ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Water and the time in the peasant production of colonial North India, 1850s-1900s


Sengupta Ritam - Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany


24 – Timely Histories: A Social History of Time in South Asia


 Modern time has often been plotted as a departure from the cyclical temporal orientation of peasant practices crafted out of a natural conditioning of agricultural production. The few studies that have focused on the production of modern temporality in colonial India have in a related vein trained their analytical lenses on the interplay of colonial power and the imposition of abstract, linear time augured by a regime of clocks or railways or industrial and urban discipline. What has remained unclear is an exploration of the interface between agrarian social life and the making of ‘modern’ time. The proposed paper will attempt to offer a corrective to this by analysing how the ‘natural rhythm’ of agrarian production in North India was reconfigured over the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century.The paper will study how particular regimes of commercially-oriented cultivation sought to negotiate the availability of water as a key agricultural input by investing in systems of groundwater use.This technological remaking of the hydrological nature of agriculture did not imply a linear escape from the uncertain cycles of rain-fed irrigation to any kind of artificial abundance. Groundwater was actually a natural resource with its own ‘natural rhythm’ learnt through a combination of peasant experience and the novel scientific gaze of colonial surveys. The paper will explore the temporal character of groundwater use within changing regimes of agricultural production.