ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

‘From Farm to Factory’: Rural Industries in Late Colonial India, 1870-1940.


Nair Shankar - King's College London, History, London, United Kingdom


09 – Making Artisans: Artisanal Lives and Production in South Asia


 This paper traces the development of two unorganised industries in late colonial India (1870-1940), namely ‘bidi’ (or native cigarette) making in the Central Provinces and cotton ginning in the Bombay Presidency. The paper is based on my PhD research on the emergence of unorganised industries in rural India in the late colonial economy. Through an engagement with the social, material, and economic conditions of rural production, this paper argues that the literature on industrial production in India has overlooked the specific case of rural industries, and the relationship between industry and agriculture more generally. Studies on Indian industrialisation have hitherto established the importance of rural linkages for factory workers, and more recently studied the transformation of ‘small town’ artisanal work following market integration. While studies of artisanal lives provide important methodological tools to analyse unorganised rural industries, this paper argues that in the nature of work, tools used, and the relations of production (caste, kinship, class) these industries sit uneasily with certain implicit notions of the ‘artisanal’ in the historiography. Indeed, by studying these points of convergence and difference between artisanal vocations and one of the largest unorganised (bidi-making) and seasonal (cotton-ginning) activities in late colonial India, this paper stresses the important connection between agrarian production and (rural) industry.