Dr. Arunima Datta from the Idaho State University, USA called for a re-historicisation of transcolonial migrations and everyday life in colonial overseas plantations by bringing the women ‘Coolie’ experiences into the centre of exploration and by paying attention the fleeting agency at work. Dr. Datta was speaking at the UoH History Webinar Series, on 21 October 2021, being organised by the Department of History, School of Social Sciences (SSS), University of Hyderabad (UoH). The talk was on her new book, Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya, published by the Cambridge University Press in 2021.

Rescuing transcolonial human flows from its long standing male-centrism reveals that women played a major role, despite being oppressed and exploited, in the plantation economy and exercised their agency purposefully in navigating the dilemmas of life under the intersecting sway of colonialism, capital and patriarchy. Dr. Datta argued that agency cannot be expressed in conventional ways under conditions of oppression and extreme constrains, but undergoes modifications in acts and choices resulting in fleeting and momentary expressions of agency, often assuming diversity of strategies ranging from strategic compliance to sporadic armed resistance. Through a series of case studies from the lives of Indian coolie women in British Malaya, she demonstrated how the majority of expressions of agency in conditions of precarity were implicit, covert and non-oppositional – situational and temporary alike. They were conditioned by pragmatic considerations of survival and for shielding themselves from further exploitation and oppression. Dr. Datta also foregrounded the necessity of diligent exploration of the embedded archive apart from being sensitive to the small agential acts of suppressed women and silences in the official records produced through the infrastructures of power and authority, besides employing ethno-historical sources and methods to unravel gendered nature of migration and expatriate life in trans-colonial plantations.

Prof. Bhangya Bhukya, the Head of the Department, welcomed the online gathering, while Dr. V.J. Varghese moderated the session. Doctoral scholars, Ms. Sunny Ruchi Ekka and Mr. Chithran D introduced the speaker and proposed vote of thanks respectively.

Launched in June 2020 after the outbreak of the Covid 19 and the consequent disruption of normal academic activities, the UoH History Webinar Series has now completed 25 talks, featuring a set of distinguished scholars from the across the world and generating far-flung interest. The speakers of the series included Bhangya Bhukya (University of Hyderabad), Ines G. Zupanov (CNRS, Paris), Dilip M. Menon (University of Witwatersrand), Mahesh Rangarajan (Ashoka University), Nisha P.R (Yale University), Aloka Parasher Sen (University of Hyderabad), Michiel Baas (University of Amsterdam), Kunal Chakrabarti (JNU, New Delhi), Mahalakshmi Ramakrishnan (JNU, New Delhi), Malavika Kasturi (University of Toronto), Manu V. Devadevan (IIT, Mandi), Rajesh Venkatasubramanian (IISER, Mohali), Prasant Kidambi (University of Leicester), Prathama Banerjee (CSDS, New Delhi), Tanika Sarkar (JNU, New Delhi), Samita Sen (University of Cambridge), S. Irfan Habib (NIEPA, New Delhi), Ajay Skaria (University of Minnesota), Christopher Pinney (University College London), Crispin Bates (University of Edinburgh), Rama Mantena (University Illinois, Chicago), Vijaya Ramdas M (University of Hyderabad), Rajan Gurukkal (KSHEC, Trivandrum), Malini Sur (Western Sydney University) and Arunima Datta (Idaho State University).

Inputs from:  Chithran D and V.J. Varghese, Department of History