Animesh Chatterjee – The Servant and the Electrical Engineer


Servants were assigned great symbolic significance – both positive and negative – in the domestic sphere in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century India. Numerous sources testify to that period’s fascination with servants. For the British residents in India, home was assigned as a ‘significant space intended to both constitute and to express the culture of an imperial power’, and Indian servants within the Anglo-Indian household played an important role in the affirmation of the Anglo-Indians’ position as rulers.[1] The several guidebooks on household management available to middle-class female British residents in India discussed a range of strategies to survive the local conditions within the Subcontinent, how to furnish and organise living areas and interiors of the bungalow, house, or flat without access to the usual furnishings or items of an English home and, most importantly, how to maintain imperial rule within the domestic sphere by maintaining the unequal power relationships between British women and their Indian servants. Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner wrote that an Anglo-Indian household in India should be ‘that unit of civilisation where father and children, master and servant, employer and employed, can learn their several duties…We do not wish to advocate an unholy haughtiness, but an Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian Empire.'[2]

Servants, however, occupied an uncertain position within the home; they were seen as an unwanted necessity. While their presence helped reaffirm bourgeois identity, and establish and maintain imperial domesticity, they were also seen as outsiders. Efforts by the British in India to use domestic and public spaces to maintain their prestige and distance from the local population were usually undermined by local servants infiltrating the most private spaces of the Anglo-Indian household. Household guides also advised British women to carefully examine and observe their servants’ behaviours and characters since, as The Englishwoman in India wrote, ‘native servants of all classes, good, bad, and indifferent, require the most incessant supervision…It is but natural to expect them to pilfer small articles of food; rice, sugar, coffee, and every sort of oil are their specialities in this line.'[3]

That servants stole at every possible opportunity was an often repeated account in Anglo-Indian literature. In Behind the Bungalow, an 1889 satirical publication describing life with Indian servants in an Anglo-Indian household, the author wrote of the Mussaul, or ‘the man of lamps’:

The Mussaul’s name is Mukkun, which means butter, and of this commodity I believe he absorbs as much as he can honestly or dishonestly come by. How else does the surface of him acquire that glossy, oleaginous appearance, as if he would take fire easily and burn well? I wish we could do without him! [4]

For the Bengali middle-class, however, the presence of servants in the domestic sphere served a deeper socio-cultural purpose. Bengali middle-class self-identity in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was constructed through establishing hegemony over subordinate groups within the domestic sphere.The articulation of Bengali middle-class identity under the twin influences and pressures of Indian nationalism and Western colonialism resulted in the family and the domestic sphere as the new sites of cultural ideal and national regeneration. The new intelligentsia actively engaged in placing the ‘new’ woman – expected to combine the virtues of the self-sacrificing Hindu wife and mother, and the Victorian lady – at the centre of the moral universe created around the home and the family. The intelligentsia used servants to define the place of the housewife within the family hierarchy. Servants helped establish middle-class hegemony and paternalism, and the nature and quality of the works they performed were often crucially linked to the housewife’s character and status. The character, alertness and efficiency of the housewife was also analysed in relation to servants’ dishonesty and theft. Not only were housewives urged to be ‘humanistic’ towards servants, but were also advised to believe that theft and dishonesty were natural attributes of servants.[5]

Worries about the dishonesty of servants were commonplace not just in domestic guidebooks, and the Anglo-Indian and Bengali middle-class social circles. British electrical engineers’ discourses were replete with such concerns, especially when marketing the importance of electricity supply in everyday domestic life to the Indian middle class. British electrical engineers working in India were aware that diffusion of electrical appliances and lighting in Indian middle-class households required changing prevalent Indian lifestyles and habits.

Proponents of electrification often made several references to replacing mechanisms or methods that required servants with more ‘modern’ electrical technologies. The traditional apparatus that perhaps evoked several complaints from electrical engineers was the manual punkahs. Punkahs were old-fashioned fans used in houses in the Indian subcontinent, and needed to be manually pulled back and forth using a system of ropes. Those who could afford it, especially Anglo-Indian officials and the Indian middle class, usually had servants called ‘punkah-wallahs’, who worked the punkahs for them. In 1890, in a paper presented to the American Institute of Electrical Engineering, Wilfrid H. Fleming, an American electrical engineer, wrote that manual punkahs were both noisy and caused the flickering of gas or oil lamps. Tellingly, Fleming’s only solution to the problems of noise, the flickering of light, and the presence of the punkah-wallah was to replace both manual punkahs and oil lamps with ‘noiseless motor fans and steady incandescents [respectively], thus enabling the Anglo-Indian to read and rest in comfort.'[6]

