Ritam Sengupta – Timely Histories

Timing work in the North Indian countryside, c. 1800s–1900s


Ritam Sengupta (Postdoctoral Researcher)

This unit is part of the ‘Work and Time’ module of Timely Histories: A Social History of Time in South Asia. As part of this, the unit will approach temporality as a constitutive dimension of regimes of work, production, and social life as they came to be reorganized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in agrarian North India.

Existing histories often mark the global diffusion of clocks and railways as a point of departure for exploring the transformations and standardization of conceptions and practices of time. Alternatively, a heterogeneous casting of temporality in colonial (and postcolonial) societies is highlighted through emphasizing significant continuity of religious and cultural modes, or cyclical notions of thinking time. My project aims to chart a different territory by casting temporality as being made and remade somewhat ‘at an angle’ from attempts at technological standardization and forms of cultural continuity. Taking the long nineteenth century as a period of relatively intensified commercialization of agriculture in North India, I enquire how the recasting of duration, cyclicality, simultaneity and/or instantaneity was implicated within four different orders of work and production. First, the question of time is grounded in the ecological conditions, making possible or limiting agricultural production; such conditions themselves being subjected to technical modification through irrigation devices like canals, wells, form of manuring, etc. Second, I explore an order of temporal coordination comprised of the rules and practices of revenue and rent collection by the colonial state to understand social and economic rhythms in the countryside.  Third, I aim to explore how monetisation and the rural credit market related to both farming as well as the performance of rituals and festivals, and social functions like marriages consequently yielded its own parameters of present and futurity. And finally, I hope to characterise the labouring worlds of the agrarian workforce also in terms of temporal frameworks ensuing from the need to participate and migrate towards construction, service and industrial labouring jobs.