Cheri Histories: Working Lives and the Production of the Neighbourhood in Madras City, c. 1870-1950

  • Research Group: Modern Indian History
  • Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Ravi Ahuja
  • Researcher: Vidhya Raveendranathan, M.A.
  • Funding: German Research Council (DFG)
  • Duration: 1 Sept. 2014 to 31 Aug. 2017

Project Summary:

This research project identifies the emergence of a distinct type of neighbourhood in the late nineteenth century, constituted through the urban working lives of a diverse section of the workforce in the city of Madras. The study defines 'urban working lives' as an incessant articulation of interconnected social relations pertaining to land, labour and socio-political cultures, which constantly produced and reproduced the spaces of the workers' neighbourhoods.

Unlike conventional histories of labour, which focus on a single occupational group (usually factory labour), the examination of urban working lives captures a large variety of old and new labour forms, indicating a historical transformation of socio-spatial relations. Migrants drawn to Madras in search of work primarily inhabited squatter settlements or cheris, which proliferated with the growth of the city.

'Cheri' is a Tamil word, which denotes rural settlements housing untouchable caste groups in spatial segregation from the other castes of the village. Stripped of its caste specificity, the 'cheri' was also a generalized term used in colonial records to describe workers' neighbourhoods in the city. Dubbed as poor, overcrowded and parasitic, these neighbourhoods represent unintended spaces of colonial 'modernity'. Cheris cannot be reduced to objects of colonial social engineering or to a presumably timeless, inert extension of the rural landscape. Rather, they constitute a dynamic field of forces where different circuits of formal and informal urban labour encountered each other and combined. Each of these encounters produced new spaces of work and living, transformed relations between the city and the rural hinterland, redefined communitarian identities like caste and religion, manufactured conflicting socio-cultural and political imaginaries of the city space and inscribed several meanings on the cheris. Moreover, the histories of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century neighbourhoods were tied to older settlements, forms and cultures of labour, which were transformed or submerged, resulting in complex quotidian work rhythms and a layered temporality within the built landscape of the city.

By way of five interconnected case studies the project has the following main objectives:
(a) to historically unravel the productive as well as reproductive social practices of everyday working lives, which generated the cheri as a distinct spatial formation in the urban landscape of Madras City;
(b) to understand how these spaces were perceived, experienced, contested and appropriated by diverse labouring groups and
(c) how these social and symbolic practices impacted on elite politics and sometimes deflected the trajectories of official town planning.