Such didactic criticisms were characteristic of the discourses of John Willoughby Meares, who later in his career became the Electrical Adviser to the Government of Bengal. With regards to street lighting, Meares maintained that the system used in British towns could easily be applied to towns in India, the only condition being that existing local methods of public lighting had to be replaced by electric lighting, since they were insufficient for the requirements of growing urban centres. More specifically, Meares argued that the use of oil lamps, which were usually placed at street corners, had several drawbacks, especially their failure to assist night-time navigation:

The general custom in Indian towns is to place the public lamps (if indeed there are any) at the corners only, so that a straight course may be steered through inky darkness from one lamp to the next. Compared with this, the use of 30 or 50-watt metal lamps, from 100 to 200 feet apart, gives brilliant lighting, though closer spacing is preferable.[7]

Meares also noted another key factor that highlighted the imprudence of using oil for public and domestic lighting: theft. He wrote that electricity ‘has the advantage that even if stolen it cannot usually be sold; this cannot be said of oil.'[8] Also evident in Meares’s comments are his concerns with social conditions in India, and especially the characters of the lower classes. He states that the use of oil was discontinued due to the conveniences of gas and electricity, but “[i]n the East conditions are different, and the fact that electricity cannot be stolen and sold is an appreciable condition.”[9]

To put Meares’s views into perspective, the use of electric lighting in domestic and public areas in urban India was not just for the benefit of electricity suppliers and producers, and the general public, but also served a moral purpose. Electricity took away oil and, according to Montague Massey (a businessman who extensively lived in Calcutta from the mid-nineteenth century onwards), ‘the great temptation it afforded Gungadeen, the Hindu farash bearer, to annex for his own individual daily requirements a certain percentage of his master’s supply.'[10] Massey also wrote that ‘the introduction of the [electric] light into private dwellings, places of amusement, and other buildings, of course worked a marvellous change in our social life and all its conditions.'[11]

Significantly though, the discourses of proponents of electricity in colonial India highlight how the domestic sphere remained a vital setting for marketing the benefits and modernity of electricity supply. It is also fascinating how one of the most under-studied historical subjects – the domestic servant – had an important place  in British engineers’ and the colonial government’s discourses to promote electrical technologies for industrial and social development in India.

About Animesh

Animesh Chatterjee is a PhD researcher at Leeds Trinity University, studying ‘The Social Life of Electricity in Urban Colonial India, c. 1880-1920′. In 2013, he graduated  with an MSc (distinction) in History of Science, Medicine and Technology from the London Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (run jointly by UCL and Imperial College London until August 2013). During the MSc, Animesh was a Research Volunteer at the Science Museum London, where he worked with content developers and researched the social and political histories of communication and navigation satellites. He was also an Education Development Consultant at Pimpri Chinchwad Science Park in Pune, India in 2014-2015.

Follow him on twitter: @chatanimesh, and


[1] Robin D. Jones, Interiors of Empire: Objects, Space and Identity Within the Indian Subcontinent, c. 1800-1947 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 2

[2] F.A. Steel and G. Gardiner, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, 5th edition (London: Heinemann, 1907), pp. 7-9

[3] Unknown (A Lady Resident), The Englishwoman in India (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1864), p. 58

[4]  EHA, Behind the Bungalow (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co., 1889), p. 52

[5] See: Swapna M. Banerjee, ‘Debates on Domesticity and the Position of Women in Late Colonial India’, History Compass, 8/6 (2010), pp. 455-473
Swati Chattopadhyay, ‘Blurring Boundaries: The Limits of “White Town” in Colonial Calcutta’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 59, No. 2 (June 2000), pp. 154-179
Swapna M. Banerjee, ‘Subverting the Moral Universe: “Narratives of Transgression” in the Construction of Middle-class Identity in Colonial Bengal’, in Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity, ed. by Crispin Bates (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 77-99

[6] Wilfrid H. Fleming, ‘Electric Lighting in the Tropics’, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Vol. VII, Issue I (November 1890, pp. 168-174a), p. 168

[7] J.W. Meares, Electrical Engineering in India – A Practical Treatise for Civil, Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co., 1914), p. 102

[8] ibid, p. 102

[9] ibid, p. 114

[10] Montague Massey, Recollections of Calcutta For Over Half a Century (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co., 1918), p. 64

[11] ibid, p. 65

Image details:  Title: Untitled. Provenance: 1863. Caption: A woman reading under a punkah. Notes: A woman reading under a punkah in a comfortably furnished room. Inscribed on reverse: ‘Mrs Gladstone Lingham’s drawing room at her residence in Berhampore, 1863’. Watercolour. Originally published/produced in 1863. Source identifier: WD 2904, British Library Shelfmark: WD 2904


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Animesh Chatterjee says:

    Reblogged this on Idols of the Theatre.


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