


The paper historically situates the emergence of two prominent categories of waged female domestic labour in colonial India—these are the Ayah (care worker with tasks to attend the mistress and take care of infants and children) and the Mehterannie (manual worker with sweeping and scavenging tasks). The attempt to bring together these categories in a single analytical frame aims at probing the nature and extent of distinction between care work and manual work in the performance of everyday domestic labour in colonial households. Through a closer examination of life trajectories of female domestics and prescriptive literature on childcare and household management, the paper argues that such distinctions were more ideological than historical, showing overlaps, traffic and mutual constitution of these seemingly disparate categories. A major pursuit here is to foreground the prominence of caste (and to an extent religion) in the making of these categories and performance of domestic labour. While thus initiating a conversation between caste and labour, the paper does not suggest that caste was an unchanging institution, which uniformly informed and determined the practice of labour, but rather demonstrates how it was employed and negotiated in specific historical contexts. Most importantly, this raises the question of colonial power relations’ intersection with prevalent social hierarchies, and their encounter at the site of the colonial household.