The Ph.D. Program in History

at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

GC EventsHistory Program Events


“The Many Worlds of Indian Ayahs: From the Colonial Households in India to the TransAtlantic Domains (Eighteenth through Twenty-First Centuries)”

Ayahs, as a distinctive occupational category in colonial households of Europeans in India, led multiple lives and traversed multiple geographical zones: a) as poor helpless women they came mostly from the Indian countryside to the domiciled households of the Europeans and sometimes the wealthy Indians in major cities: Calcutta, Lucknow, Cawnpur (now Kanpur); b) they also constituted a mobile workforce who crossed the kalapani or the dark waters of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic to make a living as caregivers on board, as indentured servants, or coolie women. Of this migrant workforce, a limited number did stay back to the overseas colonies or in England; c) furthermore, their portraits, paintings, pictures, statuettes traveled across continents over centuries long after they ended their career. My presentation will investigate a variety of sources— the colonial records, such as censuses and passport applications, the inward- and outward-bound passengers’ lists of ships, texts of different literary genres, and especially, the portraits and statuettes that are found in museums of the United States and Australia—to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the complicated lives of these migrant caregivers and the interracial relationship with their employers. The simultaneous examination of multiple range of sources will help us historicize the traveling ayahs, the liminal yet crucial actors, in the colonial history of the racialized relationship of the Indian diasporic labor population. Interrogating the connection between the varied representations of the ayahs, my presentation will demonstrate that as employees in European households, and as traveling companions, they leveraged their specific locations to voice their protests and maximize their gains. By traveling away from home, they also escaped the local patriarchy, social and cultural norms, and the familial hierarchy. For a comparative assessment, the presentation will engage with the works of scholars who trace the history of the South Asian diaspora and migrant labor in the US (Bald 2013) and the Caribbean (Bahadur 2013).

Thursday, May 18, 2023

4:00 pm — 5:30 pm

Participants may choose to attend in person at the CUNY Graduate Center, Room 5318, or online via Zoom (link provided upon registration).  :Register here (to participate in this and other ARC Seminars via Zoom)

Swapna M. Banerjee is Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research lies at the intersection of gender, class, race, and ethnicity in colonial South Asia and it focuses on women, servants, children, fathers, masculinity, domesticity, and family. Her recent monograph, Fathers in a Motherland: Imagining Fatherhood in Colonial India (Oxford University Press, 2022) interrogates the strong connection between fatherhood and masculinity. Her book Men, Women and Domestics: Articulating Middle-Class Identity in Colonial Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2004) employed the lens of employer-servant relationships to understand the construction of national identity in colonial Bengal. She is the co-editor of Mapping Women’s History: Recover, Resistance and Activism in Colonial and Postcolonial India (Stree-Samya, 2022). On a fellowship from the Australian Research Council, she is currently working on a collaborative research project, Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain, 1780-1945 ( It historicizes the travelling Indian ayahs and Chinese amahs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her works appear in many edited volumes and journals. Her other projects include male domestic workers and intimate labor and a close biographical study of Baby Halder. a contemporary female domestic worker from India. Banerjee was named the Endowed Chair in Women’s and Gender Studies (2016-18) of Brooklyn College. She teaches courses on gender, race, empire; gender, family, nation-state; women in Modern India; Modern South Asia; British imperialism, and Indian nationalism. She is affiliated with PURAI: Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. She serves on the editorial board of the Routledge Studies in the Histories of Children and Youth and the Bloomsbury Press new series, “The Other in Empire.” She is a member of the Board of Directors of an UN-registered NGO, Women’s Founder’s Collective.


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